Supporting Victims

Being a family member or friend of a sexual assault survivor poses complex challenges. This page is meant to provide additional information for family and friends to better understand, support, and navigate supporting survivors. 
 
Nobody Ever Deserves to Be Raped, Sexually Assaulted, or Abused:
 
NEVER Blame the Survivor:
  • There are times when it is difficult for family and friends not to blame the survivor, especially if the rape happened when the survivor was doing something you know to be risky behavior.  It won’t help the survivor now to hear comments like “How could you have been so foolish?”  or “You should have known better.” 
  • Instead of blaming, a survivor needs you to be supportive while they recover from the attack.
  • This is not the time to question the survivor.  “Why didn’t you run away?”  “Why didn’t you yell for help?”  “Why didn’t you kick?”  What they did or didn’t do is not important right now.  They lived through it, so whatever they did was the right thing to do. 

Don’t Blame Yourself:
  • One of the most important things for you to remember is that whatever you did or did not do, you are not to blame for someone else’s rape.  It is not the victim’s fault, and it is not your fault. The rapist is the one who committed the crime. However, families and friends of survivors often spend time blaming themselves or the survivor instead of concentrating on the positive things they can do to help their loved one cope with the effects of the assault.
  • You may blame yourself because you think it was your duty to protect the victim.  It is unrealistic to think that you can, or should, always be there to prevent bad things from happening.  Your response to the survivor and the things that you do now can make a difference for both of you after an assault has happened.

 

If the Survivor Blames You:
  • If a survivor becomes angry at you, or blames you for the rape, or the circumstances leading to it, it is important for you to understand what they are going through before you act. Very often rape survivors generalize their anger, which really should be directed at the rapist. The survivor was unable to show their anger to the rapist, and you may be a safe target for them to express some of the fear and anger they are feeling.
  • It may help to let the survivor express these feelings, then let them know that you are angry too, but you are not the rapist.  You are on their side.
 
Responding:
 

Understanding Your Own Response:

  • Much as the survivor may respond with shock and disbelief, you too may need some time to accept the reality of the rape.  When someone you care about is raped, it can be as if the crime happened to you also.  Once the shock has worn off, you may respond with many of the same feelings they are experiencing such as depression, anger and fear. 

 

  • You may be uncomfortable about telling other people.  Maybe you are holding onto some myths about rape and feel ashamed.  You may fear that others will blame you for not protecting your loved one, or you may want to protect the survivor from being treated differently.  You need to resolve these issues, rather than cover up the rape.
 
What To Say:
  • I’m here for you
  • I believe you
  • You didn’t deserve this
  • I’ll support whatever decision you make

 

What To Do:
  • Encourage the survivor to take good care of themselves  by taking a walk, writing in a journal or listening to music.
  • Just listen.
  • Offer choices such as reporting to the police, going to the hospital or talking to a counselor.

 

Believe Your Loved One:
  • It is not necessary for you to decide if your loved one was “really raped”, or if there is enough evidence to prove they were raped in a court of law.  They are saying they were raped, and that is enough.  They feel violated and they need your support. 
  • Your acceptance and support of the survivor will make a big difference in how they recover from this traumatic event.  You are a part of their social network, and right now they need acceptance and reassurance that you still care.  Your response could be crucial at the time and more significant than you will ever realize. 

Reassure Your Loved One:
  • A survivor needs reassurance that their survival is all that really matters.  They acted on instinct at the time and that is the best that anyone can do.  The victim also needs reassurance that to you they are the same worthwhile person they were before the attack.  A survivor needs to know that you still value and care about them. 
  • The survivor may be afraid that you will feel differently about them if you know the terrible things the rapist did.  Assure your loved one that you accept and respect them. 
  • A survivor is often scared and angry, not only because of the rape, but also because of the emotions they are experiencing such as fear, anxiety and depression.  These extreme feelings may make the survivor feel like they are “going crazy”, they know it’s not normal to be afraid to go out of the house or be left alone in the dark.  Reassure your loved one that after a rape this fear is very normal.  It’s something that many survivors experience and it does not mean they are going crazy.
  • Many survivors feel dirty or ashamed after the assault.  They may feel like everyone knows they were raped and are judging or looking at them.  Reassure the survivor that they are not dirty, the assault is not a reflection on who they are. 
  • Listening without judging is one of the most helpful things you can do during this time.  As you continue to listen, the survivor will trust you with more and more information. 

 

Let Them Know How You Feel:
  • If you are honest with your feelings, the survivor may find it easier to be honest as well.  If you feel angry at the rapist or upset that you loved one is in so much pain because of what they have to go through, let them know.  If you feel like crying, do so. 

Practice Patience:
  • One of the most unfortunate yet frequently faced dilemmas of rape survivors is the expectation from others that they should be “over it.”  It may be hard for you.  You may be tired of hearing about the assault and the fears that have resulted.  You may be feeling anxious for things to return to normal.  Don’t tell them to “just forget about it”, that’s impossible.  There is no timetable for healing.  Moving on from an assault may take months or years.  Be patient.  Encourage the survivor to continue to take good care of themselves and healing will come.

 

Responding to Survivors Preferring Privacy
  • If your loved one is unwilling or unable to talk to you about the assault, they may have another support person they feel more comfortable talking to.  Teenagers may have trouble talking to parents.  Suggest other adults the survivor can go to such as a school counselor, another family member or a church member.  Perhaps they are not ready to talk to anyone at all about the assault.  Some survivors are unable to talk about the assault for weeks or months.  Others have told no one even years later. 
  • If you know a survivor that seems unable to talk about the assault, you may want to give them permission to talk about it.  Don’t be afraid to ask about it.  If they don’t feel like talking, they’ll let you know.  Be patient and allow them to address issues when they are ready.

Police and Medical Attention:
 
Don’t Take The Law Into Your Own Hands:
  • After a rape, often the first reaction of family and friends is to try and get revenge.  Like the survivor, you are reacting to the rage, confusion, and disorientation common after a serious life crisis.  While these initial impulses to strike out at someone are really quite common, when they go unchecked, they can end up getting you hurt or in jail.  Should that happen, not only are you unavailable to help the survivor, but now the survivor has another crisis to worry about. 

 

Contacting The Police And Getting Medical Attention:
  • You should not call the police without the victims consent.  In being raped, they have just been in a situation where they were being controlled by someone else.  Don’t take more control from them.  It is extremely important for you to realize that just because the survivor may not have reported the rape to the police, and perhaps still does not want to report, does not mean that they were not really raped.   The decision to report to the police is the survivors. 
  • It is important to encourage the victim to get medical attention.  Even if they look alright, there may be internal injuries.  You can reassure them that they are important to you, and that their health is important to you.  The survivor does not need to hide or be ashamed of what happened.  They were the victim of a crime.  Part of surviving is taking care of their bodies, now that they have control of it.  However, they are the ones who have to go through the physical exam, so only they can make the decision to do so.
 
Provide Support Without Taking Over:
  • Wanting to rescue a rape survivor, to become over protective, is a normal response.  However, the survivor must be allowed to make their own choices, and to live their lives as they see fit.  The desire to rescue and protect the “helpless” victim is a pitfall many family members, friends and partners fall into.  The survivor may look weak and helpless, but they are not.  Helping the survivor can be done without taking ove, or taking control away from them.  Give the survivor choices, and support whatever decisions they make. 

© 2013 Sexual Assault Recovery Program, A Program of Family Services of Southern Wisconsin and Northern Illinois, Inc.