This has been compiled with information received from Canberra Rape Crisis Centre training and their website.
How to give support to someone who has been sexually assaulted or harassed
Why is a compassionate response important?
Talking about what has happened and building a social connection helps to heal trauma.
Seeking help is important, and a compassionate, trauma-informed response is needed to make sure that the victim can recover from their trauma. If first disclosures of sexual violence are not handled properly, they can exacerbate and create trauma. When a victim of sexual violence tells another person what has happened to them, they invest a lot of trust and the reaction they get can determined whether they go on to tell anyone else.
Make sure that the person is safe.
In an emergency, contact 000.
→ “Do you feel safe?”
Validate their experiences and emotions.
Acknowledge that their pain is real. You should not ask them to go through their story or ask for the details, just hear that their pain and trauma is real.
Be a compassionate and gentle human.
Clearly express that the behaviour of the perpetrator was unacceptable and wrong.
→ “What he did was wrong, no one should have to experience that.”
“I believe you.”
“I’m sorry for what has happened.”
“What happened was a crime.”
Be aware of your own response.
React in a calm and gentle manner, and not with anger, disbelief, or guilt. Be aware of your own feelings and how they may impact the person you are supporting. It is not helpful to the victim of the violence if the person they disclose their experience to becomes upset, or even expresses a desire for revenge. Don’t take over and make it about you or someone else – this is about the person who has experienced the assault or harassment and has come to you for help and support.
Let them take their time.
Don’t interrupt them or their thought process. Silence is okay. You may feel an urge to fill the silence, but often it is better to just let it be – so you don’t give answers you don’t really have, and to let the person know you are there to listen.
→ “I’m here for you, take your time.”
Tell them that feeling pain is okay.
They are allowed to feel pain, sadness, and any other emotion. If they try to stop crying, tell them that it is good and helpful to cry.
→ “What you are feeling is normal and okay. You do not need to feel ashamed. It is not your fault.”
Do not touch the person, even though you are trying to comfort them. Give them a glass of water, a pillow, or something else to touch. If you initiate physical contact, there is a risk of exacerbating trauma. Ask them what helps calm them down and help them feel empowered through little things that give back autonomy through decision-making.
Acknowledge that you cannot do the work of a professional.
Be clear about what your role is. Tell them that what they have told you will be confidential – it is their information, and not yours – but that you are not a professional counsellor. Let the person know about the services and options available to them.
→ “Have you talked to someone about it?”
“I will do what I can to help.”
Centre the needs and choices of the person who has been assaulted.
Deciding what happens next can be an important part of gaining back some power in a situation where the victim has been deprived of their agency. The person you are supporting has the right to:
- Seek medical support or refuse it
- Report to police or refuse to report to police
- Decide who to tell, and who not to tell
- Refuse certain services or certain workers
- Seek counselling or refuse counselling
The person can also change their mind at any time.
→ “What do you want to do?”
Debrief with someone.
Call the CRCC Line and debrief with someone about what has happened. For people who have just experienced a disclosure of sexual violence, it is important to talk to someone about how you are feeling and what you have just experienced. The CRCC Crisis Line is open to anyone who needs help. Get the support you need so you can take care of yourself, and be emotionally available for the person when they need you.
After someone has disclosed to you, it is important to keep the safety and wellbeing of the person in mind in later interactions. Don’t bring up the incident or the disclosure and try not to discuss the perpetrator unless the other person does so. Learn to recognise the impacts of trauma, and remain understanding and sympathetic – there is no right or wrong way to experience and deal with trauma, and there is no set timeline for recovery. Check in with the person who has disclosed to you and make sure that they know you are there for them.
Remember to take care of yourself – often, the impacts of vicarious trauma go unnoticed and untreated. Realise that the emotions and distress that you feel are also real, and make sure that you do things that make you feel healthy and happy.