Agony aunt: how to help someone who has been sexually assaulted

Receiving the news that a friend/family member has been sexually assaulted can be devastating, frightening, even confusing. You may feel overwhelmed by the situation and you are not to be blamed for this. Most people do not imagine that they will ever be affected by this issue. But how can you help? It is natural to feel anger towards the perpetrator—how dare they hurt someone you love?—but this may not be the ideal moment to express your rage. Try to create a calm, safe space in which the victim/survivor can disclose as much or as little as they wish about the assault. The important thing to do is listen. As difficult as it may be, try not to interrupt them; be patient and understanding.

After assuring the victim/survivor that you both believe and support them, the next step is to encourage them to seek professional help. This may take time: opening up to a stranger about such an intimate issue can, understandably, prove daunting. However, in the vast majority of cases, receiving professional support speeds up the emotional, mental and physical healing process after an attack. Reassuringly, there are many confidential services which allow victims/survivors of sexual assault to talk freely about their experience, without pressure to disclose personal details or escalate the issue to the level of a criminal investigation. The only professional process which has a ‘deadline’ is the collection of medical evidence of an assault. It is recommended that this is carried out by the police within 72 hours of the attack. Of course, only the victim/survivor can decide whether or not to report the incident to the police.

Sadly, all too often, victims/survivors of sexual assault feel unable to share their experience, silenced by the fear of judgement, victim-blame or not being believed. It is important to be aware that any person can be sexually assaulted, regardless of age, gender or sexuality. Equally, we cannot assume that every assailant will be male and lurking down a dark alley. Although this horrific situation does occur, we must remember that sexual assault can be committed by anyone, anywhere. If someone has chosen to entrust you with this delicate information, do not invalidate their emotions and experience simply because they are not the ‘typical victim’ of sexual assault.

If you or a loved one have been affected by any of the issues discussed in this article, below are a list of services which provide advice and support for victims of sexual abuse:

The Hazlehurst Centre SARC (Sexual Assault Referral Centre), Leeds – Confidential, anonymous and free support, information and medical examinations.
Phone: 0330 223 3617
Address (appointment only): The Hazlehurst Centre SARC, 665 Leeds Road, Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, WF12 7HP

Safeline – Counselling and support services for those who have experienced sexual abuse and rape.
Helpline: 0808 800 5008
General Enquiries: 0192 6402 498

Rape Crisis – Umbrella body for a network of local independent Rape Crisis Centres.
Phone: 0808 802 9999 (between the hours of 12-14:30 and 19:00-21:30)

NHS Choices – Advice on what action to take immediately after a sexual assault.

Lily Mead

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