How can I help someone who has been sexually assaulted or raped?
17. March 2014
If someone has told you that they have been raped or sexually assaulted, it’s likely to have been one of the hardest things they have ever had to say. It may have taken them weeks, months or even years to feel able to talk to anyone about what has happened.
Most people have little experience of helping someone through a traumatic event such as a sexual assault or rape, so it’s normal to feel unsure about what to do. What is important is that you care enough about that person to want to help.
- Be patient.
- Listen to them.
- Ask them how you can help: you might have ideas about what they should or shouldn’t be doing but it’s important to allow them to come to their own decisions without feeling pressurised.
- Give them time: as well as listening, you need to remain patient. Try to resist asking them about the details of the assault because they might not feel ready to talk about it. If they don’t feel ready to talk about their experience, you may want to suggest that they write it down to help them ‘get it out’ and begin to make sense of what has happened to them.
- Give them space: knowing when to give someone space is vital. An important part of their healing process will be to regain a sense of control over their life, so allow them to do this as much as you can.
- Avoid taking over: respect their decisions and never plan their recovery for them. Only they know how they feel, so it’s important they’re allowed to recover at their own pace. You could help them find useful information but don’t insist on them doing anything or speaking to anyone they don’t want to - for example, the police, their GP or a support service (see Support and Advice). Trust is important, so never break your promise of confidentiality.
- Reassure them: when they feel confident enough to talk to you about what happened, remember to reassure them. Tell them that you believe them and reinforce that they’re not to blame for what happened.
- Be consistent: being supportive over a long time is very important.
Take care of yourself too. If someone you know has been raped, you are likely to be affected by it in some way - for example, you may feel upset, angry or helpless.
Talking to a counsellor can help you understand your own reaction to what has happened and enable you to support your friend more effectively.
After a traumatic experience, it’s normal for people to have difficult and distressing symptoms. Recognising these symptoms may help you support them. Common symptoms include:
- intrusive memories of what happened
- feeling like it’s happening again (flashbacks)
- anxiety, including feeling panicky or jumpy
- anger and irritability
- sleep problems and nightmares
- avoidance and withdrawal
- depression and low mood
- shame and guilt
- behavourial changes: the person’s eating habits may change, they may be ill or have other physical symptoms
Following a sexual assault or rape, different people will react in different ways. A person may experience a variety of feelings and emotions for a long time after the assault.
They may find that talking to a counsellor or clinical psychologist is helpful. However, only they will know when they’re ready to speak to a therapist, so don’t pressure them into it. Let them decide who they want to confide in.
Helping a partner
If your partner has been sexually assaulted or raped, it will almost certainly have an impact on you and your relationship. There are things you can do to help you both get through this difficult time together such as:
- believe them
- be patient
- allow them to tell you what has happened in their own time, without pressuring them for details
- respect their decisions, even if you don’t agree with them
- take responsibility for looking after yourself and how you’re feeling; your partner is unable to do this at the moment
- ask them how you can help
Your partner is likely to have some or all of the symptoms and feelings listed above. Many people don’t want to be touched by or to be intimate with their partner after an assault.
Ask your partner what they do and don’t feel comfortable with and respect their wishes. If sexual difficulties last for a long time after an assault, you and your partner may want to consider seeing a psychosexual therapist. Speak to your GP or you could contact your nearest Rape Crisis Centre, which can provide a range of confidential support and specialist support services to people who have been affected by sexual violence.
You may be struggling to cope with what has happened and how you’re feeling. If this is the case, it’s important that you seek help for yourself. It’s common for people who have been assaulted to worry about how their partners are coping and to not want to upset them, so it will help them to know that you are being supported too.
Support and advice
There are several support organisations that can help you deal with rape or sexual assault. Rape Crisis Centres can be found in the UK and Ireland - Rape and Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCS) also offer medical, practical and emotional support to anyone who has been sexually assaulted or raped.