How to respond when someone tells you they’ve experienced sexual abuse…
Thank them for telling you
Disclosure is not an easy thing to do. Saying ‘thank you’ actively recognises the huge step someone has taken to ask for help, and acknowledges what they’ve been through.
Listen with empathy & without critique
We’ve all got internalised myths about abuse to un-learn. Listening to what they have to say, without trying to give it a shape based on how we imagine abuse typically happens, is key.
As we try to understand what happened, perhaps to someone we care about, we can have any emotional response. If you’re angry, be clear you’re not angry with the survivor.
Mirror their language
Each person will use different word(s), or none at all, to describe their experiences.
Differences can be due to: language being triggering, shame, shock, and worries about not being believed.
How cultures shape languages make a difference: for some it’s hard to name abuse within marriage as ‘assault’. ‘Rape’ as defined in UK law is limited to a perpetrator with a penis – but individually this term can be used by anyone if it feels appropriate.
Whatever words someone uses, or not, it’s respectful to begin by taking their lead.
Ask them what they need to feel safe and supported
Safety and support can mean different things and change over time.
Listening may be enough, or being available to listen via phone or text.
Trauma can affect our ability to do basic daily tasks. Making someone dinner, accompanying them to go to their local shops – or other practical tasks when they’re too overwhelmed to do so on their own can help.
There is a lot of content and discourse on sexual abuse wherever we go. Respecting a survivor’s boundaries if they find watching/reading/seeing/discussing abuse triggering is important.
Someone’s boundaries on physical touch and intimacy may change as a result of abuse. Doing something simple like asking if they want a hug (before you approach them) may be comforting to some survivors.
Don’t ask them what they did to try and stop the abuse
By its nature, abuse is a loss of power and control: over our minds, bodies, relationships, and interpersonal situations. Asking what someone did to stop it risks victim-blaming and shaming.
Most people’s bodies respond to abuse by freezing (Rape Crisis Scotland, accessed 2023), which is one of our bodies’ automatic survival mechanisms. It’s not a failure to act or failure to ‘do the right thing’ (fight, flight, scream, say no).
Also, lots of people do say ‘no’ and it’s ignored.
People respond to trauma in multiple ways
Trauma responses vary from freeze/shut down/dissociation/depression to fight/flight/anger/panic/anxiety – and everything in between (NICABM, accessed 2023). Some people re-live trauma via flashbacks/nightmares/intrusive memories and others don’t.
The idea that someone is ‘too upset’ or ‘not upset enough’ represents a societal myth of ‘the perfect victim’. There is no perfect victim and we shouldn’t have victims at all.
Don’t assume that further disclosure is a safe & viable option
Most instances of abuse occur between people who have some sort of pre-existing relationship such as a: friend, partner, family member, work colleague, community member (Office for National Statistics, 2021).
Having abuse be known can mean risking: personal safety, a place in one’s community including family, financial security, contact with their children, employment, a place at university, relationships with others, and housing.
Reporting to the Police is not a safe option for all (Centre for Women’s Justice et al., 2020) . It can in fact risk increase the risk of violence from perpetrators (Tavarez, 2021). It is also not a form of guaranteed safety, as the criminal justice process for sexual offences can take months/years and conviction rates are low (Home Office, 2023).
What else would you add?
All online sources accessed in September 2023.
Home Office (2023) Crime Outcomes in England and Wales, Year to December 2022.
National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioural Medicine. How to Help Your Clients Understand Their Window of Tolerance.
Office for National Statistics (2021) Nature of Sexual Assault by Rape or Penetration,England and Wales: Year Ending March 2020.
Rape Crisis Scotland:
Tavarez, L. P. (2021) Waiting to Tell: Factors Associated with Delays in Reporting Sexual Violence. City University of New York.
Centre for Women’s Justice, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Imkaan and Rape Crisis England and Wales (2020) ‘The Decriminalisation of Rape: Why the justice system is failing rape survivors and what needs to change’.