Support Person

If someone you’re close to has been sexually assaulted

You may feel:

–          Helpless

–          Angry

–          Sad

–          Why them?

You most probably will want to do ‘the right thing’. These are some ideas that can help you to support the survivor in your life to deal with the crisis of sexual assault. You will also have your own feelings to cope with and it may help you to work through these emotions. Your reactions are important. The attitudes and actions of those closest to the survivor will influence how they will deal with it.

Many survivors who have been raped do not react to the sexual aspects of the crime, but instead they react to the terror and fear involved. Often an immediate reaction of the survivor is “I could have been killed.” Probably the best way to understand their feelings is to try to remember or imagine a situation where you felt powerless and afraid. You may remember feeling very alone, fearful, and needing comfort.

Above all, a person who has been sexually assaulted needs:

–          To be listened to

–          To decide for themselves how to deal with the assault

–          To be believed

Imagine that you are jogging in a park when suddenly five men jump you, beat you and force you to participate in oral sex with some of the while the rest violate you anally. They leave you battered and semiconscious. Somehow you manage to drag yourself to a friend’s house nearby. You are in shock. You cannot believe the attack took place. You cannot quite believe you survived it. Do you need your friend to lecture you on the foolishness of jogging alone in the park? Hardly. You will probably spend a good long time kicking yourself for not escaping the attack. Do you need your friend to accuse you of having invited the assault? Certainly not. If anything, you might wonder how anyone who knew you well could even ask such a question. Do you need your friend to berate themselves for not being along to protect you? No, you probably want them to attend to you and not get side tracked by their own imagined shortcomings. Do you need them to load their shotgun and bound out the door swearing vengeance? No, you have just finished dealing with a ‘gang’ of violence-crazed men – who needs another one? Did you need them to grab you and rush you off to the police station and demand that the police take pictures of your anus? Clearly not.

How can I help them through this?

People can best support survivors of sexual assault by keeping their heads and following a few suggestions:

–          Listen to the person. Really listen. It is normal for a survivor who has been sexually assaulted to cry, scream, sob, rant and rave. That is their right. It is also their right to withdraw, and be silent if they choose.

–          The survivor should make every decision in response to the assault. They were the person attacked. The important thing is for them to regain a sense of control over their life after being stripped of that control by their attacker(s). The survivor needs to be supported to take charge for themselves.

Myth: Men rape because they are sexually frustrated.
Face: Men do not have uncontrollable sexual urges. Many rapists state that they could have had sex elsewhere but preferred to rape an unwilling woman. Research has proven that rape is about power, not about sex. In any case, no sexual urge gives a man the right to rape a woman. No one deserves to be raped. How often do we hear comments such as, “Maybe it wouldn’t have happened if his wife wasn’t frigid,” or “She wouldn’t give him sex, so he took it.” This implies that women are to blame for rape and conveniently ignores the fact that men who rape choose to do so.

Myth: Most rapes occur as a ‘spur of the moment’ act committed in a dark alley by a stranger.
Fact: Rape often occurs in the victim’s home. Very often the rapist is a relative, friend, acquaintance, or neighbour. Most rapes are carefully planned. Statistics show that approximately 80% of abusers are known to the woman (Australian Crime: Facts and Figures 2011)

Myth: Nice women don’t get raped.
Fact: Women of any age, appearance, marital status, or social background can be and are raped. Victims of rape can be of any age, from infancy to elderly.

Dealing with the crisis

The initial shock which follows a sexual assault can lead the survivor to feel numb, a loss of memory, concentration, or to be disorientated. They may sob loudly or they may be withdrawn. Each survivor will experience different things, as no two people are the same. The survivor should decide for themselves what they want to do.

The options for the survivor are:

–          Reporting the matter to the police

–          Not reporting it to the police

–          Having a medical/forensic examination

–          Not having a medical/forensic examination

–          To do nothing

If they report it, they need to know that they will be required to make a statement to the police that may take several hours. They may also choose to undergo a medical examination to collect forensic evidence (this may also be ordered by police). It is also important that the survivor have some follow-up tests done for pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases.

