Helping a survivor

Information for those supporting a survivor of sexual violence and abuse.

It can be hard to know how to support someone who has had an experience of rape or sexual abuse. Although there is no set ‘way to do it’, you may find the following information helpful if a friend, partner or relative chooses to disclose their experiences abuse to you.

  • Allow them to talk at their own pace. Listen. Ask open ended questions about how they are now and what support they need. (e.g. What  sort of support do you need right now? How can I help?)
  • Acknowledge their courage for talking. Many survivors of sexual violence feel that they will not be believed if they tell about the abuse. Showing them that you understand how difficult it is to talk about abuse will let them know that you understand a little of what they are dealing with. Listening to them is an important way of supporting a survivor of sexual violence.
  • Reassure them that it’s good that they told someone. Let them know you’ll be there for them if they want you to be. Only offer what you are able to give in terms of support.
  • Don’t feel pressured to give advice. You may have been approached for support rather than for you to tell her/him what to do. Don’t pressure him/her into any decisions. Let /him take the lead.
  • Check her/his safety from the offender now.
  • Does the offender have access to other vulnerable people?
  • Does she/he want to report to the police, have a therapeutic medical or have a referral to counselling?

Supporting a survivor

Dos and Don’ts of supporting a Survivor

  • Do support the survivor to make their own decisions (ones that feel right for them).
  • Don’t make decisions for them.
  • Do help the survivor find out what their options are (e.g. legal, medical, support).
  • Don’t push the survivor to do anything they don’t want to do.
  • Do be honest about how you are feeling (without ‘dumping’ your emotions on the survivor – e.g I don’t know what to say ).
  • Don’t blame them for what happened. Remember, the survivor did the right thing at the right time to protect themselves. The responsibility for abuse always lies with the abuser.
  • Do get support for yourself. Feelings of shock, anger and revenge are natural, but should be dealt with so that you can offer the best support you can to the survivor.
  • Don’t expect either the survivor or yourself to be ‘over it’ in a certain time frame.

What do I do if they didn’t tell me personally?

You may have heard about the sexual violation from someone other than the survivor. Perhaps s/he doesn’t want you to know, or s/he hasn’t been able to tell you yet. But what can you do now that you know? If the abuse is general information and everyone is talking about it, remember that it is best to talk with the survivor than about them. Let her/ him know that you care and are available to talk:

  • “I heard you were sexually assaulted/ abused. I was really
    sorry to hear that and was wondering how you’re doing now?”

If the person who told you about the survivor being abused has asked you not to tell anyone, you may still want to check out if the survivor is currently in a safe situation. If he/she is safe, you can wait until they choose to come to you before offering support. If, however, he/she is still at risk of abuse and is under 17 yrs, you could let both the person who told you and the survivor know that you have to report the abuse (people you can report the abuse to include Child, Youth and Family Services and the Police). Although this can be a hard option to take, it is important to make sure that the person is safe. You can get support in reporting abuse from any sexual assault agency.

Checking safety

Always check what your friend or relative wants from you as a support person before doing anything. It is likely that the survivor experienced a significant loss of control when he/she was abused, and it’s important that he/she feels that the choice of what she/he wants to do about the abuse now is totally his/hers to make.

Limits of support

Once the survivor have identified you as a ‘safe’ person to talk to, he/she may want to discuss the abuse and their feelings about it with you on subsequent occasions. Let her/him know that when you are available to support him/her. Don’t offer more availability than you can comfortably give. It will not be good for you or the survivor if you have to renege on your offer of support.  (See below for ideas on support for yourself). Try not to feel offended if he/she chooses not to talk about some things with you. He/she has the right to decide what and with whom he/she discusses their experience of abuse.

What can I do to help now?

As a support person, you could offer to gather resources and information about the options available to survivors of rape and sexual abuse. Rape Prevention Education has a wide range of pamphlets and fact sheets that are free to the public, and which can provide valuable information and support to both you and the person you are supporting.

There is a number of different options open for survivors of sexual violence. For information about the services available in your area.

Support options for survivors

It can be a tremendous shock to discover that someone you care about has been abused. When acting as a support person, it’s important to recognise that you may need some support for yourself. Neither you nor the survivor need to be alone in dealing with what has happened. Counselling – Many survivors of sexual abuse or rape find it helpful to talk to a counsellor. Likewise, people who are supporting survivors can benefit from the advice and guidance of a trained professional. You may find you want to seek face-to-face counselling for yourself; alternatively, you may find the telephone support offered by your local support agencies meet your needs. Either way, you do not have to support your friend or relative by yourself.

Support groups – There are often groups running throughout the country that provide an opportunity for people who are supporting a survivor to meet and talk about what they are going through. The majority of these groups are run by people trained in the area of sexual abuse (e.g. counsellors). Many people find that joining a group provides invaluable assistance and information to enable them to better help the survivor. Contact your local sexual assault support agency listed on the RPE website for more information about support groups in your area. Support yourself to support them.

This information comes from a pamphlet written by Rape Prevention Education, for a copy contact us.