How to Help Victims of Sexual Assault

woman hugging her friend

When someone close to you says they’ve been sexually assaulted, it’s normal to feel a range of emotions. You want to help, but where do you start, and how do you avoid making an already traumatizing situation worse? What can you do when you don’t know how to help a rape victim?

The most important thing you can do for a sexual assault survivor is listen to them and believe their story. From there, you can take additional steps to support them through their recovery process. It’s important to always help sexual assault survivors in a positive, caring manner. Legal proceedings may come later, but for now, keep this information on how to deal with sexual assault in mind.

How Do Sexual Abuse Victims Process Trauma?

Everyone who experiences sexual abuse processes the trauma in their own way. Some choose to express their emotions openly, while others may prefer to keep their feelings to themselves. They might talk about the abuse or assault immediately or might wait weeks, months, or even years before discussing it, if they choose to talk about it at all.

Physical responses to the trauma are also common, as the body and mind react to the stress of the experience. These physical responses may include nightmares, flashbacks to the assault or abuse, depression, mood swings, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Finally, survivors might develop various mechanisms to cope with their experiences. Some of these can be harmful or unhealthy, like using drugs and alcohol or engaging in self-injury. Others might adopt healthy and therapeutic options, such as journaling, expressing themselves through art, or seeking therapy. It’s common for survivors to use a combination of healthy and unhealthy coping strategies. Whatever coping mechanism the survivor uses, do your best to avoid passing judgment.

What to Say to a Sexual Assault Survivor

It’s hard to know what to say to someone who was sexually assaulted. You want to help and offer encouragement without making the situation worse. Here are some tips from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) for talking to survivors of sexual abuse or assaults:

  • Affirm Belief and Support – Start by expressing your belief in their story. Saying “I believe you” can be incredibly powerful. Acknowledge their courage in sharing their experience with you.
  • Reassure Them of Their Innocence – Make it clear that the assault was not their fault. Assure them that nothing they did or didn’t do means they deserved what happened.
  • Offer Your Presence and Willingness to Listen – Let them know you’re there for them in whatever capacity they need, whether that’s listening to their story, sitting with them in silence, or being a shoulder to cry on.
  • Empower Them to Make Choices – Emphasize the importance of their autonomy by encouraging them to make their own decisions about what steps to take next, without pressuring them to act in any specific way.
  • Express Your Unwavering Support – Reiterate that your relationship with them remains unchanged and that you’re there to offer support in any way you can.

What Not to Say to a Sexual Assault Survivor

While knowing what to say to a sexual assault survivor is important, it’s equally crucial to know what to avoid saying. With that in mind, here are some tips on statements and topics to avoid when talking to a sexual assault survivor:

  • Don’t Make Threats Against the Perpetrator – This might make the survivor worry about your safety and the potential legal repercussions for you.
  • Respect Their Privacy – It’s crucial to let survivors decide who they want to tell about the assault. Maintaining their confidentiality is key.
  • Avoid Making Promises You Can’t Keep – Promises like “You’ll never be hurt again” or “The offender will go to jail” are beyond your control and can lead to disappointment or mistrust.
  • Don’t Pressure Them Into Physical Contact – Having control over their bodies is vital for survivors of sexual assaults, so ask permission before touching them in any way. Even well-intentioned gestures like a hug should only come after you have the survivor’s consent.
  • Don’t Take Over Their Situation – Encourage the survivor to seek professional help if they’re ready, but let them make that choice. Similarly, leave legal investigations to the authorities to avoid jeopardizing any potential cases.
  • Be Patient with Their Healing Process – Recognize that recovery from sexual assault can be a long journey with ups and downs. Avoid rushing them or expecting linear progress.

How to Support an Underage Sexual Abuse Survivor

Supporting a child who has survived sexual abuse involves a compassionate and thoughtful approach. As a caregiver, it’s essential to navigate your own emotions, which may include anger, sadness, and confusion, especially if the abuser is someone close. Acknowledge these feelings as normal, but focus on the child’s needs. Here are some ways to offer support:

  • Maintain a Stable Environment – Consistent rules and structure can significantly enhance a child’s sense of security.
  • Empower the Child – Providing choices can help restore a sense of control that the abuse might have compromised.
  • Validate All Emotions – Children need to know it’s okay to express any feelings they have, whether it’s anger, sadness, or confusion, safely.
  • Offer Your Support – Above all, listen to them, believe in their experiences, and assure them of your support. Your belief and validation are vital for their healing journey.

Why Filing a Criminal Lawsuit May Not Be Enough

When they feel ready, sexual assault survivors may contact the authorities to file a criminal complaint. However, while seeing their attacker go to jail can provide significant psychological benefits for survivors, they may need additional resources to help their recovery. A civil lawsuit can help survivors recover compensation for medical bills, mental health counseling, lost income, and other expenses related to the assault. These resources can make a noticeable difference in the survivor’s recovery and future quality of life.

Our Houston Sexual Abuse Lawyers Are Here to Help Survivors Navigate the Legal System

Sexual assault survivors deserve all the help they can get and shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden that comes with a criminal or civil legal case. The Houston sexual assault lawyers at Fibich, Leebron, Copeland & Briggs can take on this process so you can focus on healing. Call us today or complete our contact form for a free consultation.