How to help a loved one who’s experienced sexual assault

When helping a sexual assault survivor remember the three R's: Recognize, Respond, Refer.

Q: Recently, a friend told me that they think they may have been sexually assaulted. I had no idea what to say. What is the best thing to do when this happens?

A: Excellent question. When someone discloses a sexual assault, it can be very difficult to know how to respond. But theres system that can help: The three Rs: Recognize, Respond, Refer.

Recognize

The first challenge when supporting a survivor of sexual assault is recognizing it in the first place. A myth of what sexual assault looks like pervades contemporary culture often along the lines of a stranger in a dark alley. However, statistics show that almost 80 per cent of assaults are committed by someone the survivor knows. As a result, we must broaden our understanding of what sexual assault looks like in order to identify it.

Keep in mind that it may take a survivor some time after experiencing  trauma to find the words to talk about what happened. Never push a survivor to label their experiences. Instead, make it clear that youre there to support them, if and whenever theyre ready.

Respond

If a friend or peer does disclose to you that theyve experienced a sexual assault, there are several key phrases you can use.

1. “I believe you: Survivors are often discredited when they disclose. By communicating your trust in their experiences, you make the survivor feel heard and legitimize their feelings.

2. “This was not your fault”: Due to pervasive victim-blaming attitudes, survivors often feel responsible for what happened to them. You can help to counter-act this by assuring them that it was in no way their fault. Also avoid questions such as how much had you had to drink?” or “why were you out alone? Even if asked with the best intentions, these questions can make survivors feel as if theyre to blame.

3. “Thank you for telling me: Sexual assault can be a challenging thing to disclose. It takes a lot of bravery for a survivor to come forward. Making them feel appreciated can go a long way on the road to recovery.

Refer

As a friend or peer, you can only do so much for a survivor.

There are several community resources that can help. If immediate medical attention is required, or for medical evidence collection, survivors can go to the Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Unit (SA/DV) at Kingston General Hospital.

The Sexual Health Resource Centre (SHRC) on campus provides a confidential, non-judgmental accompaniment service to support survivors through the SA/DV process. Call 613-533-2959 or come into the SHRC to inquire.

Additionally, Sexual Assault Centre Kingston (SACK) runs a 24-hour crisis line at 613-544-6424 or 1-877-544-6424. SACK also offers the option of long-term counselling to community members and students.

Queens has an in-house counsellor who specializes in sexual assault and intimate partner violence. Hagar Akua Prah can be reached at hagar.prah@queensu.ca.

By providing survivors with these resources, youre empowering them to make their own decisions. Always let the survivor drive this process; it isnt anyone elses role to choose which route is best.

Finally, remember that talking about sexual violence can be emotionally draining for both the survivor and the listener. Make sure that you take time for self-care. Following a challenging conversation, know that you can call or visit the SHRC at any time for support and referrals. 

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