The most important and simple thing you can do to help is listen and believe.
- Believe what they tell you. Survivors very rarely lie about sexual violence, but often fear people won’t believe them. If they sense disbelief they might never tell anyone again. Traumatic events can sometimes cause memory problems; if she/he ever seems to contradict herself/himself or add new facts, this doesn’t mean they’re making the whole thing up. It could be the brain processing fragments of memory.
- Give her/him your unconditional support. If, in your opinion, she/he is not taking the best care of themselves, or making the ‘right’ decisions (e.g. about reporting), do not judge them. Everyone reacts in their own way.
- A lot of survivors blame themselves for what was done to them. Its normal after something traumatic to think ‘If only I hadn’t…’, remind them that you don’t think that’s true, but bear in mind that arguing with them probably won’t persuade them. Don’t be frustrated if they believes this for some time.
- If she/he feels guilty about e.g. not putting up a fight, affirm the fact that she/he used her/his survival skills to stay alive, and that compliance is not consent. Most women do not put up a fight in order to survive and minimise further harm.
- Let them say what they need to say in their own time, in their own words.
- If she/he faces difficult decisions, help them to make their own choices by exploring their options with them.
- Encourage her/him to do things for themselves; try to affirm their own capabilities and power by not doing things for them that they can do themselves.
- Treat all their feelings equally seriously.
- Dealing with the effects of sexual violence is ultimately something a survivor does for herself. Survivors are experts in their own healing, and so encourage and empower them to help themselves. You can do similarly.
Remember, you are not a miracle-worker. The best you can do is let them know that you care about her/him and will be there if she/he wants to talk.
What not to say
With compassion and understanding of the issues around sexual violence, it’s unlikely you’ll say harmful things. But…
Here are some traps that people sometimes fall into:
- Never doubt what she tells you about her experiences. It may be very difficult to believe that such a terrible thing has been done, especially if you know the perpetrator, but the truth is that women and girls rarely lie about sexual violence.
- Never judge her, or imply that it was in any way her fault. For example, saying things like “didn’t you think about leaving?” “why didn’t you tell anyone at the time?” or “if only you’d walked the other way home” imply a judgemental attitude, even if you don’t intend it.
- Never insist that she tells you anything that she seems reluctant to, especially details of traumatic events. Give her space to tell you as much or little as she wants to, in her own time.
- Never take decisions for her, do things on her behalf, or pressure her into agreeing to do something. An important part of dealing with the powerlessness of sexual violence is learning to feel in control again, so try not to do anything which takes control away from her.
- Never trivialise or dismiss her feelings or experiences. It may be easy to compare it to something more terrible, perhaps that someone else has experienced, but saying things like ‘it could be worse, it wasn’t as bad as…’ is never helpful. Recognise the pain she’s going through.
- Do not expect her to ‘get over it’ in a certain amount of time. Everyone deals with the effects of sexual violence at their own pace.
- Do not expect her to react in any one way – all women and girls react differently.
- Never break her confidence. If you feel that it is your duty to tell someone because a child is at risk, at the very least discuss this with her before you do.
Explore the SARSAS and Survivor Pathway websites so that you understand some of the common reactions to sexual violence and what’s myth and fact.
- Explore and challenge your own views about sexual violence.
- Appreciate that there is going to be serious disruption in their life, and that this will probably affect you. Take your needs seriously and seek your own support.
- Take every opportunity to remind them that you love them for who they are, and that she/he is still the person she/he was before that happened to her/him. All her/his reactions are normal reactions to an abnormal situation.