What to do if someone tells you they have been raped or sexually abused.
Most people who have experienced rape or sexual abuse choose to tell someone close to them. This will be someone who they feel safe enough with to disclose the rape or abuse that they have experienced.
They need to feel that the person they are confiding in is trustworthy, 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 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.
People rarely lie about incidents of sexual violence. It is important to believe what the person is telling you.
It is important to respect their feelings and their decisions and to let them go at their own pace. If they feel like crying, let them, it can be part of their healing process.
The courage it takes for a person to speak must be recognised and praised. It takes a great deal of strength to face up to fears and to talk about any personal experience.
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, abused or assaulted should behave, and to accept their reactions as normal.
It is not their fault. No one ‘asks’ to be raped, sexually assaulted or abused, or deserves it, and they cannot be blamed for not preventing it. The blame lies with the perpetrator.
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 specialist support services such as WMRSASC. Most people, once the initial shock and trauma has worn off, want their friend or loved one to be ‘better’ or back to ‘normal’. However, any rape, sexual assault or abuse 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 abused, 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. Do not take it personally and never make them feel guilty if they have trouble trusting you, or if they do not want 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. Remember it is not about you. Supporting someone can be difficult and stressful so if you are feeling confused and do not know what to do then please contact our helpline or email for support.
No two people are the same and their reactions to rape or sexual abuse can be extremely varied. However, it is likely that whatever their experience, at some point they may 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 to prevent certain behaviours, others will probably take their place. Coping strategies, both positive and negative, can 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 has 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 rape and sexual abuse 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.
Most people have an immediate sense of anger towards the perpetrator for what they have done to their friend or loved one. 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, as; ‘I’m going to kill them’. Saying this to a person who has just been raped or assaulted can be unhelpful. They may then not only feel responsible for what has happened to them, but also for what might happen if you were to carry out the threat.
You may feel as though the person could have ‘prevented’ the incident or should have reacted in a different way. It is wrong 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 or sexually abused 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 overprotecting 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 the incident, e.g., not sharing a taxi home with them, and then they were raped or assaulted on their way home. It is important to remember the majority of rapes, sexual assaults and sexual abuse are all premeditated, and you are not responsible for what has happened.
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, 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 hard for you to be there for them. You can contact WMRSASC for confidential advice and support.
Sometimes hearing of a friend or loved one’s rape or sexual abuse 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.
One decision a person will have to make after being raped, sexually assaulted or abused is whether to report the crime to the police. Relatives and friends, on hearing about the rape or sexual abuse, can pressurise a person to report; or they may take the matter out of their hands and phone the police on their behalf.
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 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 can come up is that the person must report in order to prevent the perpetrator from raping, assaulting or sexually abusing someone else. It is not their responsibility to prevent a perpetrator from reoffending.
Our ISVA Service
Our ISVA service can give you information, can talk through options with the individual, and if they do choose to report, an ISVA will provide advice and support throughout the police and court process.