How do I support someone who has been sexually assaulted?
Sexual assault is common – approximately one in five women experience sexual assault. There are some practical things you can do to help.
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When someone experiences sexual violence, the people they choose to talk to about it play a vital role. A supportive family member, friend or co-worker can be an important source of support and assistance. It can be difficult to know how to respond and you may be concerned about doing the wrong thing. There are some simple things you can do and the following information will help you respond. There is also professional help available.
To learn more about sexual assault you can read, What is sexual assault?
Sexual assault services are one starting point for getting help. They provide advice and information for people who have been recently sexually assaulted, and for people providing support. Details of sexual assault services in each state and territory can be found here. Most services have access to interpreters and after-hours support.
The 1800RESPECT 24-hour phone service can also be a good starting point. 1800RESPECT provides phone counselling, advice and information for people who have experienced sexual violence and for family, friends or workers who are supporting them, phone 1800 733 732.
What to do
Talking about sexual assault can be difficult for victim/survivors. We know that many victim/survivors fear that they will not be believed, that they will be blamed or that their experience will be dismissed or minimised.
The six steps outlined below will help with addressing these fears and supporting someone who has experienced sexual assault.
When someone tells you they have been sexually assaulted your role is to believe, support and help them explore options for what to do next. It’s natural to want to ask lots of questions, but questioning can feel very intrusive. Before asking, listen.
Some people want to talk about their experience immediately, some people do not. Offering to listen without interrupting, and being there and being non-judgemental when a victim/survivor is ready to talk, is an important element of support.
Help explore options
By ensuring that a victim/survivor is aware of their rights and options, you recognise her or his right to have as much control as possible over what happens next. You can help by finding out about services and how to use them. The impacts of sexual assault may make it difficult for a victim/survivor to think about these things immediately. Assistance with finding and accessing services can be a good place to start if the victim survivor wants to pursue this option.
Victim/survivors are never to blame for sexual assault. Sexual assault is never ok. What a person is wearing, their culture, age, drug or alcohol use, or relationship to the perpetrator are never responsible for causing somebody to sexually assault someone else.
Ask before you touch
After a sexual assault, some people do not want to be touched. It is important to ask. For example: 'Are you ok with me giving you a hug?' This way you are less likely to trigger bad memories or a re-experiencing of the trauma associated with the assault.
Acknowledge your own feelings and seek help for yourself
It’s normal to feel upset, even angry, when a loved one goes through something violent and traumatic. Acknowledge your feelings and seek help for yourself when you need it. You can call 1800RESPECT, or talk to a sexual assault services or your health professional.
The impacts of sexual assault
Understanding the impacts can help us support someone who has experienced sexual assault. The effects of sexual assault may be wide-ranging and include physical, emotional and psychological impacts. We know that most sexual assaults are committed by a person who is known and trusted and so effects often unfold in the intimate space of the family or a friendship group. Responding well to the immediate needs of people who have experienced sexual assault may help reduce the harm. Continuing to support people as they heal is also important.
Supporting someone who has experienced a recent sexual assault may also mean talking to them about any physical injuries as well as sexual or other health issues. Things a victim/survivor might be worried about include:
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
Exposure to HIV
General health concerns
A health care practitioner should take into account that the experience of sexual assault takes away a victim/survivor’s sense of control over their own body in a profound way. Any interaction with them needs to maximise their sense of control over their own body and their own decision-making.
Reporting to police
If the victim/survivor wishes to report the assault to the police, there are some important issues to think about. It is useful if someone working with a victim/survivor is aware of how the system works and is able to talk through the key points in a respectful and compassionate way. This provides the victim/survivor with more control and choice.
A victim/survivor may choose not to report to police, or not to have a medical or forensic medical examination. This is a personal choice and must be respected.
In Australia, the police operate independently of religious or political groups. They are guided by the criminal statutes (laws) which are written down and publicly accessible by logging onto the homepage of each state’s parliament. The role of the police is to collect evidence and investigate matters relating to any reported sexual assault.
Things to consider when making a report
Your local sexual assault service can help you to understand the reporting and legal process in your state or territory. Legal language and procedures can be confusing, but you can always ask for anything that’s not clear to be explained in plain language. Don’t hesitate to ask if there’s something you don’t understand.
When children and young people are involved
When children and young people experience sexual assault, the person they first talk to about it can play a very important role in helping with access to protection and support, and in providing ‘emotional first aid’.
Be clear about your role. Children and young people need to be believed, comforted and helped to feel that they are in no way responsible for what has happened. In disclosing, a child or young person is relying on you to act on their behalf to stop the abuse.
Any sexual act with a child is a crime and can be reported to police. Call 000.
If you are supporting a child or a young person who has experienced sexual assault there are services that can help.
In addition to the services listed above in the map, when children and young people are involved there are some important things to remember. Your local sexual assault service or child protection services are sources of information and support in understanding options and planning a response.
Anyone who has concerns about a child should speak to their local child protection service. All states now have mandatory reporting laws. These laws mean that certain people are legally required to report any concerns to the appropriate authority. If you are unsure about whether to report, stop and consult. You can always speak with experts in the area, like your local sexual assault service or state child protection agency, for assistance. 1800RESPECT can provide advice in your language on mandatory reporting, phone 1800 737 732.
When supporting children and young people experiencing sexual assault, your role as an adult is to help them get safe and to take action to end the abuse.
These resources were developed for 1800RESPECT in collaboration with: