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How to Help after Sexual Assault

Sexual assault can traumatize not only the survivor, but also his or her family and friends. One of the greatest hardships is not knowing how to help. Each survivor’s reaction to sexual assault is individual, as is each survivor’s recovery. It is important to keep the previous sentence in mind when thinking about how to help.

Let the survivor take the lead in his or her own recovery.

The survivor may feel lost as if they have no control as a result of their assault – do not force them to do anything they are not ready for – that includes talking. When the person was assaulted, he or she had his or her control taken away. The survivor will let you know when he or she is ready to talk, do not make them feel like they need to talk or give you any details of their assault if they are not ready to disclose that information. Understandably, you may want to press charges against the perpetrator. However, he or she needs to be in control of what is going to happen. You may be able to help them sort through whether they want to go to the police, but ultimately, the survivor needs to make his or her own decision.

Recognize that nothing you can do will erase the fact that they were sexually assaulted.

If you understand this fact, hopefully a burden can be lifted off your shoulders. Do not spend time thinking “I wish I would have told [the survivor] not to go to that party” or “I wish we could go back in time three days…” You cannot go back in time, and you cannot change the past – it is your job now to help the survivor heal, not to wish that you could erase the fact that he or she has to heal.

Face your own fears and prejudices about sexual assault.

It is ugly and it is scary. You may feel uncomfortable thinking about sexual assault, and worse talking about it. You are entitled to your feelings and they are understandable, but do not let them get in the way of helping the survivor. You may find that you experience anger at the attacker, or even at the survivor. You may feel afraid or you may feel guilty. Everything you feel is justified – they are your feelings. However, your own emotional pain may prevent you from hearing what the survivor has to say, and thus helping the to heal. Be conscious of your feelings – do not be afraid or ashamed to seek counseling for yourself. Sexual assault councilors are aware of the effects assault has on everyone attached to the survivor, they can help you understand your feelings and help you to help the survivor.

Accept the survivor’s experience the way it happened.

Do not second-guess the survivor’s behavior. Refrain from making comments such as “you should not have worn that” or “you should have kicked” or “you should not have gone out by yourself”. SEXUAL ASSAULT IS NOT THE SURVIVOR’S FAULT. Regardless of what they were wearing or what their actions were, the survivor did not ask to be sexually assaulted. Do not focus on the survivor’s behavior when it is the perpetrator’s behavior that should be condemned. Again, nothing the survivor did or did not do caused the assault. You may feel that the survivor used poor judgment in the situation, but the responsibility for the fact that a crime occurred lies with the person who committed it!

Leave comparisons alone

It does not help to compare the survivor’s experience with that of others who have been sexually assaulted. Each assault is individual, as are each survivor’s reactions to the assault; therefore each assault should be handled individually. And be sure not to compare what did happen with what could have happened. The survivor already knows how much worse things could have been, there is no need to point it out and demean their legitimate feelings.

Face the issue.

While some people like to deal with things by ignoring them, that will not work in this case. Do not instruct a survivor not to worry, not to cry or not to think about it. Those are all unrealistic requests. Neither the crime nor the aftermath will go away by ignoring them.

Be ready to listen.

It is important to let the survivor know that you are available to listen when they need you. Try to listen non-judgmentally and do not ask specific questions. Your interest to know the details of the assault should not overpower your desire to be supportive and do what you can to help the survivor heal. If when discussing the assault, the survivor continually refers to the assault as “it” (and the “it” happened), do not pressure them to tell you what “it” is.

Seek help if you need it.

Helping someone deal with a sexual assault can be traumatic for the person providing support to the survivor. The survivor won’t have the resources to help you if you need it, so consider turning to friend, clergy, or counselor. Remember though, the survivor may not want others to know so take care to protect his or her confidentiality.

Additional Resources

  • MU Counseling Center
  • True North (serving survivors of sexual assault and relationship violence)
  • National Sexual Assault Hotline (RAINN)
    The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) is the nation’s largest anti-sexual assault organization. RAINN operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline and carries out programs to prevent sexual assault, help victims and ensure that rapists are brought to justice. When a caller dials 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), a computer notes the area code and first three digits of the caller’s phone number. The call is then instantaneously connected to the nearest RAINN member center. If all counselors at that center are busy, the call is sent to the next closest center. The caller’s phone number is not retained, so the call is anonymous and confidential unless the caller chooses to share personally-identifying information.

State Resources