It is hard to know what to do when someone we love has been hurt. Often, we want to help but are not sure of what to do or are afraid to do the wrong thing. If someone has shared their experience of sexual violence with you, they are telling you that they trust you. You can start by letting them know that you believe them, care about them, and want to support them in whatever way they need. It is important to resist the urge to begin fixing or telling the person you love what they “should have done” to avoid being harmed. They are safe now and they are reaching out to you for support.
People may respond to sexual violence in lots of ways. They may behave differently and your relationship may feel like it has changed. Try to keep in mind that they are grappling with something very frightening right now and their mood and needs may change quite a bit over the next few months. Despite this, your loved one is still whole–the assault does not define who they are. Expecting someone to behave a certain way or act the same as before is not realistic or helpful.
Supporting survivors is very important. In fact, the support they receive when disclosing after an experience of violence is one of the strongest predictors of healing. The most important thing you can do is ask how you can be helpful to them and help them regain a sense of autonomy and control in their life. Here are some general suggestions:
Listen. Let them talk without feeling judged. Many feel a sense of relief when they share their “story” or experience(s) of violence. Try to balance talking about it and not talking about it. Let them bring it up when they want to. Avoiding the subject can feel isolating, but it does not have to be the only thing you talk about. If you are unsure what your loved one needs, ask them directly if they want you to check in about how they’re feeling or if they prefer to only talk about it when they bring it up.
Believe. You may really not want to believe that something harmful has happened to someone you care about or was done by someone you care about. It might be really tempting to try to come up with other explanations that seem less terrible. Keep in mind that decades of research has shown that the vast majority of people do not make up or lie about sexual violence. If someone says they were assaulted, it is imperative we start by believing them.
Put blame where it belongs. Perpetrators use excuses about what people were doing, drinking, wearing, or where they were to try to undermine their victims. These factors did not cause the assault. The perpetrator made the decision to cause harm and is the only person responsible for the sexual violence.
Stay connected. When someone is violated, they may feel powerless and out of control. When supported and encouraged to make decisions that are right for them, survivors can regain that power. Tell them how proud you are that they survived, that you know it can be a struggle, and that you respect their process.
Give them time. You may want so badly for the person that you care about to “get better” or to be happy again. Rushing someone may make it feel like they need to pretend to be fine around you, or feel badly that they are struggling. It is really important for everyone to have the time they need to process what happened to them, and how they want to move on. It is not linear, there will be good days and bad days. Be patient.
Encourage survivors to do what makes them feel good.
Walking, eating well, taking baths, practicing yoga, or spending time with friends can be healing activities. Everyone’s wants and needs are different so your loved one may need to try different things to identify what is comforting. You may want to offer to try activities with them or give them reassurance that they are worthy of comfort and care. Do not assume that you know what they need or what will help. Ask them what they want.
Let go of expectations. Just like other major life events, people integrate their experiences of sexual violence into their lives in their own ways. Some people are never the same while others go about their lives as if nothing happened. Both of those outcomes and everything in between are okay. There is no timeline or expectation for how people process and understand the violence they experienced.
Support yourself. One of the best things you can do for your loved one is get support for yourself. Knowing about the violation may make you angry, but expressing your anger to the survivor may not be helpful or may force them into taking care of you instead of focusing on their own healing. Supporting someone else can be painful and draining work; you, too, are worthy of care and support. For help locating resources in your area, go to www.rainn.org.
Compassion is to share the pain without sharing the suffering.
– Shinzen Young