A relative, a friend or partner who has been raped or sexually assaulted is likely to need the support of friends and family to cope with what has happened. Rape and sexual assault are terrifying experiences and everyone reacts differently.
Victims may feel withdrawn, depressed or numb. They may also feel very anxious and panicky, or have nightmares and flashbacks of the assault. For many people these emotions pass within a few weeks. If they persist they may need professional help to overcome these traumatic responses. Being able to recognise these reactions is helpful, especially when the person realises that they are normal and they are not ‘going crazy’.
The following emotions for victims of sexual assault, are common:
If the above symptoms continue for more than a week or two, the victim may be suffering from Rape Trauma Syndrome or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of the sexual assault. Your GP will be able to advise, and support from a specialist sexual violence counsellor may help.
What can I do?
It can be hard to know how to support someone who has suffered an assault and difficult to know what to say. There is no guaranteed right response, listening and being there are the most important things you can do.
Telling the person to try and forget the assault can seem logical but can be unhelpful. If they could just forget what happened and get over it they would have done this already.
In fact, victims often feel that they should be able to cope. The recovery process can take some time and it is important that a victim does not feel that they haven’t coped well. Specialist counselling and support can help victims recover their lives and feel in control.
Talking about the assault
You can support your partner, relative or friend by letting them know that you are there to listen when they are ready. She or he may not want to tell you everything that has happened and some people never disclose all the details to their family and friends. This doesn’t mean they don’t trust you.
Try not to ask why the rape or sexual assault happened or why your loved one didn’t stop it from happening. Many people initially blame themselves and you need to help them realise that they are not to blame for being attacked.
Encourage your partner, relative or friend to express how they are feeling – whether this is sad, hopeless, angry or numb.
Allowing him or her to naturally experience these feelings can be very positive – many people tend to block out these emotions as they can be too uncomfortable or they don’t want to distress you.
If you find that you want to give your loved one a hug but they appear to reject you, try and respect this. Even though they know you care, they may be experiencing significant anxiety and touch can trigger memories of the assault. However, many people do want to be hugged so it is important that you ask the individual about what they want and need from you.
If you are the victim’s partner, in a sexual relationship with them, they may now view sex as frightening and find it difficult to be intimate with you. It is important that you work together on re-establishing your sexual relationship. This can take time.
If you find that you need additional support or advice, ask your GP to refer you to a counsellor or a healthcare professional.
Reporting the sexual assualt
The decision to report the assault to the police is up to your partner, relative or friend. Only involve the police yourself if they have given their permission.
The decision about whether to report the crime to the police is a very difficult one. Many people are unsure of what happens in a court case, worry about giving evidence in court and are fearful about having to face the attacker. Independent advisors are able to provide support and advice for anyone who reports the crime, including practical support in attending court and help with attending other appointments. If your loved one is unsure, it may be helpful for them to talk to a sexual offence liaison officer.
Whatever your partner, relative or friend decides, give practical support where possible. For example, offer to accompany them to any appointments, such as to the sexual abuse referral centre or to the police.
Consider your own reactions
Anger is a common reaction if you are supporting someone who has been assaulted. Make sure your partner, relative or friend knows you are not angry with him or her. They may already think they are to blame for what happened and could be even more sensitive to your reactions and thoughts.
You may feel so angry that you want to threaten the attacker or seek revenge. This is not going to help and will probably add to the worries and concerns that your loved one already has.
You may well feel helpless because you were unable to prevent the assault from happening or protect your loved one. Recognise that you cannot put things right, although you may really want to. Over time people experience a number of changes, especially regarding their feelings towards themselves and others, so your loved one may not appear to be exactly the same person as before.
Just be patient, find out what would help them and this will help you cope with your own feelings
Simple steps to follow
- Try talking to your loved one in a safe, confidential environment where they will feel at ease.
- Listen to what they have to say. Try not to interrupt or ask too many questions.
- Let them make their own decisions. It is important that your loved one feels that they have support, whether they decide to involve the police or not.
Finding help for your loved one
Talking to someone in confidence could help your partner, relative or friend. However, if you think that your loved one needs counselling, and they are unwilling to speak out, allow them to decide what they would like to do about seeking help – don’t pressurise them.
Finding help for you
You may feel particularly distressed and unable to cope with the situation yourself. There are many support organisations that can help you and offer practical advice.
Some support organisations are listed here. For more information, ask your crisis worker. In an emergency situation, always dial 999.
NAPAC (National Association for People Abused in Childhood):
The Survivors’ Trust:
Police: 101 (non-emergency)