Last year, almost 300,000 women in America were raped. Most of them attacked by someone they knew, possibly even loved and trusted. Rape has been called the worst form of personal assault by many experts and is alarmingly common.
But how many people do you personally know of that are sexual assault victims?
Think about it for a second: statistically, you’ve undoubtedly encountered someone within the last few days who's experienced this awful crime. If your neighbor had a break-in or mugged in the street, you’d almost certainly hear about it. But with rape, the shame and fear mean that most women never speak out.
If a sexual assault survivor has confided in you or asked for your help, you may naturally be wondering how best to support them.
Offer your unconditional support
Typically, confessions of this kind can be so upsetting that those who hear them get carried away with their response to the trauma. A spouse or partner may take it as a personal insult and may let their confusion and anger get in the way of helping the survivor.
Sometimes without even realizing it, support is given, but with conditions: with the survivor told that they absolutely must press charges no matter what, or else they are pressured to keep silent.
People who process the trauma of rape alongside the initial survivor can forget that what their loved ones need most is support without judgment, pressure or assumptions.
Every person is different, and their experience of an assault will be unique.
To fully support a survivor, give them the space to experience their feelings as they have them. Ask what they need from you instead of telling them what they need to do. Provide information and resources without forcing any particular action the victim isn’t comfortable or ready for.
Rape is an incredibly complex phenomenon. If someone is mugged in the street, everyone would automatically assume that the mugger was the bad guy and the event was a straightforward crime. But with rape, many people are socialized and conditioned to immediately question the victim’s conduct, rather than accepting that an unfortunate event has happened.
Whatever a rape survivor tells you, believe them.
They are likely wrestling with their interpretation of the assault and will need your support in legitimizing what has happened. Take your cue from them. Don’t second guess or try to add your spin to the story. Whatever you do, don’t ask what they were drinking, wearing, or doing to “deserve” the assault.
Be a source of sound information
Depending on the community and culture you live in, rape will be dealt with very differently. For most, sexual assault is buried in a shroud of secrecy and shame. Support a rape survivor by being a neutral, accurate source of information instead.
If the rape is very recent, explain to them the process for getting a rape kit done and research to find out the laws in your area. Drive them to the police station and help them complete the paperwork.
Arrange for practical things like discrete STD testing.
If the rape is further in the past, find information about rape survivor support groups, counselors or even community church members who can help. Be ready for long phone conversations or suggest somewhere to go for legal advice or information about a women’s shelter.
Many rape survivors are so overwhelmed with carrying the emotional burden of the rape alone that they are unaware of the practical steps they need to take to support themselves.
Empathy and compassion for rape survivors are sometimes hard to come by – if someone has shared their experience with you or asked for help, be a source of unconditional support, legitimacy and practical advice.
Here are a few helpful phrases when talking about the trauma:
- I can see that you feel _____ (no judgment or pressure, just acknowledgment)
- What happened was not your fault
- I believe you. Thank you for confiding in me
- What do you need right now?