Hearing about sexual violence can be very harrowing, especially if you’re hearing it from someone you know and care about it. You may experience a range of emotions about what has happened, including feeling angry, guilty, upset, nervous, overwhelmed, helpless, confused, or shocked. You might also find it hard to believe what they tell you, especially if you also know the perpetrator. If this is the case you may find it helpful to seek support yourself; without such support it can be really hard to be there for the person you’re trying to help.
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How you can help
Anyone who has experienced sexual violence needs to be listened to and believed. If someone has told you about what happened to them, this means they trust you and sense that you care for them. There are many ways you can help:
Believe people. People rarely lie about rape or sexual abuse. This is perhaps the most helpful way to help; don’t underestimate how valuable it is.
Listen to what they have to say, and don’t pressure them into saying more than they are comfortable with. Most people find traumatic events extremely difficult to talk about, and survivors are often told by abusers not to tell anyone.
Let the survivor stay in control. Experiencing sexual abuse can make someone feel powerless and out of control. It is natural to want to do things for them like arrange appointments and take actions you think are best, but it is important to resist these urges and allow survivors to make their own choices in their own time, and to support the choices they make even if you don’t agree with them.
Remember that it is not the survivor’s fault. No one asks or deserves to be abused, and you can’t blame someone for failing to prevent their own abuse. Nonetheless survivors often feel guilty, and it can be helpful to reassure them that it’s not their fault (even if you have to reassure them many times).
Don’t judge the way they are reacting to what happened. There is no ‘correct’ way to feel or behave as a result of sexual violence.
Be patient. It can take a long time to recover from sexual violence, and survivors often have periods of time when they feel better, followed by periods of time when they feel worse again. Be honest about what support you can offer; consistency over a long period is more valuable than a lot of support which is later withdrawn.