If you know someone who has experienced sexual abuse or assault…
- Believe: When an individual comes forward and discloses an experience of abuse, it is essential that they are taken seriously. Responses that insinuate disbelief or skepticism will further harm the victim and compound their trauma. Many people do not speak about their experiences of abuse precisely because they fear being blamed or not being believed. The most compassionate response is to listen nonjudgmentally
- Validate: Show empathy and affirm that whatever happened to them is NOT their fault. Most people who have been victimized or violated blame themselves. You hear this in comments such as, “I shouldn’t have gone to his house,” “I didn’t do anything to resist it, I should have said something” “It’s my fault because I let it happen.” There is only one person at fault and responsible for abusive behavior and that is person who abuses their power and takes advantage of someone’s vulnerability. It is so important for victim-survivors of any kind of abuse to hear that the abuse or violation is NOT their fault, and that there is nothing they did to deserve it.
- Assess Safety: The safety and wellbeing of those we care about should be our utmost priority. If the abuse happened recently or is ongoing it is imperative to explore any safety concerns the individual may have and ways to mitigate risks. See safety planning.
- Empower: Abuse is the ultimate form of taking away power and control from an individual. When someone comes forward and discloses abuse, we need to trust that they are the expert of their experience and respect how they would like to proceed. Present options, but refrain from discouraging or encouraging certain actions. For example, unless the situation involves the abuse of a minor or the perpetrator is in a position of power with access to other vulnerable peoples, the decision to report abuse or sexual violence to the police is up to the victim. Reporting abuse or assault to the police may or may not be what the individual needs to further their healing and seek justice.
- Refer: Connect the individual to resources or organizations that can assist them and help them explore their options. If you are a pastor it is appropriate to offer spiritual support and coordinate practical assistance for the individual. However, any type of post-trauma counselling needs to be offered by a trained professional. There are many faith-based counselors trained to provide therapy to victim-survivors of abuse. It is essential that you make a referral if the individual wishes to receive counselling.
- Responding to the perpetrator -Unless the victim asks, do not try and intervene or confront the perpetrator. Intervening without the victim’s consent could escalate the abuse and put them at greater danger. Always follow the victim’s lead and if they want some action taken always assess safety concerns. Click here for more information on responding to and supporting those who offend.
- Follow up – Offer to check in with the individual periodically to see how they are doing. You can ask about coping, support, and safety.
Responding to Sexual Assault: Three common mistakes and what to do instead
RAINN – Helping someone you care about
RAINN – Things you can say in response
Safety Planning with Adult Sexual Assault Survivors: A guide for advocates and attorneys