It’s ok, not to know how to respond
You do not have to be an expert or know all the right things to say to be able to help someone who has experienced sexual violence. The fact that the person has raised the issue with you indicates that they believe you are someone who can be trusted and supportive.
Each person will react differently to what they experienced and will seek different kinds of help at different times.
You don't have to know all the right things to say.
Listen carefully to what the person is saying. Let them speak at their own pace, and reveal as much information as they are comfortable sharing.
Try not to interrupt or ask lots of questions as the person may feel like they are interrogated.
You do not need to know all the details, try not to ask for more information about the actual events than is volunteered.
Stay calm and present. Try to focus on how the person is feeling. Try not to allow your own feelings (e.g. shock horror, anger, outrage, sadness or disgust) stop you from offering your support.
The survivor could misinterpret expression of these feelings as a rejection of them or support for a belief that sexual abuse is a shameful/awful/disgusting topic that they should not be mentioning.
It can be extremely difficult for survivors to come forward and share their story. They may feel ashamed, fear they won't be believed, or worried they may be blamed. Leave any "why" questions or investigations to the experts – your job is to support this person. Be careful not to interpret calmness or a lack of visible distress as a sign that the event did not occur. Everyone responds to traumatic events differently. The best thing you can do is believe them.
Encourage the person to seek professional help
There are specialist sexual assault and counselling support services through Queensland that the person can access in person or by phone. Specialist sexual assault services can help people to heal from their experience. You can find out more about the Queensland Sexual Assault Network via the services page.
Things that may be helpful to say
“I believe you,” and “It took a lot of courage to tell me about this.”
“It’s not your fault,” and “You didn’t do anything to deserve this.” Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind the survivor, that they are not to blame.
“You are not alone,” and “I care about you and am here to listen or help in any way I can.” Let the survivor know that you are there for them and willing to listen to their story if they are comfortable sharing it.
“I’m sorry this happened,” and “This shouldn’t have happened to you.” Acknowledge that the experience has affected their life. Phrases like “This must be really tough for you,” and “I’m so glad you are sharing this with me,” help to communicate empathy.
Things that can be unhelpful to say
“Are you sure?” To be supportive, we need to start by believing. It is extremely rare for someone to make up a story about sexual assault.
“It could have been worse.”
“What were you doing/wearing?”
“Were you drinking?”
“Did you try to say no?”
These responses minimise the person's pain and experience, and implies that the person is responsible for the sexual violence.
Source: Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia
Accept the person's choice of what to do about the sexual assault
Ask them what they need, help them to explore their options and encourage them to make their own decisions. It is very important that the survivor makes their own decisions and has them respected.
Offer confidentiality – with limits
It is extremely important to respect the confidentiality of the survivor and respect their right to manage how their information is shared. If you have concerns for the person's safety or other people's safety, or if the person is child, there may be limits to your ability to keep their information confidential. You may wish to talk with the person about how you can both work together to keep themselves and others safe from further harm.
When a child discloses
If the person disclosing to you is a child, you may have a legal obligation to report any disclosure to a state child protection authority. For example, teachers, and a range of health professionals may have what is called a "mandatory reporting requirement.”
We cannot promise a child absolute confidentiality, but many of the principles of supporting a child are the same as above. For example, we can make sure that they know we are glad they have told someone and that we want to do what we can to make sure they are safe. We can assure them it’s not their fault and start from believing.
It is important to seek advice and support about how to best ensure the child's safety and that they have access to the right supports. Your local sexual assault service or child protection authority can be useful places to discuss your concerns.
If you want more information about how to respond to a child disclosing sexual assault or abuse, please click here to refer to a helpful Kids Helpline resource.
Sometimes support means providing resources, such as how to reach support services, seek medical attention, or report the crime to the police.
Some simple practical ideas which may be useful to offer include company, transport to appointments, child care, grocery shopping or cooking a meal. It is important that you talk with the survivor and check in with them about what they need. By being available, patient and understanding, you can assist a survivor to reduce the impact of sexual violence on their life.
Providing consistent support is important, given that there can be ups and downs, good periods and difficult periods, even in a single day. Remember, sometimes things appear to get worse before they get better. Being consistent and dependable can have a positive impact in and of itself.
Support for yourself
It is normal to be impacted yourself when someone has disclosed to you their experience of sexual violence. You may feel many things, including shock, anger, powerless, sadness or confusion. You may need to seek your own support. Many QSAN services also provide support to the families and friends of survivors. Remember, the stronger and better supported you are, the more able you will be provide assistance to someone.
Information for intimate partners
If you are an intimate partner of someone who has been subjected to sexual violence, be aware that actions in the present can bring back uncomfortable memories and trigger strong emotions. Sometimes they will not want to be sexual, or even close and physically affectionate. At other times becoming physically close and sexually intimate may be welcomed. If you are unsure about what they want, ask before acting, and recognise that what they wants may change quite quickly. Also, it is important to ensure that your choices are also respected, and to remember that there is no excuse for abusive behaviour. The reality is that relationships work best where both parties feel supported, able to discuss options and have their preferred ways of doing things respected.