The experiences of sexual assault and domestic violence are different for each person who reports them. Victims may also present with various reactions, some expected and some that you may find unusual. Depending on when the assault occurred and how they have dealt with the victimization, a person may be in shock, may appear quite calm and normal or may cry uncontrollably. The following are general guidelines and suggestions that can be helpful when a person first shares information that she or he has been assaulted.
- Listen to them. The greatest fear of assault survivors is that they will not be heard or that their experiences will be minimized. In abusive relationships, victims also often feel crazy and that no one will believe them because their abusers sometimes present themselves as nice and gentle to the outside world. Even if you know the accused and think they’re incapable of such harm, accept what you are hearing and sort it out for yourself later. Remember, the survivor must trust you a great deal to tell you.
- Comfort them. Try to calm them down if they are agitated. Offer a drink of water or tea if available.
- Let them do the talking. Find a private place and just let them talk. Do not interrupt or try to help them along in their story by putting your own words in their mouths.
- Tell them the rape or violence was not their fault. Avoid questions that seem to blame her for her actions such as “Why didn’t you scream?” or “Why did you stay in the relationship for so long? or “Were you drinking too much?” Victims often blame themselves. If they talk about feelings of self-blame, allow them to do so, but reinforce that you believe it was not their fault, but the abuser or rapist’s fault.
- Provide support without taking over. Survivors need to be in charge of their own healing process and need to move at their own pace.
- Assure them that there is help available. Many victims, especially those in long-term abusive relationships feel that their situations are hopeless. Reiterate that there are resources and avenues for help and that you are going to help them access them as quickly and as smoothly as possible.
- Identify your own reactions and get support. You may feel angry, sad, shocked, embarrassed, helpless, revengeful, confused – any or all of these. Talk to someone about your feelings. If you take care of yourself, you will be better able to support the survivor.
(Adapted from I Never Called It Rape; Warshaw, Robin, 1988)
Some helpful phrases:
- I’m sorry this happened to you.
- You didn’t deserve to be hurt like this.
- Whatever you did to survive the situation was the right thing to do.
- I believe you. I don’t think it was your fault.
- That must have been very frightening/upsetting.
- I don’t think you are crazy. You’re reacting normally to a crazy situation.