Adult Sexual Assault – For Family and Friends
To discover someone you care about has been sexually abused can be a significant shock. Like any shock it can produce a range of emotions and be hard to cope with. The information presented here is designed to help you help the survivor of the sexual abuse as well as cope personally with the disclosure.
If you would like more information, please contact us.
What is sexual assault?
Sexual assault is an act of violence. The offender uses sex to dehumanise and hurt another person. Most often the victims are women but men also experience sexual assaults.
There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ sexual assault or a ‘typical’ victim. But it is certainly not the same as making love or having sex. Most assaults involve some form of unwanted sexual contact when the victim is in a state of shock and emotional terror. Often survivors consider the sexual nature of an assault secondary to the violence, fear and threats to life that it involves.
Most victims of sexual assault know the offender.
Who is responsible for the sexual assault?
It is a mistake to assume the victim is responsible for the actions of a sexual offender. This is never true. Remember that no matter what the victim was doing before the assault, it is the offender who is completely responsible for the crime
Video: Nina Burrowes – Psychologist “The Relationship Between Power and Abuse”
How will survivors react to a sexual assault?
It is normal for a survivor of a sexual assault to experience confusion, anxiety, depression, terror, nightmares, sleeplessness, self blame, shame, feeling dirty, anger, hostility towards people close to them and excessive dependence on others.
Their immediate responses may seem confusing and their moods may swing abruptly. One minute they may want you there, the next they may act fiercely independent and seem to push you away.
Survivors recover in their own time and way. It is important that they are not rushed or pressured to ‘get better’.
How You Can Help?
It can be difficult to know how to support someone who has been sexually assaulted. There is no ‘right way’ to provide support, however you may find the following suggestions helpful.
- Listen. Allow the survivor to express their feelings. Do not pressure them into talking. Just let them know you are available to listen if and when they want to talk.
- Believe them and do not judge them. Reassure them that it is not their fault.
- Ask them about their needs. The survivor is the expert on how you can help them at this time. Do not tell them what they should do as it is important that they make decisions that feel right for them at the time.
- Encourage the survivor to seek out other support in addition to yourself, e.g. counselling (you can offer to find out what is available locally). However, accept their decision if they choose not to do so at this stage.
- Do not try to overprotect or distract them from the reality of the assault. This can cause the survivor to deny the effects of it.
- Respect the survivor’s decision regarding going to the Police or not.
- Do not hide your feelings and vulnerabilities from the survivor. Let them know you care and are hurting with them, but do not expect them to look after you.
Video Nina Burrowes – Psychologist “A Friend has told me they have been abused, what should I do?“
How Might You Be Affected?
Sexual assaults put a great deal of emotional pressure on both the survivor and their family and friends.
Your relationship with them will be affected and may need some work and healing. They may be extremely sensitive to other people’s reactions about the assault, expecting to be judged.
You will experience your own reactions to the disclosure of the assault. You may feel shock and disbelief; anger; guilt and helplessness that you were not able to prevent the assault from happening. These are common and understandable reactions for people close to someone who has been sexually assaulted.
Support for Supporters
Many family and friends feel they need to be there for the survivor but do not look at what support they need for themselves. Some suggestions that you might want to consider are:
Counselling – a person trained and experienced in sexual assault counselling can help you to go through what you are feeling about the assault. Contact your local sexual assault support agency to find out what counselling services are available in your area.
Support services – Many sexual assault support agencies offer general support for survivors as well as families and friends. This support can be someone at the end of the phone to talk to when you need to, through to someone to accompany you to the police, court, medical examinations and so on.
Friends & Family – Sometimes it can help to talk to people that you can trust to provide support, including family and friends. However, some people may not understand about sexual assault and their reactions may be unhelpful. Talk to people whose judgement you trust, who will not gossip, who will listen carefully to you and who will not judge you or the survivor.
Libraries – there are a number of books written on sexual assault. Try your local library or contact your local sexual assault support agency for recommended books.
Relax – do whatever helps you normally to relax, e.g. exercise, music, hot bath, gardening. Make sure you have some “switch-off” time.
Whatever supports you choose is up to you but try and ensure you do have some “time-out” options in place, otherwise you may find your own health and wellbeing being seriously affected by the disclosure of sexual assault.
Benedict, Helen 1994 How to survive sexual assault: For Women, Men, Teenagers, Their Friends and Families, Columbia University Press, New York.