How to Help a Sexual Abuse Survivor
It is extremely important to know how to help if a sexual abuse survivor confides in you. It takes a great deal of courage to come forward about sexual abuse and doing so could put the survivor’s wellbeing in jeopardy. Providing immediate assistance in the form of support, guidance and/or action could make all the difference. If someone tells you about sexual abuse, allow his or her voice to be heard. Demonstrate your willingness to stand up for survivors by being a source of support.
The simple act of listening to a survivor’s story and experiences could be helpful for the individual’s mental and emotional wellbeing. Survivors are too often silenced by the perpetrator, legal system, workplace, and institutions. If a survivor opens up to you, be the person that allows him or her to talk. Choose your phrases wisely to demonstrate active listening and support. Let the individual know you are here for him or her, that you sympathize with the situation and that the survivor is not alone. Keep shame, guilt or blame out of the conversation. Do not push a survivor to talk about something if he or she does not want to.
Millions of sexual abuse sufferers stay quiet about their situations for fear of not being believed. Perpetrators can use verbal or emotional abuse to make the victim feel small, useless or insignificant. This can make it even more difficult for the person to come forward about sexual abuse. If you discover the sexual abuse of a friend or family member, make it known that you believe his or her story. Tell the person you believe him or her out loud and acknowledge that it took a lot of strength to come forward. Do not ask any ‘why’ questions or try to investigate the incident. Simply play the role of listener, believer, and supporter.
Sexual abuse prevention organizations recommend listeners react to how the survivor is reacting – not to how the listener thinks he or she should be reacting. Try not to overreact or underreact to the situation. Do not shrug off a confession of sexual abuse or minimize the assault. Do not overreact, either, or turn the issue into a catastrophe if the survivor appears calm. Watch carefully how the survivor is reacting to his or her news and try to match your reaction accordingly.
Provide a Secure Environment
It is important for a sexual abuse survivor to feel safe and secure while coming forward with an abuse allegation. Providing a comfortable and safe environment in which to talk to a survivor could help him or her relax and open up with greater peace of mind. Find a quiet, private space with no third-party listeners. Avoid talking about sexual assault in public places unless the survivor chooses to bring it up. Try not to spring the subject on the survivor. Warn him or her ahead of time that you wish to talk about it, then arrange a meeting where the survivor feels comfortable and prepared. Soothing music, tea, and blankets can help create a secure environment.
Once the survivor has come forward about sexual abuse, help him or her get professional assistance. Walk your friend or loved one through the steps of reporting sexual abuse to authorities, along with reasons for why doing so is important. Connect your friend with sexual abuse helplines if you feel you are out of your depths in offering support. The number for the National Sexual Assault Hotline is (800) 656-HOPE. If your friend appears suicidal, tell him or her to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK immediately, day or night. Then, help the survivor find a Richmond sexual abuse and assault attorney nearby that can assist with bringing a claim against the perpetrator.