Laurel House can provide counselling and support for the person who has been sexually assaulted, and for you as their support person. Laurel House operates a 24-hour service and a crisis worker can be available to see the person as soon as possible after the assault. Laurel House can also offer information and support for the families or support people of survivors who have been sexually assaulted.

After the crisis – how long will it take until things are okay again?

Within a week or two after the assault, many survivors begin to resume their normal lives. This can be a painful process because many survivors feel certain that their lives can never return to normal. Some adopt a “what’s the point of anything?” attitude. A supportive person can try to provide some perspective on this understandable reaction. A survivor’s life may never be the same as it was before the assault, but it can return to some sort of normality.

Support people should continue to encourage survivors to discuss their feelings about the assault and encourage them to take any steps that they feel appropriate. However, if they perceive this support as pressure, it ceases to be support. Some survivors want the kind of support that can be provided by Laurel House, while others may not. Any action the survivor decides is right for them at the time, is the right course of action.

Some survivors remain quite disorientated for a while. Headaches, nightmares, insomnia, fear and depression are common and sometimes take a long time to subside. Some survivors leave their jobs, move house, or join self-defence classes. If it takes them a while to deal with the assault, that is okay, as they will do it at their own speed.

As the months pass, survivors slowly begin to come to terms with what has happened. The process is similar to the way people deal with personal tragedy. However, this is one case where support people should hold themselves in check. This can be difficult particularly for those who are used to making the important decisions in a relationship, but it is vital. Rather than ordering them to “lie down while I call the police,” ask them what they want to do and what they want you to do. Offer options, suggest alternatives, help them weigh up the pros and cons, but all the decisions should be theirs. The only time a support person should make a decision for a survivor is if they appear seriously injured to take care of themselves, for example, if they are bleeding from the head or vagina/anus, losing consciousness, has broken bones, or cannot remember their name. Otherwise, the survivor should make the decisions.

Support the person for surviving. Most survivors’ major fear during an attack is a fear of being killed. In this context, anything a person does to survive an assault is the right thing to do. Many victims torment themselves for being stupid; “I shouldn’t have gone there alone at night;” “I’m such an idiot for agreeing to talk to him;” “How could I be so dumb to fall for that broken down car routine?” The catalogue of possible ‘should haves’ is endless, and survivors tend to be quite hard on themselves. The important thing is that whatever happened, whatever the person did or did not do, they survived. They were resourceful enough to escape with their life from a potentially life-threatening situation. Later, a few weeks or months afterward, a support person might help them figure out what they would do differently in a similar situation, but in the immediate aftermath, the victim does not need to hear what they should have done. The survivor needs to be reassured that what they did was the right thing because they survived.

Continue to listen. Then listen some more. There is a natural tendency when comforting the victim of any personal tragedy to try to turn attention away from the terrible event. “It’s over now;” “Try to put it behind you;” “You’ve got your whole life in front of you;” “Don’t dwell on it.” Nevertheless, many survivors need to keep talking about the attack over and over again in order to come to terms with it. Let the survivor decide how long to dwell on the assault – it might take quite a while before they feel ready to turn their attention elsewhere. Encourage the survivor to discuss the assault in any way that feels appropriate to them. Try not to dismiss any feeling as unimportant no matter how trivial it may seem.

Try not to accuse the survivor of being overly obsessive, self-pitying, or repetitive. Most survivors would gladly forget about the sexual assault if they could.

Do not become the injured party. Do not start raving and ranting about the ‘animal that did this,’ or swear revenge or whatever. Your anger at the offender will be misplaced because they are not there. Only the survivor is there and they do not need you to be crazy or angry.

Myths about Sexual Assault

When thinking about what has happened to the person you care about, you will need to consider the following myths about sexual assault. Many people in this society believe these statements, and if you do it will not be at all helpful for the person you are supporting. Some of the common myths are:

Myth: Women enjoy being raped.
Fact: No-one enjoys being raped. Sexual assault is a violent crime during which the woman often fears that she will be killed. It is a crime of aggression and is not about sexual desire. During sexual assault the woman is degraded and humiliated.

