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Support a victim of Sexual Assault
Sexual assault is traumatic and survivors may take many years to heal. Someone to trust is very important as this person can help empower a woman to begin putting her life back together. What comes first though, is belief.
The initial reaction to a disclosure affects that person’s recovery and re-establishment of her self-assurance. The key reason women who have experienced sexual assault do not disclose is the worry they won’t be believed. Serious thought goes into the effect of a disclosure on her personal and family life, including prospective partners and future marriage.
A compassionate and validating response is the first step in supporting a friend or relative dealing with the physical injury and emotional impact of sexual assault.
“Sweet is the voice of a sister in the season of sorrow.”
– Benjamin Disraeli
A person who is assaulted is not to blame. Yet some people in the community remain quick to judge. If instead, we respond with comfort and understanding, women gain the respect they need and deserve. The Jewish Taskforce Against Family Violence hosts school education, special events and Rabbinic seminars to help build awareness of sexual assault and other family violence.
Responding to survivors
Finding the right words to support someone who tells you about a rape or sexual assault can be difficult. First set aside your own feelings that may include some strong emotions (such as shock) or leave you unsure about how to react. But remember this is her story to tell in her own way.
Company and comfort are important.
Don’t make assumptions about contact. While some people prefer not to be touched, others may want to be hugged.
Allow her to tell you as much or as little as she feels able. Don’t press for details. She’ll share what she needs to about what’s happened.
Some positive things you can say to help a survivor include:
- It wasn’t your fault.
- Thank you for telling me. This must be hard for you to share.
- I’m sorry this happened to you.
- I’m always here for you.
- Can I do anything to help you?
- Thank you for sharing this with me.
Support in healing
Every person and situation is different, but all women who experience sexual assault need support. Reinforce with the survivor that she is not to blame. And follow this simple H E A L principle:
H is for Honour
Act with integrity by guarding her shared confidence and protecting her trust at every turn. Make no judgements about what has happened or why.
E is for Empathy
Put yourself in her shoes. Survivors of sexual assault are racked by feelings of guilt, shame and responsibility for the attack. They are likely to crave understanding and may be offended by pity.
A is for Accept
Trust that what she tells you is how events unfolded. Victims are far more likely to underplay what has happened than to exaggerate the details of a sexual assault.
L is for Loyal
Be the person she can trust. Accompany her to the hospital, police or therapist and help her to find professionals who can assist in restoring her physical and emotional wellbeing.
Be prepared for …
A range of responses are completely normal as women heal after sexual assault. Two of the most common are:
If this happens in your presence, you need to help her restore calm. Remind her where she is and that she is safe with you. Take deep breaths with her and, if she has been prescribed anxiety medication, remind her now is the time to take it.
Take extra care during flashbacks as the survivor may be reliving the assault and react unpredictably. Remove anything that may inadvertently trigger a memory (such as music or TV). Speak slowly and tell her you know it seems real but she’s remembering. Encourage her to take calm, gentle breaths.
JTAFV can provide a range of helpful publications to support people healing after sexual assault. To discuss your concern confidentially or for more information on how to help, contact the Jewish Taskforce Support Line.