A Guide for Friends and Family of Sexual Violence Survivors

A Guide for Friends & Family of Sexual Violence Survivors

Immediate concerns

The period following a sexual assault is emotionally charged, confusing, and frightening. If you know someone who has been sexually assaulted, it is important to address the following topics:

Physical safety – Ensure the person is in a safe place. Be there emotionally for them and encourage reaching out for additional support. Contact the national Rape Crisis helpline for free and confidential support on 0808 802 9999

Medical attention – Medical exams can reveal injuries that may not be visible. Hospital staff can also provide treatment for possible sexually transmitted diseases (STIs), medication to prevent pregnancies, and perform an exam to collect evidence if the assault happened within five days.

Reporting the Assault

If the victim goes to the hospital, the hospital will most likely report the crime to the police. However, the victim does not have to talk to the police in order to get a forensic exam. The victim can decide later whether or not to talk to the police.

Sexual assault referral centres

Victims and others in their life may need help dealing with feelings they experience after a sexual assault impacts their lives. Sexual assault is a serious crime, and is known to have short, and long-term, effects on victims and those who love and care for them. If you are a victim of sexual violence there are a variety of sexual assault centres you can approach for support and guidance:

How you can help

Effective communication is important to a victim’s well-being. If you are wondering what you can do, here are some suggestions:

  • Remain calm. You may feel shocked or outraged, but expressing these emotions to the victim may cause confusion or discomfort.
  • Believe the victim. Make it clear that you believe the assault happened and that the assault is not their fault.
  • Give the victim control. Control was taken away during the assault. Empower the victim to make decisions about what steps to take next, and try to avoid telling them what to do.
  • Be available for the victim to express a range of feelings: crying, screaming, being silent, etc. Remember, the victim is angry with the person who assaulted them and the situation, not with you. Just be there to listen.
  • Assure the victim of your support. They need to know that regardless of what happened, your relationship will remain intact.
  • Avoid making threats against the suspect. Threats of harm may only cause the victim to worry about your safety and risk of arrest.
  • Maintain confidentiality. Let the victim decide who to tell about the assault.
  • Encourage counselling. Give the victim the hotline number for the nearest rape crisis centre, but let the victim decide whether or not to call.
  • Ask before offering physical support. Asking “Can I give you a hug?” can re-establish the victim’s sense of security, safety, and control.
  • Say what you can guarantee. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, such as saying the victim will never be hurt again, or that the offender will be put in jail.
  • Allow the proper authorities to deal with the assault. Confronting the person who committed the sexual assault may be harmful or dangerous. Attempting to investigate or question others who may know about the assault may hamper a legal investigation. Leave this to the proper authorities.
  • Be patient and recognize that healing can take years with advances and setbacks.
  • Take care of yourself. If you need support for yourself, please contact your local rape crisis centre for a confidential place to discuss your feelings.

Responding to child sexual abuse (CSE)

The disclosure of child sexual abuse can affect the entire family system. If you are a caregiver of a child who has survived sexual abuse, you may want to seek support from family, friends, or a counsellor at your local rape crisis centre. You may even want to connect with other caregivers who are going through a similar experience. If you are able to work through your own feelings, you will be better able to support your child.

You may be experiencing many emotions right now. Often caregivers will have feelings of anger, sadness, and guilt about what has happened to their child. You may have clear feelings of anger at the person who abused your child, or you may feel confused, especially if the person who abused your child is also someone that you love and trust.

Recognize your own feelings; they are most likely very normal. Also know that your child may have different feelings than you, and that is okay. Let your child know that their feelings are also normal and that there are many ways to safely express these feelings.

Effects of child sexual abuse may be similar to those reactions experienced by adults after a sexual assault. Changes in behaviour are perhaps the most important thing to note in children, since this is how they communicate. Children may have nightmares, difficulty sleeping, trouble concentrating, display regressive behaviour such as thumb sucking or bed wetting, or a drop in grades at school.

Caring for a child after a disclosure of sexual abuse can be challenging. The disclosure of sexual abuse creates a crisis for many families. Caregivers may assume that once a child has disclosed that they will feel safe and return to normal functioning. While children are very resilient and can heal from this abuse, healing takes time and patience. The following are some things you can do to help:

  • Maintain consistent rules and structure to increase feelings of safety.
  • Give choices whenever possible to allow a greater sense of control.
  • Allow them to have ALL feelings and express these feelings in a safe way.
  • Recognize their strengths and help them to see their own resilience.
  • Listen, believe, and support them-your support is more important than anything else right now.

Effects of the assault

Each survivor reacts to sexual violence in their own unique way, such as:

  • Expressing emotions or preferring to keep their feelings inside. Talking about the assault soon after or waiting weeks, months, or even years before discussing the assault, if they ever choose to do so.
  • Experiencing physical responses to the trauma as an effect of the assault.
  • Developing coping mechanisms that could be harmful or unhealthy such as drug and alcohol use or self-injury, or healthy and therapeutic options such as journaling, expression through art and seeking therapy. Some survivors will display a mix of healthy and unhealthy ways of coping.

It is important to respect each person’s choices and style of coping with this, and any, traumatic event. You can help by offering to connect victims with the services of a rape crisis centre where staff is experienced in dealing with the effects and responding without judgment. Whether an assault was completed or attempted, and regardless of whether it happened recently or many years ago, it may impact daily functioning. A wide range of reactions can impact victims, both immediately after the assault and for days or years after the assault. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, injury or other short- and long-term effects have been reported by 81% of women and 35% of men who experienced rape, stalking or physical violence by an intimate partner. (Black, et. al., 2011)

Reactions to sexual assault

Emotional:

  • Guilt, shame, self-blame
  • Embarrassment
  • Fear, distrust
  • Sadness
  • Isolation
  • Lack of control
  • Anger
  • Numbness
  • Confusion
  • Shock, disbelief
  • Denial

Psychological:

  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks, or re-experiencing the assault
  • Dissociation
  • Depression and other mood disorders
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Anxiety
  • Substance use or abuse
  • Phobias or fears
  • Low self-esteem
  • Thoughts of self-harm, including suicide

Physical:

  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks, or re-experiencing the assault
  • Dissociation
  • Depression and other mood disorders
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Anxiety
  • Substance use or abuse
  • Phobias or fears
  • Low self-esteem
  • Thoughts of self-harm, including suicide

The human body and brain are very resilient. Many victims fully recover from the emotional, physical, and psychological effects of the assault. For most, talking through the trauma is a key to healing. Free and confidential counselling is available through local rape crisis centres/helplines. A list of rape crisis helplines/centres in the UK can be found here: http://www.muslimwomenscouncil.org.uk/rape-and-sexual-abuse-services-and-helplines/