Responding to a Disclosure of Sexual Assault

How to respond to a disclosure of sexual assault:

–          Believe the survivor. Even if they sometimes doubt themselves, even if the memories are vague, even if what they tell you sounds too extreme to believe. People don’t make up stories of abuse. Let them know that you are open to hearing anything they wish to share and that although it is painful and upsetting, you are willing to enter those difficult places with them, and to receive their words with respect. Statistics show that 1 in 3 females, and 1 in 6 males are sexually assaulted by age 18.

–          Join with the survivor in validating the effects of the sexual assault(s). All abuse is harmful. Even if it is not violent, overtly physical or repeated, all sexual abuse has serious consequences. There is no positive or neutral experience of sexual abuse.

–          Be clear that the sexual assault is never their fault. Nobody seduces an offender. People ask for affection and attention, not for sexual abuse. Even if a person responds sexually, even if they weren’t forced or didn’t protest, it is still never their fault. It is always the responsibility of the offender.

–          Educate yourself about sexual abuse and the healing process. If you have a basic idea of what the survivor is going through, it will help you to be supportive.

–          Don’t sympathise with the offender. The survivor needs your absolute loyalty.

–          Validate the survivor’s feelings: the anger, pain and fear. These are natural, healthy responses. They need to feel them, express them, and be heard.

–          Express your compassion. If you have feelings of outrage, compassion, pain for their pain, do share them. There is probably nothing more comforting than a genuine human response. Just make sure your feelings don’t overwhelm their feelings.

–          Respect the time and space it takes to heal. Healing is a slow process that can’t be hurried.

–          Encourage the survivor to get support. In addition to offering your own caring, encourage the person to reach out to others.

–          Get help if the survivor is suicidal. Most survivors are not suicidal, but sometimes the pain of abuse is so devastating that they may want to kill themselves. If you are close to a survivor who is suicidal, get help immediately.

–          Accept that there will very likely be major changes in your relationship with the survivor as they heal. They are changing, and as they do you may need to change in response.

–          Resist seeing the survivor as a victim. Continue to see them as a strong, courageous person who is reclaiming their own life.

–          Being a close supporter of a survivor can be a challenge. While holding the potential for tremendous growth and intimacy, it can also leave you feeling conflicted, overwhelmed or resentful. You may be frightened or confused, unsure what to do, how to feel or what to expect. These are natural and appropriate responses to a complex and trying human situation.

–          It is important to take care of yourself. It is essential that you honour your own needs. If the survivor wants more than you are able to give them, admit your limits. Encourage them to call on other resources. Take some breaks. Get help for yourself. Dealing with such raw pain is difficult and you need a place where you can express your own feelings and frustrations.

–          If you find yourself feeling extremely defensive or upset when the survivor talks about the abuse, you may be reacting from experiences you’ve repressed from your own past. This is very common. One person’s pain frequently brings up hurts for another. Seek support in dealing with your own unresolved feelings. You are important too.

For more information and support, please contact Laurel House (North) on 6334 2740, Laurel House North West on 6431 9711, or email counsellors@laurelhouse.org.au