I vividly remember the first time (and the second and third) that someone I cared about confided in me that she had been the victim of sexual abuse. I felt heartbroken over the pain she had experienced. I felt angry on her behalf. And perhaps most of all, I felt frustrated by my own lack of knowing what to say in response or how to best support her.
The sad reality is that in a day and age where 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will be sexually abused or assaulted in their lifetime, there is a likely chance that we may encounter someone in our family or circle of friends struggling beneath this (more than likely) silent weight.
Because 7 out of 10 sexual assaults are committed by someone who knows the victim and 55% occur at or near the victim’s home, survivors often feel ashamed, embarrassed and fearful to tell someone about their assault and suffer voicelessly as a result.
While it can be emotionally overwhelming and shocking to hear that a friend or relative has been sexually assaulted, it is essential to remember that she or he has already endured so much and has likely exerted a tremendous amount of courage in just sharing their story with you. Licensed professional counselor, Sheri Petruso, reminds us that “Most likely, he or she are merely looking for support—not necessarily for you to solve problems or ask questions. You do not have to fix or erase the situation in order to be helpful. In fact, by simply listening with empathy to his or her story, you are helping him or her to embrace their voice, which can be a tremendous step towards rising above the hurt they’ve been caused.”
If someone has shared their story of sexual assault with you, you can help them break the silence by choosing supportive phrases such as:
“I Believe You”
Survivors of sexual assault may fear being blamed or told that their experience is unbelievable. Don’t judge by their reaction whether the incident happened or not. As in many other things, every person reacts differently to their unique experience. Survivors need know that they are believed. Avoid suggesting blame or even the unintended judgement that can come from asking “Why?” questions.
“It’s Not Your Fault”
This statement may need to be repeated to them often, especially if the perpetrator is someone they know. They may question themselves and their role within the incident. Help reassure them that they are not to blame and don’t deserve to be treated that way.
“You Are Not Alone. I’m Here For You
Be open to listening or just sitting quietly with them. If they want to talk about their experience, try to make them comfortable: Offer comfort items (special snack, tea, a cozy blanket or space, et cetera). Allow them to tell as much or as little as they need to. Avoid asking too many questions.
Validate their struggles and difficulties and the impact of the assault on their life by following their reaction. Try not to minimize or over catastrophize the occurrence beyond where they are with it. Affirm their self-worth and your unconditional support for them and remember that you are not there to solve their problems. You are there to be a stronghold of support during a vulnerable time.
In addition to these phrases and responses, you can:
- Offer to attend their first therapy session with them and respect their preference to have you come along or not.
- Be sensitive to their need or disinterest in physical touch and personal space. Some survivors of sexual assault may want a hug or their hand held, while others are more comfortable in their own space without touch. Avoid making assumptions based on what you think they will want. Instead, gently ask what they prefer and what is most comfortable for them. Also realize that their preference regarding physical comfort may change over time, so be sure to clarify what is most helpful to them whenever you are with them.
- Remember that healing can take a long time and show itself in different ways. Continue to check in even after time has passed. It’s helpful for them to know they still have your ongoing support.
Be aware that they will probably need more resources in addition to your friendship and encouragement. It may be helpful to educate yourself on what additional resources exist in your community to support survivors of sexual assault.
By giving the time and space needed to heal while always offering support and a listening ear, you can play an integral role in the healing process of your loved one, not only in reassuring them they that are not alone, but by helping provide them the courage needed to regain their voice and inherent dignity as a human being.