SUPPORTING A LOVED ONE AFTER A SEXUAL ASSAULT
As the loved one of an adult survivor of sexual assault, you play a critical role in the healing process. Educating yourself and processing your own emotions (anger, guilt, powerlessness, and fear) are steps you can take to more effectively support the victim and yourself.
DEFINING SEXUAL ASSAULT
Sexual assault is any unwanted sexual attention or sexual contact committed by force, manipulation, bribes, threats, pressure, tricks, or violence. This includes child molestation, rape and attempted rape, sexual harassment, and incest.
NO ONE WAY OF HEALING
- Perpetrators can be strangers, acquaintances, friends, or family members.
- Sexual assault is never the victim's fault; no one ever "asks for" or deserves to be sexually assaulted.
- Sexual assault is a crime with complex motivations that can include violence, anger and power, and sexual desire.
While having a checklist of what to expect during the healing process would be helpful, it is not possible. Healing deals with emotions and there are no universals. As you support the victim, patience is critical; healing time varies from many months to many years. Do not expect an "end," but instead recognize that the victim is engaged in a process and the mark of success is not "getting over the assault," but rather, getting on despite the assault. Some of the variety of emotions that a victim may experience include:
- wanting normalcy
- avoidance of intimacy (sexual and/or non-sexual)
More than one of these emotions is likely to manifest itself at once; there is not a particular order, and emotions other than these may also be experienced.
Providing support to a sexual assault survivor can be difficult due to your own feelings and responses to the assault. Here are some concrete steps that you can follow:
- Believe the victim and reassure her/him that you know the assault was not her/his fault, and that you still love her/him.
- Recognize that there is no right or wrong way to handle an assault and validate that the victim did "the best they could" under tremendous stress. Fear often paralyzes people. If she/he "cooperated" or submitted to an assault, that does not make her/him a willing participant.
- Encourage the victim to get the medical attention she/he deserves even if there is no apparent physical injury. In order to provide additional support for the victim going through a medical examination or the legal system, consider contacting a counselor or legal advocate from the Rape Crisis Center.
- Allow the victim to talk at her/his own pace, despite your own possible discomfort with too much silence, or detail or repetition.
- Respect the victim's decision to report or not to report. Only she/he knows if she/he is up to the enormous challenge that reporting entails.
You can provide better support to the victim if you also work to process your own emotions. Your needs and the victim's are often not the same. Although it is important to be honest about your feelings, do not look to the victim to alleviate your pain (anger and frustration) or to return to the way she/he was before the assault. This is not possible and just as the victim will be grieving this loss, you will also.
In addition to wanting your life and the victim's life to return to normal as quickly as possible, you may also want to retaliate against the victim's abuser. You may feel that by expressing your wishes the victim will feel believed and supported - sometimes this is the case. However, by constantly expressing these feelings, the victim may become overburdened and may feel additional guilt for your frustration and anger.
Simply by calling the Rape Crisis Center and reading this handout, you have already given the victim the gift of your compassion and understanding. Remember that rape crisis lines are not solely for victims. As a loved one, you may use the Rape Crisis Line and Rape Crisis Center to help you in your healing process. Your strength and some of these guidelines will serve as important factors in providing support to your loved one.