Supporting someone who discloses sexual assault
Guidance for supporting a friend or partner who discloses sexual violence
Supporting someone in these circumstances can be upsetting and stressful, especially when it is someone you love and care about so looking after yourself and asking for help is important.
The Havens can provide information to friends or family on behalf of someone who has been sexually assaulted, and can advise friends and family on sources of support for themselves.
Your friend/loved-one is trying to make sense of what has happened. It can take time but with your support you can help to ease their trauma. You do not need to be an expert or specialist to give someone the understanding and care that can help them come to terms with the assault. There are some simple things that you can do to help, which we've adapted from the Havens website:
- Listen: Listen to them and try not to ask for details. They might not want to tell you everything that happened and may find it difficult to speak about details. Let them know that you're ready to listen whenever they want to talk.
- Don't question: Don't ask why the assault happened or why they didn't stop it happening - this can sound like you blame them and add to feelings of self-blame, or to doubting themselves.
- Believe them: Reassure them that you believe what they are saying.
- Let them show how they are feeling: It can be difficult to see someone you care about experiencing upsetting emotions, however this might be a space where they trust you and feel safe and need to express emotions to not feel overwhelmed. It is often tempting to try and comfort someone and tell them not to worry, or that it's all going to be better however sometimes the best thing is to let someone know it's ok for them to cry and they're not alone.
- Ask about touching: People who have experienced a violation of their body may find touching upsetting, and might need some space. Respect their feelings, and ask them if it's ok before touching them. Our common instinct can be to give a comforting hug to someone, especially a partner or someone we're close to. It can also be upsetting for someone you love to say they don't want a hug from you. Try not to take it personally, and respect their needs at this time. If you're in a sexual relationship they might find sex distressing or frightning, and may need time. Don't put pressure on them to have sex.
- Offer practical support: is there something that they need at the moment? You could offer to come along with them to appointments or if they need to speak with their workplace, or maybe they don't feel like they can face going to the shops right now.
- Respect their decisions: People who have been assaulted have to make lots of choices - report the assault? get checked out at a clinic? ask for counselling? These can be awkward, embarassing and hard decisions for someone - but they need to make those decisions for themselves. Don't try to persuade or put pressure on them to make choices - even if you think it's the best thing for them. Don't go behind their backs or without their permission to do what you think is the right thing. Recovering from trauma is about re-building trust, so showing that you trust their choices is important.
- Let them remember: It can be uncomfortable to hear someone you care about talk about what's happened, and you may feel like forgetting might protect them (and you) from those upsetting memories. It may take some time to work through their feelings and memories. You can help by listening and being patient. Don't push them towards trying for forget or supress memories.
- It's not about you: Don't become the injured party. It can take a lot of energy to manage the overwhelming emotions and practical tasks after a sexual assault, and your friend/loved-one will need to use this energy on themselves meaning they might not have the strength to support or care for you. Seeking help and support for yourself is important - recognising that you need help can mean you have the strength to support someone else.
Guidance for staff supporting students who disclose sexual violence
Disclosing experiences of sexual violence or harassment can be very difficult. It's common for people to feel more comfortable to speak to someone they trust rather than a designated or specialist service the first time they talk about it. You may be approached because of your role as a tutor, supervisor or as pastoral/wellbeing staff. If a student has approached you for help we would encourage you to let them know about our confidential and specialist Student Support Advisers in the Student Services team.
All College staff and members of their family living with them can get free professional and confidential help from Confidential Care, the College's Employee Assistance Provider. The Confidential Care service is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can call 0800 085 4764 or contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the Confidential Care webpages for more information.
Listen don't question: Listen to them but try not to ask for details. They might not want to tell you everything that happened. Let them know that you are ready to listen whenever they want to talk.
Don't ask why the rape or sexual assault happened or why they didn't stop it happening. It can sound as if you blame them, which could feel like another attack on them.
Believe them: Believe what they are saying and tell them this.
Let them show how they're feeling: Allow them to cry whenever they need to. You might find it upsetting but it is important they are able to show their emotions.
Ask about touching: Respect their feelings about being touched by you and give them some space. Many people who have been raped or sexually assaulted don't want to be touched, especially in the days after the assault. Even a comforting hug might upset them. Ask them if it's OK, or let them make the first move.
If you are in a sexual relationship, accept they may find sex frightening at the moment. Respect their wishes and don't put any pressure on them to have sex.
Offer practical support: Try offering some practical support, such as asking them if they would like you to come with them to any appointments. You are welcome to come with them to appointments at the Havens, but staff will want to speak to them on their own during their visit so they have a chance to talk and ask questions about everything they need to.
Respect their decisions: People who have been assaulted have to make lots of choices. Report the assault? Get checked out at a clinic? Ask for counselling? These might seem easy to you but they can be awkward, embarassing and very hard for them. But they need to make these decisions themselves. Don't persuade or put pressure on them. Don't go behind their backs to do what you think is the right thing.
Let them remember: Don't tell them to forget about what has happened. It will take time for them to work through their feelings and memories. You can help by listening to them and being patient.
It's not about you: Don't become the injured party. Your friend, relative or partner needs to focus all their energy on themselves, so they may not have enough strength to support or care for you at this time.