Rape and sexual abuse can happen to anyone regardless of their age, gender, race, religion, culture or social status. It’s important to note that everyone will react differently to their individual experiences. This guide will attempt to help you support a survivor of rape or sexual abuse. If you feel that you would benefit from some one-to-one support for yourself then Trust House offers counselling services for family and friends of survivors. You can also phone our helpline on 0118 9584033 for information, emotional support, signposting and referrals.
It can help to understand some of the effects of rape and sexual abuse. These can include emotional, psychological and physical conditions. Please be mindful that not everyone will suffer from all of these effects – the mix, severity and complexity will vary for each individual.
The following list includes some of the effects now being recognised and acknowledged as the consequences of childhood sexual abuse, sexual violence or rape on many victims and survivors.
Post-Traumatic Stress symptoms:
Irritability and outbursts of anger
Suicidal thoughts and suicide
Alcohol misuse and dependence
Sexual problems and confusion about sexuality
Self-injury and self-harming behaviour
Transient psychotic episodes
Borderline Personality Disorder
Dissociative Identity Disorder
Somatisation – Emotional distress experienced as physical pain
Increased rates of physical conditions like heart disease and cancer
Criminal behaviour (including, for a small minority, sexual offences)
Lack of confidence
How you can offer support
Trust and belief
Believe the survivor – this is extremely important as a way of showing your support. Sometimes what we hear from survivors may sound unbelievable, but this does not mean it is not true.
Demonstrate that you can be trusted – be consistent with what you can offer and only make offers or commitments that you know you will be able to keep.
Sometimes survivors just need someone to listen to them. Let them know that you are there if they need to talk but don’t force them if they don’t want to or press them for details of their experience(s).
Ask them what they need / want from you and how you can help to meet their needs. Give them time to think about what their needs are.
Respect their privacy
Respect the time and space it takes to heal
Respect their strength and courage as a survivor
Recognise the harm that has been done and the variety of feelings and emotions the survivor may be feeling (anger, depression, fear, for example). Give them the opportunity to express these feelings, allow them to cry, shout or just be silent.
Let them know that these feelings are natural reactions. Don’t be dismissive. You should seek professional help if they say they’re feeling suicidal.
Encourage them to discuss their options with you and look for support. Let them know what support you’re able to offer and where you can’t provide what they need, help them to find out what other options and resources are available (such as counselling services).
Help to empower them to make their own choices and decisions. This can allow them to feel that they are in control of their life again (where their experience may have made them feel overpowered and helpless). Don’t force them to do anything they are unsure of or do not want to do.
Offer practical support. They may want someone to accompany them on the journey to work, or someone to stay with them at home. If they decide to report to the police, you could offer to go with them and support them through the criminal justice process. If the event occurred recently and the survivor is considering reporting to the police (either now or in the future), you could offer to go with them to their GP, or the SARC (Sexual Assault Referral Centre) for the collection of forensic evidence. Please see our page on SARCs for more information.
Remember to support and look after yourself. If you’re feeling out of your depth, then you could speak to them about accessing our ISVA (Independent Sexual Violence Advisor) service.
If you’re the partner of a survivor, it’s important to understand that their needs or desires may have changed. Try to be patient and talk to them about their feelings. They may not want any physical contact including non-sexual forms of intimacy such as cuddling or holding hands or they may prefer this to having sexual intercourse for a time. Reassure them that it’s ok to say “no” to you.
The survivor may be able to continue their sexual relationship with you as before. If so, let them control the sexual interactions – only doing what they feel safe and comfortable with.
Remember to give them time and to take things at their own pace so that they don’t feel pressured or rushed into sexual forms of contact before they’re ready.
What not to do
Don’t blame or judge them. Never say “You should have done…” or “if only you had…” or ask them why they didn’t fight back. The fault always lies with the perpetrator
Ignore it or tell them to forget about it
Take charge, tell them what to do, or make decisions on their behalf
Don’t talk about the details of the abuse, particularly if it is a recent event. If the survivor is considering reporting to the police then ask them to write down the specific details of what happened.
Don’t make promises of support that you may not be able to keep
Don’t lean on the survivor for support if you’re struggling to cope
It’s important to look after yourself and to think about your own needs. You will be sharing some upsetting and disturbing experiences and may feel a variety of emotions yourself such as anger, guilt and wanting to protect the survivor. Try to think of ways of getting support for yourself:
Talk to a friend (with permission) or identify services, such as counselling, that you can rely on for support and use them
Set limits to the amount of time you are available to talk about the rape / sexual abuse.
Plan activities you can enjoy together with the survivor that will help to sustain the relationship with no reference to the survivor’s experience.
Take some time and space for yourself (without feeling guilty). Wanting to be alone doesn’t mean that you are abandoning your partner / friend / family member or that you don’t care.