The most important and simple thing you can do to help is listen and believe.
Here are some more guidelines:
Believe what they tell you. Survivors very rarely lie about sexual violence, but often fear people won’t believe them. If they sense disbelief they might never tell anyone again. Traumatic events can sometimes cause memory problems; if she/he ever seems to contradict herself/himself or add new facts, this doesn’t mean they’re making the whole thing up. It could be the brain processing fragments of memory.
Give her/him your unconditional support. If, in your opinion, she/he is not taking the best care of themselves, or making the ‘right’ decisions (e.g. about reporting), do not judge them. Everyone reacts in their own way.
A lot of survivors blame themselves for what was done to them. Its normal after something traumatic to think ‘If only I hadn’t…’, remind them that you don’t think that’s true, but bear in mind that arguing with them probably won’t persuade them. Don’t be frustrated if they believes this for some time.
If she/he feels guilty about e.g. not putting up a fight, affirm the fact that she/he used her/his survival skills to stay alive, and that compliance is not consent. Most women do not put up a fight in order to survive and minimise further harm.
Let them say what they need to say in their own time, in their own words.
If she/he faces difficult decisions, help them to make their own choices by exploring their options with them.
Encourage her/him to do things for themselves; try to affirm their own capabilities and power by not doing things for them that they can do themselves.
Treat all their feelings equally seriously.
Dealing with the effects of sexual violence is ultimately something a survivor does for herself. Survivors are experts in their own healing, and so encourage and empower them to help themselves. You can do similarly.
Explore the SARSAS and Survivor Pathway websites so that you understand some of the common reactions to sexual violence and what’s myth and fact.
Explore and challenge your own views about sexual violence.
Appreciate that there is going to be serious disruption in their life, and that this will probably affect you. Take your needs seriously and seek your own support.
Take every opportunity to remind them that you love them for who they are, and that she/he is still the person she/he was before that happened to her/him. All her/his reactions are normal reactions to an abnormal situation.
Remember, you are not a miracle-worker. The best you can do is let them know that you care about her/him and will be there if she/he wants to talk.
With compassion and understanding of the issues around sexual violence, it’s unlikely you’ll say harmful things. But here are some traps that people sometimes fall into:
Never doubt what she tells you about her experiences. It may be very difficult to believe that such a terrible thing has been done, especially if you know the perpetrator, but the truth is that women and girls rarely lie about sexual violence.
Never judge her, or imply that it was in any way her fault. For example, saying things like “didn’t you think about leaving?” “why didn’t you tell anyone at the time?” or “if only you’d walked the other way home” imply a judgemental attitude, even if you don’t intend it.
Never insist that she tells you anything that she seems reluctant to, especially details of traumatic events. Give her space to tell you as much or little as she wants to, in her own time.
Never take decisions for her, do things on her behalf, or pressure her into agreeing to do something. An important part of dealing with the powerlessness of sexual violence is learning to feel in control again, so try not to do anything which takes control away from her.
Never trivialise or dismiss her feelings or experiences. It may be easy to compare it to something more terrible, perhaps that someone else has experienced, but saying things like ‘it could be worse, it wasn’t as bad as…’ is never helpful. Recognise the pain she’s going through.
Do not expect her to ‘get over it’ in a certain amount of time. Everyone deals with the effects of sexual violence at their own pace.
Do not expect her to react in any one way – all women and girls react differently.
Never break her confidence. If you feel that it is your duty to tell someone because a child is at risk, at the very least discuss this with her before you do.
Sexual violence touches the lives of the survivor’s family and friends, who may experience some of the same responses. They may feel helpless and angry that the event has intruded into their lives. They may blame themselves for not protecting the survivor. They may also experience impatience and denial, wanting to go back to the way things were before the violence.
Sometimes family and friends can feel frustrated or bewildered about how such an event, or beginning to deal with historic events, can have such a big effect. It may be helpful to remember that you cannot be expected to understand what she is experiencing. Even if you have been through similar sexual violence, everyone reacts differently, so do not be surprised if she reacts and copes in her own unique way.
It is important to remember that it is not your fault if you could not stop the violence; only the perpetrator is to blame. Equally, supporting a survivor doesn’t work like magic. Don’t be disheartened if giving a listening ear doesn’t initially seem to help. Sometimes, when a survivor first begins to talk about historical trauma, bringing up the memories means that things can get worse before they get better.
Supporting a survivor can be difficult, even overwhelming at times. If a survivor has confided in you but no-one else, or has few other sources of support, it is easy to feel as though you are responsible for her well-being, but this is not the case. Her healing is in her hands; she has been incredibly strong to survive so far, so there is every reason to believe that she has the emotional resources to face the future. Also, you cannot support her single-handedly; at the very least, you must have your own source of support (if necessary, an anonymous one, such as SARSAS or other helplines).
Talking about traumatic things can be traumatising for the listener too. Take care of yourself, especially if you have a history of sexual violence too. Think carefully about what support you can realistically offer her, so as not to let her down. It is more important to live up to her trust that to wear yourself out initially and then have to withdraw.
As the partner of a survivor, you may be very important to her in her efforts to deal with the effects of sexual violence. Since this often takes some time, and can affect your relationship, it is important that you get your own support, and look after yourself so that you can best support her.
It is very likely that the sexual aspect of your relationship will change while your partner is dealing with the effects of sexual violence. Be sensitive to her needs in this area, and never ever persuade or cajole her into any contact that she isn’t enthusiastic about. By rejecting sex she is not rejecting you, even though it may feel like it; the associated memories around sexual behaviour, or even touch, may make it too difficult for her to even contemplate this. If this is the case, reassure her that you understand how important that is, and that you assume that sex is off the menu until she says otherwise.
Men whose female partners have suffered sexual violence can have very varied attitudes and responses. They may feel a sense of helplessness or guilt that they were unable to fulfil their role as “protector” and prevent it happening to someone they love. They may feel a great anger towards the perpetrator and consider revenge. They may share their partner’s pain so that they experience some of the same reactions as her: nightmares, sadness, disillusionment with the world.
Sometimes, a man might feel that the perpetrator or abuser has injured him because he has somehow diminished his partner’s value by abusing her. They might stigmatise her and blame her for what has been done to her. They may feel betrayed, ashamed and repulsed. These responses obviously rely on myths about sexual violence, and are deeply unhelpful.
Just as women need to talk about their feelings so, too, do men. It can be easy to adopt the role of the strong partner, supporting the woman with no apparent hurt to you, but in reality, any partner is going to face some difficult feelings. It is very important that you get support, so that any issues you are dealing with don’t end up affecting her recovery.
Women whose female partners have suffered sexual violence can share most of these reactions. There may also be additional concerns, such as wondering how abuse might have affected their partner’s sexuality, or specific issues around relationship dynamics or intimacy. Seeking help may be more difficult if either partner is not out, but there are sources of help available. However, it is just as important for you to get your own support as you support her.