If there’s anything the #MeToo movement highlighted, it’s that sexual assault is a horrendously common experience. Despite the fact that it’s so prevalent, it’s hard to know what to say or do when you find out a loved one has been sexually assaulted.
Of course, everybody reacts to sexual assault differently and everybody heals differently. These are general suggestions that help most of the time. That said, prioritize treating your loved one as an individual. It’s best to communicate with them about what they need or don’t need.
Here are some situation-specific tips to guide what you say and do if your loved one tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted.
When They First Tell You About the Assault
If someone opens up enough to tell you about the sexual assault, it means that they trust you. Thank them for telling you, and reassure them that you’re there to support them. Remind them that they’re loved, valued, and believed—but don’t pressure them into talking about the assault.
“It is important that the family does not push the loved one to talk if they are not ready yet,” says Ginger Poag, LCSW, a trauma therapist with Brentwood Wellness Counseling. “Everyone is on their own individual time frame, and some people will be ready to talk before others,” she says. Instead, let them know that you’re there for them to talk whenever they need you.
“Listen to and believe the victim,” says Nancy Irwin, PsyD, a therapist, clinical hypnotist, and author. “Do your best not to overreact to the horror of the event, but rather focus on the healing and that recovery is possible.”
If They’re Having a Panic Attack
Panic attacks after assaults are, unfortunately, quite normal. If your loved one is having a panic attack, remain calm and tell them to inhale and exhale slowly, suggests Poag. “Encourage the individual to bring awareness to their breath and to become more mindful of it. This will allow the brain to shift its focus from the panic to their breathing.”
Poag also suggests helping them change their environment, for example, by encouraging them to walk into a different room. This will change their focus. Irwin also suggests using breathing techniques and taking a calm walk or giving them a glass of water afterward.
If they’re having panic attacks so frequently that it’s interfering with their daily life, they could consider talking to their physician about medication.
If They Blame Themselves for the Assault
Unfortunately, we live in a society where victims and survivors of sexual assault are often blamed for what happened to them. Often, we internalize those messages. If your loved one seems to blame themselves for their assault, reiterate—more than once—that it isn’t their fault. Remind them that it is entirely the fault of the perpetrator.
“Self-blame is common, and this is often an attempt to explain the inexplicable,” Irwin says. “Sometimes it is hard to accept that bad things happen to good people; so if I’m at fault, I don’t have to accept that truth.”
If Their Depression Means They’re Struggling to Function
Many people dissociate from their bodies during sexual assault, and they might still feel “distanced” from their bodies for a while afterward. As a result, they might struggle to perform basic hygiene tasks, like showering or brushing their hair.
“Encourage your friend or family member to start taking small steps, perhaps a shower is too much for them at this time … encourage them to at least change their clothes,” Poag suggests. “The next day encourage them again to shower, or do another grooming task. It is important not to push too quickly. Approach the situation with baby steps,” she says.
Practical help can also be useful for them. For example, you could bring them a warm meal, wash their dishes, or offer to drive them to an appointment. These things could help break the cycle of overwhelm: The less overwhelmed your loved one feels, the more they’ll be able to feel calm enough to work through their emotions.
If They Say They Feel Like Hurting Themselves
“Listen to the person, and take what they have to say seriously,” says Poag. “If the person has a plan [to commit suicide] then they must be evaluated immediately at the hospital. If the individual is having thoughts without a plan, it’s still important to get professional help.”
Offer to stay with them to provide company through this time, Poag suggests. Consider removing weapons they could use to harm themselves. Remind them that they’re loved, valued, and supported, and encourage them to consider therapy if they aren’t already seeing a therapist. For more information, check out the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 800.273.TALK (8255).
If Their Sex Drive or Libido Has Changed
Your loved one might experience a change in libido or sex drive after sexual assault. Poag notes that one of two things happen: Either there’s a decrease in libido or an increase in promiscuity. If there’s a decrease in sex drive, Poag says that this shouldn’t be taken personally by a person’s partner.
If your loved one seems to have an increase in sex drive, this is normal too. “The victim or survivor can become very promiscuous with strangers and begin to act out sexually. If this behavior is seen, don’t be alarmed because it does happen,” Poag says. “It is important to encourage them to receive professional help as soon as possible, because this behavior can also be very traumatizing to the individual.”
If They’d Like to Go to Therapy or a Support Group, but They’re Hesitant
Therapy and support groups are excellent sources of help for anyone processing trauma. For many people, though, attending therapy or support groups seems scary. Opening up to strangers about trauma can, after all, be an intimidating concept.
“Explaining the importance of getting professional help is a great way to encourage the individual to receive counseling,” Poag says. “Explain to the person that the therapist has insight that will be very beneficial in starting the healing process.”
They might also feel like their situation wasn’t “bad enough” to warrant therapy. Many people downplay their trauma or feel that it’s not serious compared to what others have experienced. In this case, reiterate that everybody can benefit from therapy and that it’s worth trying out.
Poag suggests offering to accompany your loved one to therapy. This can help them feel supported, especially if they’re nervous about talking to someone. Irwin suggests speaking to local rape crisis centers for recommendations on therapists and support groups.
If They Seem to Have Body Image Issues After the Assault
Eating disorders are very prevalent in people who have experienced sexual assault. According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), eating disorders often develop as a way responding to trauma and managing PTSD. There is also a strong correlation between body image issues and sexual assault, with those who have experienced sexual assault having a lower sense of self-esteem.
“The survivor may blame their body or be angry at it, especially if there was a biological response during the assault,” Poag says. “Sometimes individuals will begin to view their bodies as separate [from] them.” Poag recommends trauma therapy to address body image issues if they are present.
Remember to take care of yourself, too. Hearing about the assault of a loved one can be traumatic in itself, so take time to process your response. Poag suggests joining support groups for the loved ones of people who have been sexually assaulted. “At these support meetings, family members will be able to share their thoughts and feelings with other individuals that are going through a similar situation,” she says. “Family members are offered a lot of support and encouragement, and don’t feel as though they are handling this difficult time alone.”
Remind yourself that you’re only one person, and you might not be expertly equipped to deal with their trauma. This is why therapy, support groups, rape crisis hotlines, and other resources exist. Consider visiting a local rape crisis center, visiting RAINN’s website, or calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) if you need help.