Myth: Women provoke rape by the way they dress and act.
Fact: Almost anything a woman does can be construed as being an invitation to rape, or ‘asking for rape’ – if they dress attractively they’re told it’s provocative. Rape is a degrading and violent crime. Why would a woman go out of her way to be humiliated, to be beaten or possibly killed! Does a woman’s dress or manner give any man the right to rape her? Because a woman lives alone, walks in the street at night or drinks in a pub, does she deserve to be raped? Because you carry money in your pocket does that mean you are asking to be robbed?

Myth: No one can be raped against their will.
Fact: Most adult victims, even those who are not physically harmed, fear injury and death during sexual assault/rape. Survivors of sexual assault do not consent: they submit to avoid further harm.

Myth: Boys and men cannot be sexually assaulted/raped.
Fact: One in three girls and one in six boys will be assaulted by age eighteen. One in nine men will be sexually assaulted as an adult. If a male is sexually assaulted it does not mean he is or will become gay. A person’s sexual orientation is not determined by sexual assault.

Did I fail to protect them?

Some people feel that rape means that they failed in their duty to protect the people they care about. Most people feel shame, rage, hurt and powerlessness. Just as survivors need a supportive listener to help sort out their reactions, so do the support people of those people in many situations. But, the best person to listen to your concerns is not the survivor themselves. They have enough to deal with at the moment. Try talking to a friend, counsellor at Laurel House, or family member who you can easily relate to. Support people who are able to take care of their own needs can provide better support for the survivors.

What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault is any unwanted sexual contact or sexual attention committed by force, threats, bribes, manipulation, pressure, tricks or violence. It includes rape and attempted rape, child molestation, incest and sexual harassment. Sexual assault is a terrifying and often brutal crime; offenders can be strangers, acquaintances, friends, or family members. Victims and those who love them share the devastating effects.

Rape is a crime of violence, anger and power. It is not motivated by sexual desire. Rapists use sexual violence as a weapon to control, humiliate and hurt their victims. Anyone can become a victim, because victims are selected for their vulnerability and not their attractiveness, appearance or behaviour. Sexual assault of any type is never the victim’s fault. No one ever “asks for” or deserves to be sexually assaulted.

Sexual assault hurts us all

If someone you love has been sexually assaulted, as a loved one you suffer too. You may experience some of the same emotions the victim feels – powerlessness, anger, guilt, depression, and fear.

Sexual assault creates a crisis for loved ones as well as for victims. Recovery can take a long time and depends on many factors. Those closest to the victim can influence how successful recover will be. To best help the victim, it is important that you understand her/his reactions as well as your own so that you will be able to give love and support when it is needed the most.

The victim’s reaction

Sexual assault is always traumatic and those who survive often have severe stress reactions similar to those of people who have survived other life-threatening events, such as war or natural disaster. There are four stages of reaction to a sexual assault:

Crisis Stage: In the hours and days immediately following the assault, shock and denial are common reactions. It’s hard to believe the assault really happened and difficult to understand why. The victim may feel strong emotions and appear visibly disturbed, crying, shaking or even fainting. Or she/he may be in shock, feel no emotion at all, and seem calm and composed or even cold and detached. All these reactions are normal.

During this crisis stage, the most common emotion is fear, fear of the attacker returning, of being alone, of places like the one where the assault occurred or of people who remind the victim of the attacker. Victims often feel angry, depressed, confused and irritable. Many also feel guilty, ashamed and “dirty” because they believe the myths that blame the victim for the assault.

There are many physical reactions after a sexual assault, including physical, emotional and psychological effects. Some sexual assault victims may want to talk about their experience soon afterwards; others may wait until much later or may never feel comfortable talking about it. Some victims do not want to be touched after an assault and others want increased physical affection.

Denial stage: During this stage, the victim may deny any effects from the assault and may assure you that things are fine. This may be because she/he thinks everyone is tired of hearing about the assault or because the victim is trying to shut out the pain and get back to ‘normal.’ In an effort to put the assault behind her/him, the victim may also want to change lifestyles, jobs, or residences. This stage can be brief or can last for many years. Sometimes while in the denial stage, victims may turn to harmful things (alcohol, drugs, overeating or overworking) to enable them to numb their feelings and go on.

