If someone tells you they have been raped or sexually abused

Most people who have experienced sexual violence choose to tell someone close to them.  This will be someone who they feel safe enough with to disclose the abuse that they have experienced.  They need to believe that the person they are confiding in is trust-worthy, will believe them, and will keep the information they give confidential.  As a ‘safe’ person to tell, you are an important source of support.

  • Listen – Listen to what they have to say and let them take their time. It might not be easy for them to start talking about an event especially if it is something that they may have kept silent about for a long time.
  • Believe – People rarely lie about rape or sexual abuse. It is important to believe what the person is saying.
  • Respect – It is important to respect their feelings and their decisions. If they feel like crying, let them, it can be part of their healing process.
  • Recognise – The courage it takes for a person to speak must be recognised and praised. It takes a great deal of courage to face up to fears and also to talk about any sexual experience.
  • Don’t judge – It is important to be accepting of the way the person reacts, even if this is not what you were expecting. It is best to get rid of any ideas you may have of how a person who has been raped should behave, and to accept their reactions as normal.
  • Remember – It is not their fault – no one asks to be raped or deserves it and they cannot be blamed for not preventing it. The blame lies with the rapist. Reassure them that no one has the right to rape or assault anyone no matter what the circumstances were.

Make time to listen if they wish to talk.  Take your cue from them as to how much, how often, and when they want to talk about it.  Do not force them to talk if they do not want to.

It may be very difficult for you to empathise with what the person has experienced.  It is important to support them in getting help and information from WMRSASC or any Rape Crisis Centre and other supportive friends and support services.  Most people, once the initial shock and trauma has worn off, want their friend or relative to be ‘better’ or back to ‘normal’.  However, any sexual assault significantly changes your perception of life and of the world you live in.  There is no time limit after which they should have recovered.  Each individual person learns to cope with the experience in their life according to their individual circumstances.  This can take months or years.

If you are having a sexual or emotional relationship with a person who has been sexually assaulted or raped, be prepared to show that caring and trust are important in your relationship.  Take your cue from them as to the kind of attention, affection or physical contact they may want.  Never pressurise them into feeling guilty about not trusting you, or not wanting to have sex with you.  Do not act defensively if they need to spend time on their own, or want to talk to someone other than you.  Supporting someone can be stressful so if you are feeling confused and do not know what to do then please contact our helpline.

Reactions to rape and sexual abuse

No two people are the same and their reactions to rape and sexual abuse can be extremely varied.  However, it is likely that whatever their experience, at some point they have feared for their life and will feel numb after the attack, or ‘cut off’, or in shock.  They may appear perfectly calm and unaffected on the surface.  They may fear that they are ‘going mad’ – these are all normal ways for a person to process what has happened to them.

Other reactions may include flashbacks or panic attacks.  Their behaviour may change, and they may develop coping strategies or have other physical symptoms. It is important to recognise that these symptoms will most likely become less as they access support, and if you try and prevent certain behaviours, others will probably take their place. Coping strategies, both positive and negative, will be addressed during support, and it is important to recognise that while it may be distressing for you, these strategies are helping the individual cope with what has happened to them.

You may feel that the person themselves have changed and it is important that you discuss those perceived changes with them and accept them.  Sometimes change can be a positive thing.

The long-term impact of sexual violence can lead to depression, substance misuse, loss of self-esteem, eating disorders, difficulties in sexual relationships, and an inability to trust people.  It is important therefore to remember that with the right help and support these effects can be overcome and survivors can move forward with their lives.

How you may feel

Most people have an immediate sense of anger towards the perpetrator for what they have done to their friend or relative.  Anger is perfectly understandable, but whilst you need to let the person know you believe them and are angry with the perpetrator (and not them), it is important not to let your anger override any decisions they might want to make.

Some people are prone to protective anger, which can be expressed, for example; ‘I’m going to kill them’.  Saying this to a person who has just been raped is not helpful.  They will then not only feel responsible for what has happened to them and how they feel, but also for what might happen to you if you do carry out the threat.

Equally, it is not helpful to express any anger you might feel towards the person for ‘getting themselves into the situation’ or for ‘asking for it’.  It is extremely unhelpful to make judgements about how serious their experience was, or to criticise their behaviour before, during or after the assault.

Try not to let your own anger or fear intrude.  They will have enough to cope with without having to worry about what you are feeling.   It is important that you respect the person’s decisions, and that you take your lead on what to do from them.  Try and take your own feelings and distress elsewhere. Support them when they are telling you what happened.

One of the most common reactions of those closest to a person who has been raped is to want to make it better, or to spare them the pain of having to make any decisions about any action they may need to take.  While your feelings and actions are understandable they can continue to make the person feel like events are entirely out of their control.  The way to ensure that the person retains control is to not make decisions on their behalf, or act as if they are helpless by over-protecting them, but by providing them with information, choices, space, and the time to make their own decisions.

You might feel guilty about something you may or may not have done in the time leading up to their assault e.g. not sharing a taxi home with them, and then they were raped at the taxi rank.   It is important to remember that the majority of assaults are premeditated and you are not responsible for what has happened.

Looking after yourself

Whether you are helping someone cope with the immediate trauma of a recent experience or are helping someone coming to terms with sexual abuse they suffered as a child, you will be very important to them.  Therefore, it is important that you recognise the implications of this and take good care of yourself and your own needs.

Be aware that you also may experience a range of feelings about what has happened e.g. anger, guilt, upset, anxiety, overwhelmed, helplessness, confusion, shock.  It is important that you get support for yourself.  You may need to talk to somebody about

what you are feeling; without such support it can be really hard for you to be there for them.  You can contact WMRSASC for confidential advice and support.

Sometimes hearing of a friend’s or relative’s rape might remind you of a similar experience you might have had as an adult or a child.  If this happens then it is important that you get support for yourself; WMRSASC can provide this.

Reporting to the Police

One decision a person will have to make after being raped is whether or not to report the crime to the police.  Relatives and friends, on hearing about the rape, can pressurise a person to report; or they may actually take the matter out of their hands and phone the police for them.

Apart from reinforcing their feelings of helplessness, this action will embroil a person in a very painful and lengthy legal process.  It is much more helpful in this situation to find out what the process involves and then discuss with them whether or not they want to report – always leave the decision up to them. They, not you, will have to live with the consequences of that decision.

One of the concerns that might come up is that the person must report in order to prevent the person from assaulting someone else.  It is not their responsibility to prevent a perpetrator from reoffending.

Our ISVA service can give you information, can talk through options with the individual, and if they choose to report an ISVA will provide advice and support throughout the police and court process.

To access this support please call 01905 611655 or email isva@wmrsasc.org.uk.