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Support after witnessing rape or sexual assault

If you were there when someone else was raped or sexually assaulted or abused, you might be feeling some difficult and complicated emotions. You might also be unsure of what actions you should take. We are here to help and support you.

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Please remember: wherever you are and however you’re feeling, sexual violence and abuse is ALWAYS the fault of the perpetrator or perpetrators. If you couldn’t or didn’t act, you are not to blame for what happened.

Has something just happened? If so, you might want to keep reading. If not, you might want to skip this next bit.

If something has just happened

You might want to:

Assess the situation

  • Try to work out if you, the other person or anyone else is in any immediate danger.
  • If so, and it feels safe to do so, you should contact the emergency services by calling 999.
  • You could also try asking someone close by for help.

Offer help to the victim or survivor

  • If no one is in immediate danger and it feels safe to do so, try offering help to the person who was attacked.
  • You could ask them if they are ok or if they would like you to help them leave the place you’re in.
  • You could also tell them that, if they’d like to report what happened to someone, you’re happy to say what you saw.
Support Line

Any of these actions could make a huge difference to a victim or survivor so never think it's too late to help.

Look after yourself

  • Try to get somewhere that feels safe.
  • Try to stay warm (you could be in shock).
  • See if a friend or someone you trust can be with you or stay with you on the phone.
  • Talk to someone about what’s happened. Find out how you can talk to us.
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At Rape Crisis, we will listen to you and believe you. And we will never judge.

How you might be affected by witnessing sexual violence or abuse

Seeing or hearing someone else being sexually abused or raped, or experiencing another form of sexual violence, can affect you in lots of different ways.

However, everyone responds to something like that differently. And it’s important to remember that there is no right or wrong way to be or to feel.

Feelings and emotions

It’s common to feel a range of different – and often complicated – emotions after seeing or hearing sexual violence or abuse happening to another person.

You might feel:

  • angry, 'moody' or short-tempered
  • ashamed or ‘dirty’
  • embarrassed or humiliated
  • guilty or somehow to blame
  • scared
  • unable to trust
  • lonely or alone
  • numb or empty
  • worthless
  • anxious, panicked or worried
  • uneasy
  • hopeless
  • low or ‘down’
  • stressed
  • tired or exhausted
  • depressed
  • upset or tearful
  • ‘on edge’
  • like you might be sick
  • like it's difficult to breathe
  • overwhelmed
  • like you can’t cope or it’s hard to cope
  • ‘slow’ – both mentally and physically
  • groggy, foggy or ‘spaced out’
  • confused or unsure about what happened or what you’re feeling
  • suicidal
  • uninterested in sex and/or intimacy, or scared or disgusted by it

If you’ve read our ‘Impacts of sexual violence’ page, you might recognise this list – we included it on that page too. That’s because the feelings you can have after seeing or hearing sexual violence or abuse happening to someone else are sometimes similar to those you can have after experiencing it yourself.

In this way, someone who has seen or heard sexual violence or abuse happening to another person can also be a victim or survivor of that sexual violence or abuse themselves.

However, we know that not everyone might feel comfortable with calling themselves a ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’. At Rape Crisis, we use words that feel meaningful for you.

If you are experiencing difficult feelings, you can talk to us. Or, we have tips to help you identify and work through them yourself.

Guilt, shame and self-blame

It’s very common to feel guilty, ashamed or to blame after being present during sexual violence or abuse. You might think that you should have done something to stop it. Or somehow acted differently. 

Self-blaming thoughts might start like this:

  • ‘I should have…’
  • ‘I shouldn’t have…’
  • ‘If I had only… then it wouldn’t have happened.’
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BUT, it’s really important to remember that 100% of the blame, shame and responsibility for sexual violence and abuse lies with the perpetrator/s. If you were there and either couldn’t or didn’t act, it still wasn’t your fault.

It’s really common for people who are experiencing fear to find themselves unable to move or speak. If this happened to you when you saw or heard the sexual violence or abuse taking place, please know that this reaction was automatic. In other words, it wasn’t something you could control. You can read more about how our bodies respond to fear here.

If you find yourself having self-blaming thoughts, we also have some strategies that might help you to challenge them.

Trauma

For some people, seeing or hearing sexual violence or abuse happening to another person is a traumatic event. These are events that are very stressful, scary or upsetting. They can cause lasting harm to someone’s mental, emotional and physical health.

There are many reasons why you might have found being present during sexual violence or abuse very stressful, scary or upsetting. For example:

  • If you were a child or vulnerable emotionally, mentally or physically.
  • If you were scared of the perpetrator/s.
  • If you thought the perpetrator/s might also harm you.
  • If you wanted to act but didn’t or couldn’t.
  • If you felt alone, trapped or like there was no one who could help you.
  • If it has made you feel that certain people or situations are no longer safe or that you can no longer trust them – or that something like that could happen to you in the future.
  • If you knew the victim or survivor – even if you weren’t close to them.
  • Or because you were seeing another human being suffering.

However, not everyone finds the same experiences traumatic. And not everyone's mind and body responds to trauma in the same way.

So, if you don’t feel traumatised by what you saw or heard then that doesn’t make you a ‘bad’ person. Everybody is different and that’s completely okay.

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All of our member Rape Crisis Centres provide trauma-informed support and services. This means that all of their staff and volunteers have specialist training in how people might feel and be affected after sexual violence or abuse – and what they might need to help them recover. Find your nearest Centre.

Trauma responses

The effects of trauma can be mental, emotional and physical.

Some people experience these effects soon after the traumatic event. But others might not experience them until a long time after.

You can find out more about some of the common responses to trauma on our 'Impacts of sexual violence' page.

We are here if you need to talk. You are not alone.