Words by Valerie T. W Art by Zoe Alexiades
I was on the train when I received a call from my friend overseas. We’ve been friends since junior high but hadn’t seen each other in a year. We talked for hours, catching up on each other’s lives. Then, she told me a story that I could barely fathom. She had been sexually assaulted by her own cousin, while staying at his home.
This news came as a shock to me, not just because it happened but because it happened somewhere she considered safe. Sexual assault can happen anywhere and by anyone. People still disregard the pervasive nature of sexual assault, though it continues to affect thousands of people every year. Survivors have to deal with a lot of silencing, shame and trauma.
So, how do we support sexual assault victim? Support comes in all shapes and sizes. Here are some ways we can offer help to those in need.
It may seem small, but it’s a big deal. Believe them openly and vocally. When survivors hear the words, “I believe you” it can be easier for them to encounter people who doubt them (which sadly happens).
No victim blaming
It’s pretty simple, really. Never blame the victim for what happened to them. Even with good intentions, words can hurt. Avoid phrases such as “at least you’re still alive”, or “you didn’t do enough to say no”. No matter how someone dresses, how flirty they appear or who they go home with, this situation was not their fault. It is always the assaulter’s fault, no questions asked.
Allowing them some private time
Survivors will likely want their own private time and that is okay. Let them process what happened by themselves, without any distracting thoughts or opinions from other people. You don’t have to talk every time they stop talking; let them organise their own thoughts. Silent companionship can sometimes speak louder than words.
Check in periodically
Trauma can linger long after the assault has occurred. It’s important to keep checking on them periodically to see how they are going, and continuously support their wellbeing.
Encourage them to seek help
Don’t push them to seek medical treatment, counselling, or to press charges against the assaulter. Instead, you can encourage them gently, guide them through the little steps, letting them know that there are people who are there to help. Do your own research and when they’re ready, chat to them about their options.
Do not share their story unless the victim gives permission
It’s difficult to keep such a big secret sometimes. Nevertheless, the story of how they were assaulted should never be shared without consent from the victim. It is their story and they should have control of who knows what.
Take care of yourself
As you listen to the survivor’s story, you might be triggered by some past trauma of your own. Listening to their story can take toll on your own wellbeing so take care of yourself and don’t hesitate to seek a counselor if you need someone to talk to. Help yourself so you can help your loved one.
Our support can mean a lot to victims of sexual assault. Knowing they are not alone and that people care is sometimes the most powerful thing in the world. The road to recovery and acceptance is different for everyone, so allow survivors to map their own path – just don’t let them leave without you.
To report or simply to talk: Centres Against Sexual Assault: 1800 806 292 Victorian Women's Health Services: (03) 9664 9300