Most sexual assaults go unreported. Common reasons cited for not reporting these crimes include fear of retaliation by the perpetrator, doubts about law enforcement’s ability to help, feelings of shame, and belief that it was a personal matter.
Sexual assault can be an overwhelming experience. Statistics show that 94% of female survivors experience post-traumatic stress symptoms within two weeks following assault. PTSD symptoms are still present for 30 percent of survivors nine months later. Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, and increased drug and alcohol use are common among assault survivors. Sexual assault can also negatively impact relationships, especially intimate ones.
Despite these negative effects, healing is completely possible. As a loved one, you can offer powerful support to help with this process.
How can you support a loved one who’s been sexually assaulted?
It’s normal to want to avoid discussing a loved one’s experience or how they feel because you don’t “want to upset them.” You may have intense or confusing feelings that make you want to withdraw from them. You may feel helpless because you can’t change what happened. You may also feel triggered if you’ve had a similar experience.
Here are some suggestions for how to provide support:
Just feeling heard can be healing for those who experience sexual assault. Active listening allows our loved ones to share their experiences without judgment. Some examples of active listening include using eye contact, nodding, reflecting back what they’re sharing (“It seems like it was…”), paraphrasing so that your friend feels heard, keeping the focus on their experience, allowing silence, and checking in on how they feel when talking about what happened.
If you notice your loved one getting upset, you might say “Is it okay/helpful to continue talking about this or should we take a break?” Remember, if you choose to briefly redirect your friend, it’s important that you ultimately allow them to control the conversation.
2. Communicate Support and Empathy
Your loved one may feel nervous about your reaction. They may fear that you will view them differently, or that what’s happened will impact your relationship. It’s important to vocalize your support. While you may assume they know that you support them, this may not feel obvious to them. To reassure them, you could say something like “I’m so sorry this happened. I believe you and I can’t imagine how this makes you feel.”
Remember, this is not the time to pry about specifics. For more talking tips, check out these helpful points from RAINN, a sexual assault support organization.
3. Give Them Back Control
Traumatic experiences often occur without our control or consent. Part of the healing process includes regaining that sense of control. Gestures that seem small, like allowing your loved one to define their own experience, and prioritizing their needs, can have a huge impact.
After a trauma, certain activities like being in crowded spaces or watching violent movies may be challenging for your loved one. Let them know that their sense of safety is important and that they can set limits on what you do and where you go.
4. Recognize Your Limits
As a friend or family member, you can listen and offer support to a loved one who has been sexually assaulted. These actions can help play a role in their healing and recovery. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that you can’t heal them.
If you’re in any way triggered by your loved one’s assault, you’ll need time and mental energy to focus on your wellbeing. The same is true even if that’s not the case — being a caregiver can be draining if you don’t tend to your own needs.
5. Encourage Professional Support
Lastly, you can encourage and help your loved one find professional support, specifically a therapist who works with trauma. A professional can work from an empathic but objective stance to help your loved one process the experience and build personal tools for managing the intense impact of the experience. That leaves space for you to be a hurt, angry, and supportive ally.
In addition to seeking out a trauma-informed professional, here are some helpful resources for those who have experienced sexual assault.
The bottom line is this:
Your friend or loved one needs someone who will actively listen with patience, non-judgment, and empathy. That’s you!
You might feel uncomfortable or uncertain about how to support someone after sexual assault, but at the end of the day, being available and present speaks volumes for anyone who has experienced trauma.
No matter your background, be encouraged that you can still be an incredibly helpful addition to your friend or loved one’s recovery journey.
Erin Ross, MS, OTR/L is an occupational therapist and contributing writer in Washington, DC. She believes in data-driven practice, clear and concise communication, and diligent inclusion of the Oxford comma.