If you’re supporting a victim or survivor of sexual violence or abuse then you might be worried about saying or doing ‘the wrong thing’. Or you might be worried that accepting what’s happened to them could lead to ‘more problems’.
Because of this, it might be tempting to say or do nothing – or pretend it hasn’t happened. But, for lots of victims and survivors, that’s the worst thing you can do.
Of course, every victim and survivor is different, and not everyone will want or need the same things. But, in our experience, the following dos and don’ts are a good place to start.
Are you supporting a victim or survivor who self-harms? Find information here.
The most important thing you can do for a victim or survivor is to listen to them and believe what they are saying. And then let them tell you what they need.
What they are saying might be very difficult or upsetting for you to hear. But it’s important to show them that you’re really listening.
You should also try not to interrupt – even though you might have a lot of questions.
Do believe them
You might wish that what they were telling you wasn’t true, but it’s really important to make it clear that you believe them. For many people, not being believed can feel like a huge betrayal and might stop them from telling anyone else or trying to get help.
Do remember that it’s not their fault
100% of the blame, shame and responsibility for sexual violence and abuse lies with the perpetrator or perpetrators. And victims and survivors should never be blamed or made to feel guilty for what happened to them.
Many people will already be struggling with feelings of shame, guilt and self-blame – so it’s important to let them know that they don’t need to feel this way.
Do recognise how tough it might have been for them to tell you
It can be very hard for victims and survivors to talk about what happened to them. For lots of people, having to go back over an experience of sexual violence or abuse is upsetting and painful – which is one of the reasons why it takes some people a long time to tell anyone. Some victims and survivors also feel ashamed or guilty. Or worry that they’ll be judged, blamed or not believed.
If someone has managed to talk about their experience, let them know you understand how hard it might have been for them.
Do let them stay in control
Sexual violence or abuse of any kind can make a person feel powerless or like they’ve lost control. So, for many victims and survivors, it’s important to feel in charge of their own lives again.
If you hear that someone you care about has been hurt, it can be tempting to try to take charge and ‘fix’ it. But, it’s important to not ‘take over’ or make decisions for the other person unless they ask you too. Instead, support them to:
- Work through their feelings.
- Explore their options.
- Make their own decisions.
Do respect their decisions
There’s no right or wrong way to be or to feel after sexual violence or abuse – and only a victim or survivor can really know what’s best for them. So, try not to ignore or judge their decisions, even if they’re not the ones you think you’d make. Otherwise, you could end up losing their trust or upsetting them even more.
Do be patient – and respect their boundaries
Many victims and survivors find it difficult to trust people because of their experiences – especially if they’ve been let down or not believed by others they’ve told in the past. So, if someone’s put their trust in you by telling you what happened to them, it’s important not to betray that trust. Be patient and try not to push them to tell you more – or to do anything else – before they’re ready.
Remember: there’s no timeline for ‘getting over’ sexual violence or abuse. And there’s no ‘to-do’ list that needs to be checked off. No one should be pressured into doing something before they are ready.
If it’s your partner who’s experienced sexual violence or abuse – either recently or in the past – they might find intimacy and sexual contact difficult. Sometimes, they might not want you to touch them or be close to them. Other times, they might want extra physical comfort from you. Try to not take this personally or get upset – it’s not about you but about what happened to them.
Don't ask them why they didn’t say anything sooner
There are lots of reasons why victims and survivors might not tell anyone what happened to them straight away – or even soon after. For example, they might...
- Have tried to tell someone about it before and been ignored or not believed.
- Have been threatened by the perpetrator – or be scared of them finding out.
- Be scared or worried about other people finding out.
- Feel ashamed or guilty.
- Be worried that they’ll be judged, blamed or not believed.
- Be worried about the impact it could have on their relationships with family, friends or colleagues.
- Want to pretend it didn’t happen or have ‘blocked’ it out.
Don't judge them for anything they did before the sexual violence or abuse
There is never any excuse for rape or any other form of sexual violence or abuse. 100% of the blame, shame and responsibility always lies with the perpetrator or perpetrators. And all victims and survivors deserve support.
So, it doesn’t matter what someone was doing before it happened or during – whether they were drinking, had taken drugs, were wearing certain clothes, were out late at night, were flirting with the perpetrator or anything else. It has nothing to do with what happened to them.
Don't ask them why they didn’t try to run away or fight back
It’s very common for people who experience rape or another form of sexual violence or abuse to find that that they cannot move or speak. This is one of the bodies’ automatic responses to fear and does in no way mean that they consented to what was happening – or are in any way to blame.
Some perpetrators also use manipulation, threats or other tactics to control their victims. Or to scare them into being quiet and doing what they tell them to do. Always remember: if the victim or survivor didn’t consent then it was sexual violence or abuse.
Don't judge them for how they’ve responded to the sexual violence or abuse
There’s no ‘right’ way to react to being raped or experiencing another form of sexual violence or abuse. Everyone responds differently and all responses are completely valid.
So, it’s important to be accepting of the way they are reacting, even if it’s not how you think you would respond if you were in their shoes. Or how you might have seen in films or on TV.
Don't tell anyone else without their permission
As we’ve already mentioned, victims and survivors can find it difficult to trust people because of their experiences. So, it’s important that you don’t betray their trust by telling someone else what happened to them without their okay.
Caring for yourself: supporting a victim or survivor can be really hard and you might find it impacts your life and wellbeing too. Remember that it’s okay to take time and space for yourself sometimes. Why not try out some of these self-care activities?
Supporting a victim or survivor who self-harms
If a victim or survivor has told you they're self-harming, it's important to try to do the following:
- Stay calm – but take them seriously. It's a myth that people self-harm for 'attention'. In reality, many people who self-harm try to hide it.
- Understand that it's a coping method – and doesn't automatically mean that they are suicidal. In fact, for many people, it's the opposite. They want to live and this is their way of trying to manage very difficult emotions.
- Don't force them to stop straight away, without helping them to find another way of dealing with the difficult emotions they are experiencing. These emotions will not just magically disappear because they stop self-harming. So, forcing them to stop before they're ready can be dangerous.
- Depending on your relationship, tell them that you love them or care about them, and are there to support them.
- Help them to explore why they self-harm and find some safer options for managing their emotions.