When people are victimized by sexual violence (sexual assault, rape/date rape, sexual abuse, incest), they react differently: there is no right or wrong way.
While we might assume or expect that a victim/survivor will cry and become depressed, some people become numb and push their emotions to the side. The best support strategy is to accept the way the person is behaving and feeling, even though it could be different from the way you might respond. Remind the person that they have survived something awful, that there is no blame or fault on their part, that you believe them, and that they can count on your support.
Communication – Let the survivor speak as much or as little as they want. Listen carefully and patiently. Don’t press for details, even if you are curious. Remember that your role is to provide support, not therapy. Since you will be listening and responding to potentially painful information, it’s important for you to take care of yourself, and for you to access the support of friends and family.
Decision Making – We always encourage survivors to experience personal control through choices and their own decision-making. For instance, it is their decision whether or not to receive counseling or to talk to the SVU detective. If they don’t want to do either of these, you could get really frustrated, but know that ultimately these are personal choices that invite their decision. Feel free to offer information, suggestions, and resources (such as WOAR’s Hotline), but also allow them space to chart their own course.
Survivors’ Emotions – It might seem like a roller coaster: rapid changes of sadness, anger, avoidance, numbness/withdrawal, anxiety. Sometimes people ‘stuff’ strong, negative emotions. Even when things are going well, we know how easy it is to judge others and make assumptions about how one “should” feel. For instance, don’t assume that because the survivor isn’t crying or visibly upset, that emotional distress or pain are absent.
Your Emotions – Be careful what emotions you express… although you may be filled with anger or rage about what happened, realize that if you strongly express that to the survivor, the person may feel that you are upset with her or him. Make sure that you utilize your own support system: to be a strong support, you need support.
Is the abuser is known? It is not uncommon for the survivor to know the perpetrator: family member, friend, a date, or a lover. This often creates mixed emotions on the survivor’s part, so be careful. In general, we think it’s ok to condemn the perpetrator’s behavior, but not to condemn the person. The survivor will need to sort out their feelings toward the person. This takes time, and sometimes professional help is useful.
Legal System – Do not make promises about the perpetrator going to jail. The court processes can take a long time: it’s a process that you cannot predict or control. Please refer to Court & Legal Information for more information about this,
Relationships & Intimacy – Be patient! A survivor may not feel comfortable with sex or emotional intimacy for a long time. Some sexual acts may remind them of the attack. They may experience a decreased interest in sex. Honest, caring communication is important. Let the survivor know that you are there when they are ready: one step at a time. Regarding sex, ask what they feel comfortable doing or talking about. Take things slowly.
Counseling – It’s often good to encourage the survivor to get support and counseling, but remember that these are highly personal decisions. For couples: you can consider couple’s counseling to better understand and manage how the assault is affecting your relationship.
A terrific book that explores these themes is: If She is Raped: A guidebook for husbands, fathers and male friends by Alan McEvoy & Jeff Brookings.