Supporting Survivors of Abuse – How you can help

Download the leaflet ‘Supporting Survivors of Sexual Violence’ as a pdf

Most victims of sexual violence choose to tell someone close to them, who they feel safe enough to disclose about abuse which they have experienced, they believe that you are trust-worthy, will believe them and will not tell others without speaking to them about it first. As a ‘safe’ person to tell, you are a woman’s most important source of support.

Whether you are helping someone cope with the immediate trauma of a recent experience or someone coming to terms with sexual abuse suffered as a child, you are very important to them. It is important, therefore, that you see yourself as important here and take care of yourself and your own needs. The victim is not going to get over the trauma quickly, so you need to pace yourself in terms of how much time and energy you can realistically offer the woman whom you are supporting. Consistency over a long period is more important than sitting up all night for a week and setting up expectations that you will always be able to ‘be there’ for her.

Similarly, remember that she is not ‘rejecting’ you if she chooses to seek help elsewhere, such as from a counsellor. When someone is in shock, grieving or traumatised, they will not look after themselves very well; they can be overwhelmed with painful emotions and negative thoughts. You need to be able to feel calm and be ‘real’. Hot drinks, food, vitamins, treats and a hand to hold may be all the person needs from you. Victims have had their minds and bodies invaded; they may have difficulties in sleeping, eating, and bathing, relaxing and not least with sexual or intimate contact. It may take time for these activities to become normalised as every day life; any support you can offer in this process can add a lot to their sense of security and self-respect.

Many people are afraid of saying or doing ‘the wrong thing’, or of ‘damaging’ someone further because they ‘do not know enough’ about sexual violence. It is important to remember that you do not have to be an expert, you are not dealing with a ‘strange disease’. If you are prepared to listen, the woman concerned will be able to guide you in what she needs.

You may feel traumatised, confused, overwhelmed, or a range of feelings about what has happened, you may feel: angry, helpless, guilty, scared, upset, nervous. These feelings are natural, it is important that you deal with these away from the victim, try not to dump them on her. Talk to a friend or someone whom you can trust, with permission from the victim of course, arrange to get support from agencies near you.

Victims are often afraid of how other people will react to what has happened to them, they may fear not being believed, embarrassment, having their experiences minimised or trivialised, even fear rejection. Women often fear well-meaning, but ignorant questions such as:

  • “Why didn’t you tell me before now?”
  • “Why didn’t you scream?”
  • “Why didn’t you tell someone?”
  • “Why don’t you report it to the police?”
  • “Why did you (encourage him / wear that skirt / walk that route / etc.)?”

If you do not understand why a victim is behaving in a particular way, or is reacting the way she is now, remember that this is your problem, not hers. Do not badger her with questions or ask her questions, which you are not sure, whether she will want to answer; read a book instead.The woman may have her own questions about what has happened to her and may want to explore these with you. It is very important that she makes up her own mind and finds her own truth about what has happened to her and makes her own decisions from it. Sexual abuse and violence leaves women with feelings of powerlessness and loss of control about their lives. It is important that people do not take over, without consulting with the woman about what she needs in the situation. Confronting the perpetrator, phoning the police, or making a medical appointment ‘on her behalf’ may make matters worse, you can best help by listening to her and asking her or checking out what she wants; do not tell her what you believe she ought to do; explore her options with her.

No two people are the same and reactions to rape and sexual abuse are as varied as they are to bereavement. It is likely, however, that whatever her experience, at some point she feared for her life and that she will feel numb after the attack, ‘cut off’, in shock or even hysterical; she may appear perfectly calm and unaffected; she may fear that she is ‘going mad’; these are all normal ways for a woman to process what has happened to her. Other effects may be flashbacks or panic attacks. Her behaviour may change: her eating habits may alter, she may feel the need to wash repeatedly. She may vomit or have other physical symptoms. All of these problems are alleviated by being able to talk about them; repetition of the trauma is common – try to be patient.

Victims whose story has not been believed by others may find it very difficult to trust anyone else and may resist talking about their experiences. Do not take this as your not being ‘good enough’ to trust, be patient and encourage her gently, do not push her. If you feel the need to press her, ask yourself why you ‘need to know’ now. Her apparently frozen state will not last forever.

As time passes, a woman may go through emotional and psychological change. She may be adding to her trauma by blaming herself and tormenting herself with ‘what ifs’ or about her behaviour before, during and/or after what has happened. Remind her at these times that it is never a woman’s fault that she has been violated, it was the attackers decision to act in the way he did. Rape is never ‘asked for’ and it can be hard for a woman to face just how powerless she was in the abusive situation. Thinking that she could have done something different is a way of a woman ‘problem solving’ so that they can protect themselves in the future. These are complex issues, which can sometimes require specialist support. Manchester Rape Crisis Centre can help.

The changes which she goes through as a result of the trauma may be difficult for you to keep up with, it is important that you talk to someone in confidence at these times, or you may become too stressed to deal with what is happening with her. It is important to get support for yourself. Carers need carers too. Resist any request to be ‘sworn to secrecy’, you may need to talk to someone at some point, be honest about his with her.