People who have been subjected to sexual violence respond in many different ways. They may be visibly upset or completely calm. People use different coping mechanisms and have different ways of expressing themselves. They may need time to process their emotions.
If someone seems calm and composed, this does not mean that they have not been violated. It could mean that they feel numb or that they are dissociating from the trauma. Do not judge them or make assumptions based on how they seem. No matter how the person is responding, what they need is your support and compassion.
“The first principle of recovery is the empowerment of the survivor. She must be the author and arbiter of her own recovery. Others may offer advice, support, assistance, affection, and care, but not cure.”
― Judith Lewis Herman
It is important to give people who have been subjected to sexual violence control over all decisions related to their survival, coping and recovery. This is part of restoring a sense of power and control to the victim/survivor, something that is taken away when someone is sexually violated.
When supporting victims/survivors, some ways you can help to restore choice and foster empowerment include:
These tips will help you foster safe, caring, and non-judgmental interactions when someone discloses that they have been sexually violated.
Validate their feelings. Let them know that you believe them and that the sexual violence was not their fault.
Address their immediate needs around safety and address issues of confidentiality.
Listen and let them tell their story in their own words and at their own pace. Be comfortable staying silent and ask them how they want to be supported.
Ensuring that the victim/survivor has control of what happens next is crucial to restoring their sense of power and control.
Be aware of the impacts of trauma and systemic oppression on victims/survivors. Also acknowledge your own boundaries as a support person.
a) Believe them and validate their feelings
First of all, believe them. It likely took courage to tell you that they have been sexually violated. They might feel confused, afraid, angry, sad or any other (combination of) emotions. Many victims/survivors worry that people will not believe them. You can reassure them that you believe them, they are not alone, and you are there to listen and support them.
b) Reassure them that the violence was not their fault.
Due to the prevalence of victim-blaming, many victims/survivors feel guilt or shame, or blame themselves. You can tell them that many people have these emotions, and it’s okay for them to express those types of thoughts and feelings to you. Also let them know that they have nothing to be ashamed of, they did nothing to cause the sexual violence.
c) Acknowledge the person’s strengths
As a support person, you can help the victim/survivor identify or remember their strengths. You can also help them to identify the (community, school, friend, family etc.) supports they have at their disposal.
a) Address Immediate Needs.
If the sexual violence was recent you will need to address the victim’s/survivor’s immediate needs. You can start by asking if they are safe and if they need medical attention. If they are in immediate danger, work with them to get out of that situation. This could include calling 911. Remember that some people do not feel comfortable or safe calling the police. See Choices Following Sexual Violence for more information.
b) Address confidentiality.
If you are a counselor, social worker, or other service provider, you will be bound by rules of confidentiality central to your profession. If you are a friend, family member, or other support person, it is also important to assure the person that you will keep what they tell you confidential, and then do so.
If you suspect or know that someone under the age of 16 is being abused or neglected, you have a legal duty to report it to your local child welfare agency. This is also the case for anyone under the age of 19 who is being/has been abused or neglected by a parent or guardian.
Additionally, if someone tells you that they are transgender, lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, intersex, asexual, Two-Spirit etc. it is important to keep that information confidential.
c) Understand potential triggers.
A trigger is something that brings back traumatic memories or makes someone feel that they are back in that situation. Feeling triggered can be an overwhelming and emotional experience. Triggers can include sounds, sights, smells, an environment, a word or name, etc.
See Learn More for Grounding Techniques for coping with triggers.
a) Listen and be comfortable with silence.
b) Ask them how they want to be supported.
It is key to give victims/survivors control over all decisions related to their recovery, including how they want to be supported. This is part of restoring their sense of power and control.
c) Let them tell their story in their own words and at their own pace.
Remember that the victim/survivor chooses how much, or how little, to disclose. Do not press for more details than they offer. Leave it to that person to share as much or as little detail as they are comfortable with. You do not need to know every detail in order to support a victim/survivor.
In some circumstances, you may need to ask difficult questions such as, “have you thought about whether you want to get an STI test?” Remember to be sensitive.
a) Respect their experiences and concerns.
Only the victim/survivor knows what they have been through and what is best for them. They may have fears and concerns that you don’t understand. For example, a person’s experiences of racism or another form of systemic oppression may make them reluctant to access particular resources.
b) Respect their decisions and restore choices.
Ensuring that the victim/survivor is in control of what happens next is key to restoring someone’s sense of power and control. If a victim/survivor tells you that they are ready to seek additional support, you can help them sort through options.
c) Respect their gender identity and pronouns.
It is important not to assume someone’s gender based on their appearance, name, voice, mannerisms, etc. When someone tells you their gender, believe them. Using the correct pronouns (he, she, they etc.) is also crucial.
d) Respect language choices.
This includes what they call the sexual violence and how they refer to the person who perpetrated the violence.
a) Only make promises you think you can keep and take on what you think you can handle.
You can’t do everything for a victim/survivor, and that is okay. Let them know what you are able to do. For example, if you aren’t certain if you can go with them to appointments, it is best to be honest.
b) Learn about how systemic oppression impacts victims/survivors.
It is important to recognize how survivors are impacted by forms of systemic oppression such as sexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, xenophobia and classism. Individuals of different identities, backgrounds, and experiences may require different forms of support and accommodations. Victims/survivors have a right to access support of their choosing, including support tailored to their particular identities.
c) Recognize trauma responses and their impacts.
For example, the brain reacts to trauma with a fight, flight, or freeze response. These are involuntary responses to help the person survive. The freeze response can be why a victim/survivor did not physically struggle during the violence. Additionally, trauma’s impact on the brain contributes to why a victim/survivor may have difficulty remembering or recounting details of the sexual violence.