It’s never easy seeing a loved one or friend go through a painful experience such as sexual abuse, but they don’t have to go through it alone. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization, an American is raped every 73 seconds, and nine out of 10 times the survivor is female. As dim as that reality may be, there are actions one can take to help and support loved ones living with sexual assault trauma.
Sexual assault can leave a myriad of issues and manifestations in its aftermath. Jill Daino, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Board Certified-TeleMental Health Provider at Talkspace (an online and mobile therapy company), shares with TZR that “depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, flashbacks, problems sleeping, and increased use of substances are some common experiences [one can experience] after an assault and may change over time.” If someone hasn’t outright shared this information with you, RAINN has extensive section on its website on how to spot the warning signs of someone who may have been sexually assaulted. “You don’t have to be a hero or even stand out from the crowd to make a big difference in someone’s life,” says Erinn Robinson, press secretary for RAINN, in an email to TZR. “Take steps to protect someone who may be at risk in a way that fits your comfort level.”
Other common effects to look out for include behavioral changes, disassociation, or sudden mood shifts. “Perhaps they suddenly don’t make eye contact or they shrink back from your touch,” says Dr. Joanne Barron, co-founder of Trauma and Beyond Psychological Center in Los Angeles, and co-author of Intergenerational Trauma Workbook: Strategies to Support Your Journey of Discovery, Growth, and Healing. They may also exhibit hyper-vigilance, “an increased state of alertness where the victim’s nervous system can get stuck in constant fight-or-flight-freeze responses,” says Dr. Lynne Friedman-Gell, who co-founded Trauma and Beyond and co-authored the Intergenerational Trauma Workbook with Dr. Barron.
Dr. Armin Hoes, Psychiatrist at Talkspace and Medical Director of Latitude Mental Health in Los Angeles, expresses that “These symptoms can worsen by having to re-live the traumatic event(s)...and they may benefit from further evaluations by a licensed mental health professional.” While one should be careful of being overly intrusive or forceful with advice, “Any signs of hopelessness or despair, feelings of worthlessness, or thoughts related to suicide should raise concern — and any gestures, behaviors, plans or attempts of suicide should be treated as a medical emergency by immediately dialing 9-1-1,” Dr. Hoes stresses.
Ahead, therapists and medical professionals offer more ways you can be supportive to a loved one who’s survived sexual assault.
How To Support A Survivor of Sexual Assault: Listen Without Judgement
Many experts agree that simply being there in the presence of your friend or loved one can be more than enough. “Listening can be so simple but powerful,” shares Dr. Dana Jebreel, Psy.D, based in Beverly Hills with TZR. “Just hearing your friend or loved one out and listening to their experience can be the first step to feeling heard and validated.”
Make sure you avoid shifting the mood to suit your needs, says Amy Morin, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. “Make it clear that you believe them and acknowledge how difficult it must be to talk about,” she says. “Don’t try to cheer them up, and don’t make any jokes. Instead, show them that you are willing to sit with them when they are upset.” Telling them that “they are safe and you are there for them no matter what provides comfort,” Dr. Hoes adds.
Leaving out the judgement is also essential here. Daino communicates, “Sometimes people will say things about what happened that are unintentionally hurtful, such as ‘Wow, you have been feeling like this for a long time.’” She explains that statements like this can imply that the survivor should be over their trauma by a certain point, which is incorrect and can negatively contribute to existing feelings of isolation. She further explains that “patience is key and to remind your loved one that the assault is not their fault, and that they deserve support. They do not have to suffer alone.”
How To Support A Survivor of Sexual Assault: Be Empathetic
Responding with compassion and empathy goes a long way. “Let your friend know that it is OK to feel [however they’re feeling],” says Barron. “Trauma is a normal response to an abnormal situation. They may need to cry, get angry, have alone time, or be around supportive friends and family.” Also, always make sure to ask for permission before offering physical comfort. “Due to the physical nature of sexual assault, you may want to ask for an invitation for a hug (or for you to sit near them, hold their hand, etc.), adds Friedman-Gell. “Some victims of sexual assault may find any touch to be re-traumatizing. Don’t be afraid to ask, how can I best support you?”
