Learning that someone you love has been the victim of sexual abuse or assault can be horrifying. Even though your exposure to the event is second hand, you might be flooded with feelings of helplessness, anger, confusion, and loss. Most of all, you want to do whatever you can to help the person who has suffered through the trauma.
It’s hard to know what to do in cases like this, and every person is different. Sometimes, the person who has gone through the experience is so shaken that anything you do seems wrong. However, it’s important for her to know that she has the love and support of people around her. No single blog post can provide the perfect guide for what to do, but we hope that these tips can help.
#1 Believe Her
This might seem like the simplest thing that can be asked, but it’s surprisingly difficult for many people. Out of fear, you might be looking for any explanation, or you might be trying to shield yourself from the truth of what happened. Remember that any confusion, anger, guilt, or blame that you’re feeling is only compounded in the victim. Your entire focus and job right now is to help and support her… and most importantly of all, believe her.
It can be hard to sort out the truth in such an emotionally fraught situation. But even if you don’t know literally what happened in the moment, you need to believe her when she tells you what she thought happened, and how it affected her. Trauma is any situation in which we feel completely helpless and afraid. It has less to do with what literally happens than how we perceive it.
#2 Remind Her It’s Not Her Fault
Only a small percentage of sexual assault is reported. Unfortunately, this is mainly because our society too often blames the victim for the incident, whether that’s indirectly or not. Although it might feel natural to look for explanations as to why this happened (maybe you shouldn’t have gone there. Were you drinking? What were you wearing?)… it’s unhelpful for the victim and can even be destructive.
Instead, help the victim realize that what happened isn’t her fault. While there are safety precautions that we can take in the future, that doesn’t mean that she shoulders any blame for what actually happened. Remind her that she has nothing to be ashamed of. She might need to be reminded of this fact many times.
#3 Educate Yourself
It’s hard to understand the many emotional and practical ramifications of an event like this if we haven’t gone through it. It’s useful to do your research and find sources that will help you nurture the mental health of your loved one and anticipate the trials that she might go through as a consequence of this. This could include anything from reporting the incident to the proper authorities, to needing medical attention, to going through therapy, to experiencing flashbacks and/or panic attacks. You should first educate yourself on the topic in a general sense, and then learn what your loved one needs from you specifically. What are her triggers, and what can you do to help her in moments of crisis? Ask questions without judging in order to better understand and support.
#4 Offer Support through the Process
One of the most difficult aspects of surviving sexual trauma is that even when it’s over, it’s not completely over. There will be steps she needs to go through in order to heal mentally and emotionally. It’s helpful to have a supportive friend at your side when you go through these steps. Offer to accompany her to the police station and the doctor, and even perhaps to a therapy session. She may suffer through PTSD for a while, so learn how to talk her through flashbacks and don’t judge or criticize her for side effect behavior that may come as a result.