Supporting someone who has been abused

You can also download our Advice for Friends and Relatives leaflet below.

If you are supporting someone who has been raped or abused, you may well need support yourself.  SRASAC is able to support you in this.  We recognise how important the support of partners, friends, relatives and carers can be for someone to feel back in control and safe.  It is important for people to be listened to and believed.  Survivors may have been recently attacked or dealing with experiences that happened many years ago, sometimes in their childhood.

We have tried to offer ideas for how you can positively help a survivor feel back in control of their life again after experiencing sexual abuse.  This information has been written for women and girls who have experienced rape or sexual abuse, but the ideas offered will still be helpful for those supporting male survivors and is not only relevant to women.  It has also been written with the assumption that the abuser is a male, but we do recognise that women can be abusers too.

Survivors have individual responses to their experiences.  What always seems to help is having someone around who will listen and not rush them to ‘get better’ or ‘forget about it’, someone who will try to understand how they are feeling and what they want in the way of support.

What is always essential is being believed and feeling sure that the people she tells do believe her.  Whatever the circumstances of the abuse, there is always one dominant feature – that it was something forced on the woman or girl, against her will and that it deliverately took control from her, ignoring what she wanted.  The use of force, however physically damaging, is always a violent act, causing distress and humiliation.  To help her regain control over her life and begin to rebuild her sense of worth, it is essential to recognise how upsetting and frightening it is to be forced against your will in this way, especially as it is often accompanied by further threats to her.

It is everyone’s basic human right to be free from threat, harassment or attack.

Women and girls who have been raped or sexually abused lose their feelings of safety and trust.  With your help she needs to begin to rebuild those feelings of control, trust and self-worth.

Believe her – people rarely lie about sexual abuse or rape.  Why would they?  It is important that they know you believe what they are saying.  Recognise the courage it takes for a survivor to speak.  It takes a great deal of courage to talk.

The facts show very clearly that women and girls of all ages, of all appearance and in any circumstances (at home or out and about) have been raped or sexually abused.  Whatever the circumstances, women should not be forced against their will, without their consent, to any sexual abuse or violence.  The only way to create greater safety for women and girls in the long term is to challenge the behaviour of those men who attack women, not to blame her.

It is not her fault.  Because of the many myths about women who ‘ask for it’ or provoke assault, she may already be feeling partly responsible for what has happened.  She may be anxious to tell people for fear they will blame her or not believe her.  No one asks to be abused and they cannot be blamed for not preventing the abuse.  It is important for her to place the blame where it belongs – with the man or men who abused her.

Listen to what she has to say and let her take her time.  It may not be easy to start talking about an event that they have kept silent about for a long time.  It may be difficult because they may have been told not to tell by the abuser at the time.

Listen and understand why she was unable to prevent the abuse happening.  She may have been forced by fear, she may have been unsuspecting and trusting, she may have been threatened or physically attacked, she may have feared that worse would happen if she resisted.

Listen to why she is telling you now.  She may have been scared of your reaction, she may have felt ashamed or embarrassed to tell you, she may have been protecting you from the upset of knowing, she may have chosen to think it through first or talk with those less personally involved.  Some people block out or try to forget traumatic events.  This can be a way of dealing with the trauma of abuse.  A survivor may remember after a trigger event such as the birth of a baby, a TV programme, starting a new relationship or the death of an abuser.

Try not to over simplify what has happened by saying it is not very bad, ‘never mind’, ‘forget it’.  Let the woman or girl say how she feels and work through it in her own time.

Reassure her that you will give her support and give her time to work things through.  Make it clear that you will be around to talk now or in the future, and help her trust that you will not push her into expressing things she doesn’t feel ready to.  She needs to feel in control of her own decisions about matters that affect her.  You can help her explore the options that are available to her.  Ask her if she would like to talk to someone on our helpline (0114 241 2769) or whether she would like to talk to one of our specialist counsellors.  Offer to help her organise this, if she’d like you to without pressurising her.

Try not to make her decisions for her.  Sexual abuse usually makes a woman feel invaded, changed and out of control.  Whatever happened, she didn’t want it to.  However she tried to get him/ them to stop, it may not have worked – he/ they didn’t listen to her or care what she felt.  Try to imagine how this feels and try not to do what makes you feel better – listen to what she wants and try to show you care how she feels.  As part of her rebuilding trust and strength, it is crucial that she is able to make her own decisions and regain influence over what happens to her.  It is common for friends and relatives, often very anxious and distressed themselves by what has happened, to step in and be too protective and watchful, or to start treating her very differently and decide things for her.  While this is understandable, our experience shows that it can add to the frustration.  Ask her how she wants help and try to do what she suggests, and she will build up her sense of trust.

Help her to feel safe and take part in things again, but only at her own pace and in the way she feels best.  Knowing that she can talk to you about feeling unsafe, and ask for your companionship when she needs it, will be reassuring for her as she tries to tackle difficult things.

Try not to touch her unexpectedly, come up behind her etc in a way that reminds her of the assault.  She may want to be held and comforted, or to be left until she feels safe – ask her what feels best for her.  Don’t feel offended if she finds it difficult to be emotionally or (if you are her partner) sexually close after the assault.  It is not that she feels you might assault her, but that it recalls her feelings of violation and fear.  Encourage her to say how she wants to be held or touched, what helps her to feel safe and comforted and how she wants to spend her time with you.  If you find that there is an emotional distance between you following her assault, try not to put pressure on her to forget quickly, or to blame her.  Feeling that you are listening and responding will greatly help her re-establish feelings of closeness and trust.  Seek support for yourself from someone who may understand.  Feeling guilt or pressure will only make it harder for the woman or girls to work through the experience.

Be aware of not directing your anger and frustration about the assault at the woman or girl.  She will already be worried that what has happened to her will upset and worry those close to her.  Reassure her that you know what happened to her isn’t her fault and if you do feel anger make it clear that it is directed towards the abuser or those who assaulted her and not towards her.  Remember that threatening to take the law into your own hands is not helpful.  It can make the woman feel even more unsafe, it can make her distressed to see you so upset and it could greatly worry her that you might get into trouble or get hurt.  It also, once again, can make her feel out of control of the situation and that what she wants is again being ignored.  Again you may need to ask your friends or a trusted outside person for support or ideas about how to deal with your own understandable feelings of frustration.  If you do this, make sure the woman’s confidentiality is respected, as always.

You are not to blame for what has happened, because you weren’t with her, hadn’t protected her etc.  As we said at the beginning the only person to blame for the abuse is the abuser.

Try not to speak for her unless she particularly wants you to.  When friends, the doctor, the police etc ask her how she feels, always let her speak for herself, if she can.  If she wants time to talk to someone who isn’t emotionally close to her, always make it clear that she can chose whether you are with her or not.

Don’t expect too much of yourself.  The woman or girl may need different types of support from different people.  No one person can do everything for her.  It can help you too to know that she can go to other people for support if she chooses to.  Sometimes women at Rape Crisis or trusted friends and colleagues can help in ways that those closest to her cannot.

Show that you are listening to her and that you:

  • Believe her
  • Don’t blame her
  • Respect her
  • Want to help her regain control over her life

You won’t be able to magically make everything better straight away, but, as we have suggested, being listened to and respected, and shown she is cared for will help to heal things.