While the new year may be a wonderful time involving celebrations with friends and family, it can also be a difficult time for survivors of sexual assault. For survivors, holiday gatherings can involve facing painful memories, feelings of anxiety, or the fear of harm.
If a loved one discloses that they were sexually assaulted, it can be difficult to know how to respond. It is common to worry about saying the wrong thing, not showing the proper support, or retraumatizing the survivor. However, compassion, empathy, and some practical tips will help you respond to disclosures in a way that supports the survivor's journey towards healing.
While no two disclosures are alike, there are some general considerations that you can keep in mind, should someone disclose their experience of sexual assault or abuse.
1) Stay Calm and Validate
Hearing about the assault can be upsetting. However, it is important not to overreact or overshare your own feelings of discomfort as it may cause undue stress for the survivor. Instead, validate the survivor and the experience that they have shared with you. Likewise, patiently and actively listen to what the survivor has to say as telling their story can be an important part of their healing journey. Helpful phrases include:
- “I believe you.”
- “Thank you for sharing that with me.”
- “I’m so sorry that happened to you.”
It is normal to feel upset or distressed after receiving a disclosure of sexual assault. It is important that you seek out supports for yourself if you are experiencing difficulties while supporting a survivor. Local sexual assault centres can be very helpful in this regard.
2) Build Trust and Safety
Remember that the survivor is disclosing to you because they feel safe around you. During and after the disclosure, it is also important for the survivor to know that you are someone they can turn to for support. Ensure that they know that the assault was not their fault, and that you are someone who they can feel safe around. The sharing of an assault can be scary and intimidating for a survivor and building trust is key. Helpful phrases include:
- “That wasn’t your fault.”
- “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
- “How can I help you right now?”
- “What do you need to feel safe?”
3) Respect and Empower
It is important to acknowledge and respect the choices that the survivor made following the assault. Sexual assault often robs survivors of power and control. An important way to help them regain this lost sense of control is to empower them to make their own choices. Avoid questioning their decisions and let them know that you support them, no matter what.
Also, avoid asking for unnecessary details. Talking about feelings, instead of the specifics of the assault(s), can be incredibly helpful for survivors. Let the survivor choose what they want to disclose, and do not pry further out of curiosity.
It is essential that the survivor feels completely in control of what happens next. So, before offering up ideas or potential solutions, ensure that the survivor is open to discussing the options available to them. This can be done by asking something like: “What would you like to happen next?” Would you like me to help you find any resources?
By helping to establish the survivor’s autonomy, you are placing the power back in their hands.
4) Think about Safety
Safety may be a concern, especially if the sexual assault or abuse was recent. Ask the survivor if they feel unsafe or need any medical attention. If the sexual assault is recent, there may be a short window of time during which the survivor can have a sexual assault evidence kit (“rape kit”) completed. Pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections are also possible consequences of a sexual assault. The sooner the survivor is able to get medical care, the more likely it is that they can access preventative medication, testing and counselling. If you know the sexual assault happened recently, provide them with some information or resources. If you are able, offer to support them in accessing these services.
A survivor may indicate to you that they wish to report their assault to the police or pursue a lawsuit in response to their sexual assault. If this is the case, there are plenty of ways that you can support them in their journey. It is important to ask them what you can do to help, and to support them in the ways that they ask the best you can.
At Beckett, we have passionately advocated for survivors of sexual assault across Canada for years. We are dedicated to providing you with the knowledge and expertise that will help you feel heard and supported in your journey towards justice. We are ready to listen to your personal situation, provide guidance and work with you to determine next steps.
Our team can help if you or your loved ones have questions about their legal rights and options. When you’re ready to connect with an experienced lawyer at Beckett, contact our team for a free case evaluation.
Published on January 10, 2022