Supporting a survivor of sexual violence can be daunting; many people are afraid of saying or doing 'the wrong thing', or of 'damaging' someone further because they 'don't know enough'. But you don't have to be an expert. If you are prepared to listen, the survivor who has confided in you will be able to guide you in what they need.
Here is some guidance to support you in supporting a survivor:
Listen: Listen, and show that you are listening, to what she or he has to say, even if it's difficult for you to hear. You might have a lot of questions but try not to interrupt.
Let them stay in control: Sexual abuse and rape can make a person feel powerless and out of control. Survivors want and deserve to feel in charge of their lives again. So it's important you resist the temptation to 'take over', for example by arranging and doing things that you think are best. Instead, support her/him to explore their feelings and options and make their own decisions. Respect those decisions, even if you don't agree with them. Doing things for a survivor (like making an appointment on their behalf without checking that it's what they want first) can end up making things worse, even when you were only trying to help.
Be patient: Many survivors find it difficult to trust others because of their experiences and especially if they've not been believed in the past. At the same time, if someone you know has told you that they were abused or raped, they've put trust in you. Try to repay that trust by being patient and don't push for them to tell you anything before they're ready. It might not be easy for them to start talking about experiences they might have stayed silent about for some time. It might be difficult because their abuser told them not to tell or threatened them. They might feel ashamed or responsible or be traumatised.
If it's your partner who has experienced sexual violence of any kind, whether recently or in the past, they might find intimacy and sexual contact difficult. Sometimes they might not even want you physically close, and other times they might seek extra physical comfort from you. Try to remember that this is not a reflection on you or your relationship; it is about your partner's experiences and feelings. Reassure them, respect their wishes and be patient.
Believe: People rarely lie about rape or sexual abuse. Why would they? It is important to believe what they are saying even if it's difficult for you to hear.
Remember it's not their fault: No-one asks to be abused, assaulted or raped. No survivor should ever be blamed for not preventing their own abuse or violence against them. The blame lies with the perpetrator.
Recognise their courage: It takes a great deal of strength and courage both to survive and to talk about experiences of sexual violence; acknowledge that.
Don't ask why they didn't say anything sooner: They might have tried to tell before and been ignored or disbelieved. They might have been threatened or been too frightened to say anything. They might have felt ashamed or blocked out events too painful to think about.
Don't judge: It is important to be accepting of the way they are reacting, even if it's not what you were expecting or not the way you think you'd respond to a similar experience. It is best to get rid of any ideas you have of how a person who has been raped should behave and to accept their reactions as their own.
Don't ask them why they didn't fight back: This will only make them feel judged and even blamed for what happened. Rape and sexual assault are terrifying experiences to which people react in different ways. It's very common to freeze when confronted with a terrifying situation, for example, or for our bodies to 'flop' or go limp.
Remember to take care of yourself as well. Supporting a survivor can be difficult and it's OK to take time and space for yourself sometimes. It's important not to betray a survivor's trust by telling others about their experiences without their permission, but you can talk confidentially to and get specialist support from your nearest Rape Crisis service.