Not only do we spend time supporting victims of various incidents and occurrences, we often spend time supporting and providing information to those folks who will be the support system long after we’re gone from the scene. One of the most challenging areas for many people is learning how to support a survivor of sexual violence. They’re worried they’ll say the wrong thing; worried they’ll make the person upset; worried they won’t know what to say; worried that they’ll be too upset to be much help. There isn’t a list of rules out there that dictates you need to do “x, y and z” to help support someone but there are some general guidelines to keep in mind. Considering the amount of people who have been victims of sexual violence in this world, chances are you may have been thrown into the supporter role at some point or another (or you will be in the future). Here is what we’ve found to be the most helpful when trying to figure out how to support another person.
1. Accept the fact that you can’t make it go away. Nothing you can do or say is going to ‘undo’ what has happened. Support isn’t about trying to make it seem like it never happened so coming at it from a “making it go away” point of view will likely frustrate both you and the person you’re trying to help. Instead, keeping an open and non-judgemental perspective will make things much better for both of you. Don’t be afraid to talk about it but follow the lead of the victim. Being scared and shying away from the issue can be seen as disrespectful. Being able to face the issue with the person who is seeking support can be very helpful for a survivor.
2. Let the victim call the shots in terms of when they want to talk and how much they want to talk. Some people like to talk a lot and need to talk repeatedly about the same thing over and over again in order to process it. That’s a not a sign that something is wrong, it’s just the way they need to do it. There is nothing wrong with allowing this to happen and let them process it as much as they need to. Alternatively, some people keep things very closely locked inside and they need to work it out in their heads first before they can talk to others. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with this and trying to force someone to talk before they’re ready is really not good for them.
3. Accept that your version of when you think your partner / friend / loved one, should be “all better” and able to move on is likely not the same as your partner / friend or loved ones version. People move at their own pace and be careful not to impose your timeline on someone else. That is not helpful at all for the victim. It’s their life, their journey. Don’t ever make them feel like they should be “over it”. That just causes more harm to the person trying to heal.
4. Never second-guess the victim’s behaviour either before, during or after an assault or incident. Don’t second guess their version of what they’re saying to you (“are you sure??”); don’t try to investigate the facts; don’t offer “should have’s and shouldn’t have’s” (as those are judgement calls that are harmful during the recovery time and get back to victim blaming). Just listen and provide support.
5. It’s usually not helpful to compare the victim’s story to another person’s, “I remember my cousin Sue who was raped by three guys and she…”. They don’t need to be told that they’re lucky to be alive or lucky that it could have been worse. Most people fear for their lives and / or well-being during an attack and only they can decide if they feel “lucky” in relation to what else might have happened. Each assault is different. Each assailant acts differently, each victim responds in their own unique way.
6. Respect confidentiality. Never tell another person’s story without their permission. It is a privilege to help another person and that privilege needs to be taken seriously. Breaching confidentiality will re-traumatize the person all over again and can cause harm.
7. Recognize that this can be emotionally draining to be in this role and take time for yourself and / or get help for yourself as needed. Walking with someone as they go along their journey can be difficult and be traumatizing for the helpers. Spend time learning about vicarious or secondary trauma and do what you can to take care of yourself in the process.