Suffering stage: This stage is when the reality of the assault sinks in. It is characterised by depression, mood swings and feelings of loss. This victim’s sense of security and control over her/his life has been devastated. Common reactions include fear, nightmares, changes in sleeping and eating, sexual problems, physical aches and pains, difficulty concentrating, and loss of interest in usual activities. Anger, guilt, and shame are common. Victims may have frequent, disturbing memories of the assault and “flashbacks,” when it seems the assault is happening again. This state is very painful for victims.

Resolution stage: This stage begins when the victim starts the long-term process of resolving the feelings about the sexual assault and the offender. The goal of this stage is to move from ‘victim’ to ‘survivor’ and to integrate the sexual assault as an accepted, although painful, event in one’s life. If integration is not achieved, the survivor may continue to have problems in many life areas.

Although all sexual assault survivors pass through the four stages of healing, the passage is not always smooth or straightforward. A survivor may be in two stages at a time, may return to a previous stage for a time, or get stuck in one stage. Laurel House
can help with information, counselling and support during any stage of recovery.

Your reaction

Disbelief: Family and friends may react to the sexual assault of a loved one with many of the same feelings and physical reactions that the survivor experiences. Initially you may respond with shock and disbelief, especially if the survivor still looks the same or there are no visible signs of attack. You may even doubt that the assault happened. This is called ‘denial’ and it happens after a traumatic experience.

Fear: You may feel intense fear for your own or the survivor’s safety. You may try to protect her/him from future assault by being extremely cautious and over-protective. It may be hard to let the survivor out of your sight or to let her/him return to everyday activities.

Anger: Often loved ones experience anger and even rage after a sexual assault. Your first reaction may be to seek revenge, to find and kill the attacker. This is a normal feeling, but you will not be doing yourself or the survivor any good if you end up hurt or in jail and he/she has to work about you. Sometimes you may feel anger towards the survivor, especially if she/he did something you warned against, like hitchhiking or going to a party that ended in sexual assault. If you find yourself blaming the survivor for the assault, make sure that you have someone other than the survivor who can listen to your angry feelings. Remember, even if the survivor used poor judgement, it is the offender who committed the crime and who is totally responsible for it.

Depression: It is not unusual to feel hopeless and depressed. A sexual assault brings up feelings of powerlessness in victims and those who love them, and you may feel that your life is out of control. Your security and tryst have been drastically violated. If depression lasts for more than a few weeks or becomes serious, get support for yourself.

Guilt: Guilt is a common reaction when a loved one has been sexually assaulted. Those closest to the survivor may blame themselves. But whatever you did or did not do, you are not to blame if someone you love has been sexually assaulted. It is solely the fault of the attacker. Instead of wasting time blaming yourself for something you had absolutely no control over, concentrate on the positive things you can do now.

What can you do?

–          Believe the survivor’s account of the assault

–          Reassure the survivor that you love/care for her/him and that you know the assault was not her/his fault

–          Let the survivor know that she/he did the right things during the assault. Don’t question or judge what she/he did to survive. She/he had to make life and death decisions in an instant. Survival is evidence that she/he handled the assault correctly.

–          Encourage the survivor to talk about the assault at her/his own pace. This may be difficult. Hearing repeated details about the assault can be upsetting; silence can be frustrating. Keep in mind that it is the survivor’s needs that are most important now. Explain that talking and expressing feelings promotes healing. Tell the survivor that you are there to listen and give support whenever she/he is ready to talk, but do not push.

–          Encourage the survivor to get medical attention as soon as possible, even if she/he thinks that there was no injury.

–          Going through a medical examination and/or the legal system (if the survivor chooses to become involved in these processes) can feel like further victimisation. Be supportive of this.

–          Respect the survivor’s decision to report or not report the assault to the police. There are tremendous personal sacrifices involved in prosecuting a sexual offender and the survivor may not feel able to make them.

–          When you need support or information, call Laurel House and talk about it. The workers are available to provide emotional support, legal and medical information, and advocacy to sexual assault survivors, their families and friends. All conversations are confidential.

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