As a Supporter… What do I Need to Know ?
A woman close to you was a victim of sexual assault recently or in the past? You need to know that sexual assault is a severe, traumatic event that attacks a person’s physical and psychological integrity. Distressing memories can surface at any time, days, months even years after. The support of family members, close relatives, friends and counsellors plays an important role in the recovery process of the sexual assault victim.
You must know that sexual assault is often experienced as a betrayal, especially if the perpetrator was someone she knew, loved and with whom she was close. A woman who was sexually assaulted needs to be able to trust the people she confides in. She was sufficiently betrayed and not shown any respect without adding to the list other people who do not respect her.
In many cases, the victim is only waiting for one thing to open up: someone to reach out to her. It can also be that she herself decides to talk to someone she trusts. Once the silence and isolation are broken, she starts to see a way out. The reactions from people around her are very important.
Facing the traumatic experience of a person who was sexually assaulted can be emotionally difficult to deal with.
You need to know that, as a supporter, you may feel :
Troubled, shocked, disgusted, devastated, inadequate, powerless, guilty of not giving enough support to the other person, guilty of questionning your commitment as a supporter, guilty of not having prevented the assault, frustrated by the time she takes to recover, threatened, trapped, attacked, blamed, stressed, confused, desperate, helpless, disturbed by memories that can reappear from your own family history, etc.
Certain things can be harder for you to hear. This is legitimate. You may feel compassion or sadness for her suffering.
Having been confided such an event is not easy to take on alone. If you feel the need to talk to someone, do not hesitate to contact a resource that offers support to sexual assault victims. Generally, they also offer services to relatives and loved ones. Do not forget that it is also important that you take care of yourself.
If some of your reactions can be helpful for a victim of sexual assault, others can be harmful. Here is a list of important elements to help you in your role of supporter :
Listen to what the victim has to say without passing judgment. Have a nonverbal « listening » approach: good eye contact, open posture, etc. Let her express herself in her own words, in her own way, at her own pace. Victims may have a need to tell their story more than once before feeling free. If the perpetrator was a parent, the victim can feel love towards him, and at the same time, anger. She must be able to make up her own mind without you intervening. In all circumstances, be patient.
Croyez ce que la victime vous dit. Ne banalisez pas l’importance de l’agression dont elle a été victime, même si la réalité n’est pas belle à voir et à entendre. C’est son vécu et sa perception. Vous devez vous centrer sur ce qu’elle dit et vit.
Acknowledge what the victim says without minimizing or exaggerating the facts, emotions or consequences. If you do not take her feelings seriously, you are not helping her. Try to stay as calm as possible.
Alleviate the guilt
Make the victim understand that the sexual assault was in no way her fault. The perpetrator is entirely responsible for his actions. Remember that sexual assault is unacceptable and criminal. Her responsibility is to take care of herself.
Validate her emotions
Help the victim express what she feels by reassuring her that her reactions, her emotions and her feelings (anger, resentment, guilt, low self-esteem) are normal.
Let the victim know you are available if she needs to talk or needs accompaniment. If it is impossible for you to be supportive, it is important to tell her and help her find another person who will be able to do so. Focus your intervention on the victim, take care of her protection and avoid reacting too intensively as this could have a negative impact and cause the victim to remain silent. Be respectful of her ambivalence.
You have to be supportive of the way the victim intends to deal with her problems. Do not try to direct what she is doing; she could feel you are trying to control her life. She needs to decide if she will get help, join a support group or file a complaint against the perpetrator. Your role is to support her in these important decisions and accompany her, if needed, in her medical, social and judicial proceedings.
Encourage her strength
Back up the victim’s positive steps forward. Emphasize her strenght and courage to talk about it. Help build up her self-esteem by pointing out her qualities and by helping her live
positive experiences, successes and achievements.
Avoid taking charge
You could have a tendency to take charge of the victim because she has suffered a lot, because you believe she is fragile and vulnerable. Taking charge is harmful. It encourages victimization and discourages autonomy. The victim must learn to believe in herself and to nurture herself. She must understand that though she is a victim and is suffering, this does not give her every right and does not cut her off from all her resources. She must learn to set limits and respect those of others; she must learn to see herself as a fighter, a survivor and not as a victim.
Help her reclaim her autonomy
Help the victim take back control of her life while you remain in the picture. Encourage her to make decisions and to get back to her normal level of activity.
Respect the confidentiality
It was difficult for the victim to open up about it. The fact that she chose you is a big proof of her trust, do not deceive her… respect the confidentiality.
As a supporter, some situations can affect you in a more particular way depending on your relationship with the victim. The revelation of sexual violence within your family or your couple can throw your personal and family life into turmoil.