Reminding them that the sexual assault was not their fault is also vital here. “Self-blame is a common response in order to have some control over what happened, but sexual assault is not the person’s fault. It is helpful to offer to go with the person to any medical care, counseling, or legal appointments so that they do not have to go alone,” Daino chimes in.
Robinson expresses to thank your loved one or friend for telling you, and be sure to check in on how you can be supportive. Dr. Jebreel concurs and mentions, “Periodically ask if they need anything new from you.” This lets them know that you are there for them, without infringing on their potential need for space or crossing any boundaries.
How To Support A Survivor of Sexual Assault: Educate Yourself
“We hear time and again from survivors that the support they receive from those they’re closest to can have a huge impact on their healing,” says Heather Drevna, vice president of communications at RAINN. In addition to learning and recognizing some of the signs mentioned earlier, gently let the survivor know that there is help and valuable resources available to them, when they’re ready. “Encouraging your friend or loved one to get support from a therapist and/or support group either in person or online is really important,” Daino explains. “Knowing that they are not alone in their experience is crucial.” The below resources can be helpful for both you and your loved one:
- RAINN (National Sexual Assault Hotline) (800.656.HOPE)
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC)
- The Trevor Project
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
How To Support A Survivor Of Sexual Assault: Avoid Invalidating Phrases
No matter how well intentioned, one might find themselves saying the wrong thing when discussing something traumatic and serious like sexual abuse. Morin emphasizes avoiding sayings like, “I know exactly how you feel.” She explains: “The truth is, you don't know exactly what the person is feeling. Also, don’t minimize what happened with saying things like, ‘At least it wasn't worse.’” This can invalidate what the person is feeling.
It’s paramount to respect your loved one’s survival journey — they have their own, individual path to healing. “People [mistakenly create] a timeline for healing and rush the process,” says Daino. “Each person's recovery from sexual assault is unique, and it is important not to pressure the person to be ‘better already.’”
Jebreel tells TZR, “don’t correct your friend or loved one’s experience.” She elaborates that questioning what happened or doubting their motive can be further detrimental to their wellbeing, when they are already feeling helpless. Robinson agrees that, “It can be very hurtful when someone a survivor trusts reacts in an unsupportive way.”
Of course, avoiding blaming or shaming of the survivor is crucial here as well. Dr. Barron says to steer clear of making excuses for the perpetrator, and saying things such as, “they must have been drunk,” “they would never hurt you,” or interrogating the survivor’s consent. “Don’t place your own judgement on the type of assault they endured,” she says. “Being assaulted by a friend, spouse, or partner can be just as damaging as that by a stranger. This may sound like common sense, but we hear survivors reporting these terribly unhelpful comments from loved ones all too often.”
How To Support A Survivor of Sexual Assault: Know When To Give Space
“It may be necessary to give the survivor of sexual assault some space as they work on their recovery,” says Daino. “Sometimes they want to step back, and not be focused on talking about their recovery with you and that's OK. Follow their lead.” Morin agrees and adds “the other person may have someone else they can talk to, and they may not want to share the information with you.”
As a supportive friend or caretaker, unexpected feelings of anger, anxiety, sadness, guilt, or confusion may also arise. Check in with yourself, and be mindful of your own needs. Both Morin and Jebreel agree hearing about the assault might be too upsetting or at times overwhelming. If you need to step back, offer alternative resources or a time that is good for you to be available to your loved one or friend. “You might say, “I don't feel like I'm qualified to help you with this, but I'll help you find someone who can assist,” says Morin.
Taking care of a sexual assault survivor may elicit your own triggers, especially if you’ve also dealt with sexual abuse. It’s imperative to take care of yourself so you can be there for them when they need you. Be keenly self-aware of your own limitations — not everyone can be an emotional support to someone who’s experienced trauma. And that’s OK.