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Helping Someone Recover from Rape or Sexual Trauma

Credits belong to RAINN and Help Guide

1. How to help them:

When a spouse, partner, sibling, or other loved one has been raped or sexually assaulted, it can generate painful emotions and take a heavy toll on your relationship. You may feel angry and frustrated, be desperate for your relationship to return to how it was before the assault, or even want to retaliate against your loved one’s attacker. But it’s your patience, understanding, and support that your loved one needs now, not more displays of aggression or violence.

Let your loved one know that you still love them and reassure them that the assault was not their fault. Nothing they did or didn’t do could make them culpable in any way.

Allow your loved one to open up at their own pace. Some victims of sexual assault find it very difficult to talk about what happened, others may need to talk about the assault over and over again. This can make you feel alternately frustrated or uncomfortable. But don’t try to force your loved one to open up or urge them to stop rehashing the past. Instead, let them know that you’re there to listen whenever they want to talk. If hearing about your loved one’s assault brings you discomfort, talking to another person can help put things in perspective.

Encourage your loved one to seek help, but don’t pressure them. Following the trauma of a rape or sexual assault, many people feel totally disempowered. You can help your loved one to regain a sense of control by not pushing or cajoling. Encourage them to reach out for help, but let them make the final decision. Take cues from your loved one as to how you can best provide support.

Show empathy and caution about physical intimacy. It’s common for someone who’s been sexually assaulted to shy away from physical touch, but at the same time it’s important they don’t feel those closest to them are emotionally withdrawing or that they’ve somehow been “tarnished” by the attack. As well as expressing affection verbally, seek permission to hold or touch your loved one. In the case of a spouse or sexual partner, understand your loved one will likely need time to regain a sense of control over their life and body before desiring sexual intimacy.

Helping Someone Recover from Rape or Sexual Trauma Vesta - graphic - two women talking

Take care of yourself. The more calm, relaxed, and focused you are, the better you’ll be able to help your loved one. Manage your own stress and reach out to others for support.

Be patient. Healing from the trauma of rape or sexual assault takes time. Flashbacks, nightmares, debilitating fear, and other symptom of PTSD can persist long after any physical injuries have healed. To learn more, read Helping Someone with PTSD.

Avoid judgment. It can be difficult to watch a survivor struggle with the effects of sexual assault for an extended period of time. Avoid phrases that suggest they’re taking too long to recover such as, “You’ve been acting like this for a while now,” or “How much longer will you feel this way?”

Check in periodically. The event may have happened a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean the pain is gone. Check in with the survivor to remind them you still care about their well-being and believe their story.

Know your resources. You’re a strong supporter, but that doesn’t mean you’re equipped to manage someone else’s health. Become familiar with resources you can recommend to a survivor, such as the National Sexual Assault Hotline 800.656.HOPE (4673) and online.rainn.org

It’s often helpful to contact your local sexual assault service provider for advice on medical care and laws surrounding sexual assault. If the survivor seeks medical attention or plans to report, offer to be there. Your presence can offer the support they need.

If someone you care about is considering suicide, learn the warning signs, and offer help and support. For more information about suicide prevention please visit the Crisis Services Canada or call 1.833.456.4566 any time

Encourage them to practice good self-care during this difficult time.

2. Phrases to say

“I believe you. / It took a lot of courage to tell me about this.” It can be extremely difficult for survivors to come forward and share their story. They may feel ashamed, concerned that they won’t be believed, or worried they’ll be blamed. Leave any “why” questions or investigations to the experts—your job is to support this person. Be careful not to interpret calmness as a sign that the event did not occur—everyone responds to traumatic events differently. The best thing you can do is to believe them.

“It’s not your fault. / You didn’t do anything to deserve this.” Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind the survivor, maybe even more than once, that they are not to blame.

“You are not alone. / I care about you and am here to listen or help in any way I can.” Let the survivor know that you are there for them and willing to listen to their story if they are comfortable sharing it. Assess if there are people in their life they feel comfortable going to, and remind them that there are service providers who will be able to support them as they heal from the experience.

“I’m sorry this happened. / This shouldn’t have happened to you.” Acknowledge that the experience has affected their life. Phrases like “This must be really tough for you,” and, “I’m so glad you are sharing this with me,” help to communicate empathy.

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