If someone chooses to tell you that they have been assaulted then they are investing a lot of trust in you. Your reactions are important, you can be just as pivotal in the survivor’s recovery as any professional. The attitudes and responses of those closest to a person who has been assaulted have the capacity to either extend the crisis, or to help them deal with it.
Your Response and Feelings
It can be very difficult coping with the sexual assault of someone close to you. You may be feeling a range of emotions, including shock, confusion, disbelief, guilt or anger. You may feel helpless, and not know what to do. Feelings of anger towards the perpetrator or the desire for revenge are normal; however they are not helpful for your loved one to hear or to have you act on. Try to be aware of your feelings and how they might impact. It is important that you get the support you need to talk through your feelings, whether this is a trusted friend or a counsellor.
Some family and friends of survivors do things to try and protect their loved one following the offences. Whilst safety is important, it is important you don’t overprotect the survivor, as this may be taking away control from them, they need to regain control of their life. The survivor needs support to make their own decisions, it is their needs that need to be met and you can let them know you are there if they need you, but allow them to ask for help as they need it.
When supporting your family member or friend, it is unhelpful for them if you ask probing questions about the sexual aspects of the offence. Sexual assault is not about sex, it is a criminal offence in which sex was used to overpower and control the survivor. It is helpful to ask them what things concern them the most. In your communications with the survivor, be natural and let them know you are willing to listen if they want to talk. Many survivors find it difficult to speak to those closest to them due to their feelings of shame and embarrassment; you can support the survivor by encouraging them to speak with a counsellor.
Sexual assault is always the responsibility of those who commit it, and it is important that you do not blame the survivor for the criminal offence committed against them. Regardless of whether the person close to you fought or cooperated with the offender, they made the best decision they could at the time to survive the offence(s).
Supporting the Survivor
Sexual assault is about a perpetrator taking power away from the person they are offending against. A person who has been sexually assaulted often feels powerless, a loss of control and they may experience fear during the offence that they were going to die. Letting the survivor make decisions about their recovery could be amongst the most important steps on their road to recovery. It is important, therefore, that the survivor is given the time and space to make their own choices about what to do to regain some control. It is important that you respect their decisions, even if they go against what you believe to be right, or what you want to happen. It is important that the survivor decides who they will tell about the sexual assault(s), and that you don’t tell others about what happened without the survivor’s consent. To tell others may cause the survivor to feel a further sense of powerlessness.
A survivor may also feel embarrassed, ashamed, humiliated, guilty, mistrustful, angry or revengeful. Their moods may fluctuate and they may say or do things that are out of character. All of these emotions are normal reactions to sexual assault. You can support their anger and rage when directed outwards in non-destructive ways. If you express discomfort with these emotions and discourage them from expressing them, they may be directed inwards and become destructive and harmful.
A person who has been assaulted needs to be believed, to be listened to, and to be allowed time and space to recover from their experience. As someone close to the survivor, it is important that you do not send any message to them, whether it be verbal or non-verbal, that communicates in any way that it is not okay to discuss the sexual assault (for example, saying “it’s best if you don’t think about it”, changing the topic of conversation or making a facial expression indicating you don’t want to talk about it).
Whilst survivors often want to forget that the assault ever took place, it is not helpful if you make them think they have to push it aside, as this means they are being shut down and this may extend their process of recovery. Try not to avoid the subject, get the support you need so you can be emotionally available for you friend or family member when they need you. Encourage the survivor to express their feelings, but also be mindful that there will be times they do not wish to speak about their thoughts or feelings, and it is important that you respect their right to privacy. Try also to act in the normal ways you always have, for a survivor, regaining a sense of normality is important, and you can play a role in this.
The CRCC supports family and friends of survivors and you are welcome to contact CRCC for support on 02 6247 2525.