If Your Loved One Has Been Sexually Assaulted

Suggestions for Partners, Friends, and Family Members
If someone close to you, whether a friend, family member, or romantic partner has been sexually assaulted, you are going through a very painful experience. In many ways, you're going through the trauma with them and in other, very lonely ways, you are going through your own pain while they are going through theirs in ways that leaves you feeling very much on the outside of their world.

This page is intended to offer you support and guidance as you both work to put as many of the pieces of your life back together as possible. This page also aims to remind you that you, too, may need support and to make you aware of the resources available to help you move through the difficult emotions and intrusive images that are probably haunting you.

Validate Their Experience:
The first and most important step in helping someone you love who has been sexually assaulted is to validate their experience. The most fundamental example of this is simply that you believe them about what happened. Often, the sheer reality of someone you love having suffered an assault is so overwhelming that you immediately shift to a line of thinking that can make it seem less true. "Are you sure?" "Did you lead them on?" "Maybe they just didn't realize...." All of these things are the psychological equivalent of "Why don't you go be by yourself with all these painful things?" Most loved ones would never want to convey such a message, but it's important to know the subtle ways in which that very message is delivered. It is important to remind the person who suffered a sexual assault, maybe even repeatedly, that it was not their fault, no matter what the circumstances of the assault. Nobody, under any circumstances, ever has the right to do something sexual that the other person doesn't want to do.

Invite the Pain and Hurt With Them:
Your being willing, able, and strong enough to listen and be compassionate are what they need most. They are in, perhaps, the loneliest place they/ve ever been. Don't minimize their feelings or tell them to "put it behind them and move on" because that, in effect, tells them to get rid of something they can't get rid of and they'll simply be more alone. Pain goes away when people tend to it. Ignored pain gets infected when people simply try to cover it up, and "put it behind them". Remind them that they're not alone and that you will be there with them. This might involve you reminding yourself and them that, as much as it hurts, you have the strength to help them carry this pain. Such reminders are important because an added difficulty for them is that they are now causing you a lot of pain. Acknowledging this while asserting your strength to handle it reminds them that they, too, have the strength in spite of the pain. It's important that you realize what you're offering and only offer what you can. Otherwise, you risk doing something that most loved ones do, which actually adds to her pain: trying to push the pain down. Without realizing it, you'll start changing the subject when they bring it up, trying to keep things superficial, or even avoiding them. If you feel unable to handle it all, offer to connect them to more objective support. For example, offer to go with them to get professional support. Consider getting some counseling for yourself to help you manage the pain you feel about someone you loved suffering the trauma of sexual violence.

Empower Them:
After validating their experience, the most important goal is to empower them. Usually, the best way to be helpful around this aspect of their healing is to keep a close eye on ways in which you might disempower them--- and avoid those things. Keep in mind that the most emotionally damaging aspect of sexual assault is that one's sense of personal power and control was completely taken away for a traumatic period of time. It is very important, therefore, that they feel in control of their own recovery. Don't push them to do things they don't want to do or are not yet ready to do. For example, don't apply pressure for them to press criminal charges, tell their parents, etc. Definitely do not tell anyone about the assault without their expressed and involved cooperation. Similarly, if you know the person who committed the assault, do not assume a vigilante stance and confront or attack this person on their behalf. They then have to deal with their own pain and any additional complications that arise from your confronting somebody without them asking you to.

Help Them Tell You What They Need:
Sharing the pain of sexual assault can be a very confusing time. You may not know, at any given time, what the person you are trying to support needs. Ask them. They may be able to simply say what they need. Other times, they may have a clear sense of what they need. One idea is to plan ahead and identify the needs ahead of time so they only need to be recognized rather than clearly articulated. For example, such needs may include: Support and Company; Space and Solitude; Gentle Affection and Being Held For Support; Platonic Affection and to Not Be Touched.

Finally, take care of yourself. Recognize that you too, have been affected by the trauma and will have feelings and reactions. In many ways, you will cycle through the same kinds of psychological experiences as the person who was assaulted. For periods of time, you will be in denial, even forgetting that it happened. At other times, you will feel haunted by intrusive thoughts, images, and feelings. It is also normal for you to go through a range of other reactions. At times you may blame yourself and feel guilty, powerless, inadequate, angry that you have to deal with this, or you may become overly protective or controlling, and even resent your responsibilities as a support person. While it may be wise to keep some of these feelings from the person you're trying to support, remember the feelings don't make you "bad". They simply make you human. Remember to be as much of your complete self as possible. Stay invested in the interests and passions that you had before this trauma occurred. Don't limit your contacts with other friends, activities, and alone time to the degree that you lose yourself in this trauma. Not only does this self-care help you to remain a stable support person, it helps the person you're supporting to see that they are not as much of a burden to you as they might fear they are.

Help Is Available
Keep in mind, services at SASC may help you work through some of your struggles so that you can be even stronger and clearer in your supportive role. If they are in counseling, offer to attend with them if they and their counselor think that might be helpful. If they are not in counseling, let them know about the services.