Supporting a Survivor
The way you respond to a friend or a family member who has been raped or sexually abused is crucial to a survivor’s wellbeing. This section describes some of the feelings you may deal with in learning about the rape, and how you can support a survivor.
When someone tells you they have been raped or sexually abused
- Be clear that you believe her.
- Express you are sorry to hear that has happened to her.
- Say how good it is she told someone, that you appreciate that may have been a big deal for her.
- Let her know it’s not her fault. Avoid questions like: “Why were you…?” “How come..?” or “What were you…?”
- You may use phrases like “it is very normal that you feel that way”, “no one deserves to have something like this happen to them”
- Always allow the survivor to make their own choices and decisions, even if you think you know what is best for her.
- Let her express her feelings at her own pace – she may need to cry, or simply sit in silence.
- Avoid thinking you know how she is feeling – let her tell her story and name what is going on for her. She may be affected in ways that you didn’t expect or you don’t think are ‘normal’. That is ok.
- Explain that there are a lot of different support agencies that can provide support and assistance.
- Always keep what the survivor has told you confidential, unless she is in danger.
- Make sure she is safe - if she is in danger it is important to contact the appropriate agency to ensure that she is safe. But tell the person you are supporting first, so that you don’t break her trust.
It’s the survivor, not you, that needs to control her life. Rape takes away a woman’s control. Survivors need to be allowed to begin the process of regaining that control. While you may think that supporting your friend means sparing them the trouble of making any decisions, it’s better to provide her with information and time to make her own decisions.
One of the most important decisions a woman may have to make after being raped is whether or not to report it to the police. Family and friends may press a survivor to report the rape, or phone the police for her. It is much more helpful in this situation to find out what the process involves, tell her about it, and talk with her about whether or not she wants to report, leaving the decisions up to her.
Be careful with your anger. It’s natural to be angry at the survivor’s rapist. Be careful that this anger is not misinterpreted as anger at the survivor. The only person responsible for the rape is the rapist. Make sure your anger does not add to the survivor’s trauma. If you threaten the rapist, for example, it can lead her to worry about what might happen to you if you carry out the threat.
You are not responsible for the rape. It is possible that you will feel guilty about something you may or may not have done in the time leading up to the rape. The rape is the responsibility of the rapist. Blaming yourself will only make the survivor feel guilty for bringing that pain to you.
It is natural to feel helpless and overwhelmed. But there is support for the survivor and for you. Look after the survivor’s physical needs, let her know you are there for her, and let her know what support is available to her. Support and information for friends and family are available from a number of places, including Wellington Rape Crisis.
Recovery may be a long process. It is natural to just want your friend to feel better. However, rape is a traumatic experience which may take a long time to recover from. It can affect how survivors see or behave in the world. It is important that you, as a friend or relative, do not treat the survivor any differently than before the rape. If you are doing so, you need to take responsibility for that and be clear to her about why you have changed. If you feel that the survivor herself has changed, then it is important that you discuss those changes with her and accept them.
Take care of yourself. Survivors may need to talk to someone about the rape and about their feelings. If you are that person, then it is important that you listen and empathise with what she is saying. If your concern for your friend leads to anxiety and stress, or if it brings up painful memories of a similar experience for you, it’s important to seek support for yourself from us or another agency. If you feel unable to provide the woman with the support she needs for any reason, it is important that you recognise this, let her know, and discuss alternative options, such as other friends, relatives, Wellington Rape Crisis, or other agencies. It can also be difficult if someone you care about who has experienced rape or sexual abuse does not wish to turn to you for support, at least for now. We can also help you work through those feelings.