Responding to Survivors of Sexual Assault /Abuse

A topic many would like to avoid if they could, sexual assault and sexual abuse are occurring far too often still on a global scale. This post is not within the usual genre of taking a funnier perspective on life situations, but rather to raise awareness and provide information on the signs and ways to respond to and support survivors of sexual assault.

Recent events in the news got be thinking how, even though we do hear about it, many cases still go unreported. When working in the field with abused children as well as later in private practice, the regularity of sexual assault/abuse cases is far too high..
I hope the information in this post will benefit anyone interested in the topic, be it a mental health professional, a teacher, as a parent, a friend, or even the victim/survivor. I will be using the term ‘survivor’ as well as ‘victim’. I do not intend to separate to two, but rather use both terms to indicate that although someone can be a victim of the crime itself, they have survived the experience.. and that takes guts!

There are many myths out there around sexual assault and they seem to be passed on from generation to generation. When these myths are finally challenged, survivors’ own experiences begin to tell us about the realities of rape.

Myth –> Rape is a sexual crime
Reality: Rape is a violent assault that is acted out, in part, sexually. Through psychological, verbal and physical abuse, rape violates someone’s personal integrity and their sense of safety and control of life is compromised.

Myth –> Rape happens when the attacker loses self-control
Reality: Attackers who rape, know very well what they are doing, rape is an act of control

Myth –> Most rapes involved people of different race.
Reality: Most rapes involve people of the same cultural background, however, some rapists do rape out of racial hatred we well as hatred towards women.

Myth –> Rape only happens to women by men, not the other way around.
Reality: There are many cases where a woman is the perpetrator and a man the victim.

As mentioned earlier, the rate of under reporting is the highest when it comes to rape and sexual assault. There can be many reasons why someone would not report rape. Some of the reasons given by the people I have worked with in the past include: they told someone else, fear, shame and many didn’t really know why they chose not to report it.

I don’t mean to scare anyone with these statistics, but would rather like to raise an awareness of what can be out there and how we could recognize the possible signs if someone we know has been assaulted and how we could approach and support them.

Being sexually assaulted is an overwhelming experience which can lead to a whole range of emotions. It is also a very personal experience and there is no right or wrong way to react, as everyone is different. The following are based on the responses from people who have survived a sexual offence and who have identified these impacts. (Please note that survivors of sexual assault/abuse may display some of the impacts or may not display any initially).

– Shock and Disbelief (in the days following the assault, some may feel a sense of shock or a general feeling of numbness)
– Fear (after the assault, some are known to be afraid of people, afraid to be alone or afraid the attacker will come back. Some also have a fear of not being believed)
– Anger (people may be angry for many reasons. The anger is not necessarily a negative emotion as they have every right to feel angry about what happened. It is important to work out a safe way to express this anger)
– Shame and Embarrassment (some people feel ashamed and feel others can tell what has happened even without knowing the story.)
– Guilt (for a variety of reasons, people who have been assaulted feel guilty and tend to blame themselves)

Child sexual abuse

Unfortunately, rape doesn’t only occur amongst adults and the staggering and ever changing statistics of child sexual abuse is something I’ll never get used to. In the larger percentage of child sexual abuse cases, the perpetrator is known by the child. Unfortunately it is a very hard fact to prove and from the numerous cases I have investigated, very few attackers were prosecuted and sentenced.

Sexual abuse in children is most commonly observed through emotional and behavioral indicators. Such indicators may be subtle and are attributed to other concerns or problems that the child may be experiencing. The presence of the below indicators should not be considered in isolation. Although it is important to be aware of some of the signs, there may be a number of explanations, aside from child sexual abuse, to account for some of these behaviors. Some of the indicators that may suggest abuse (in collaboration with each other) include:
– Anxiety and Aggression
– Arousal /Promiscuity (sexualised behaviors)
– Sexual pre-maturity (age- inappropriate knowledge on certain sexualised behaviors)
– Change in mood and/or Emotionless
– Smearing faeces or blood on the alleged location of sexual abuse
– Sudden bed wetting
– Detachment and Isolation
– Eating Problems
– Suddenly reverting back to being a younger child (e.g.: sucking thumb again, talking in a baby voice etc)

If you are concerned that your child may have experienced some form of abuse, look at the bigger picture and get all the information first. If your child does disclose any information that may suggest they have been harmed, it is important to contact the correct authorities who have been trained in obtaining all the evidence and can help you in supporting your child.

Supporting survivors of sexual assault/abuse

There is definitely not a black and white ‘How To’ Guide to tell us the exact steps to take to support each victim of sexual assault, as every person is different and every survivor copes differently. So what can we do when someone we know tells us they have been sexually assaulted? These are some suggestions I have found useful in the past when working with survivors of sexual offences.

– Try to contain your shock (this is especially important with children. If they are met with a sudden outburst of anger, confusion and rage, they are likely to shut down more and not want to disclose any further information)

– Believe (actively listen to them and don’t interrupt their story. Ask open ended questions where needed eg: “Then what happened?”)

– Remind them it is not their fault (don’t ask them what they were wearing or why they didn’t fight back).

– Don’t tell them what to do (as much as you want them to get the right help and support, telling them what they ‘need’ or ‘have’ to do, is stripping them from their power, just like the perpetrator did. Asking genuinely if they feel they should get medical attention or talk to a professional can be a good start).

– When dealing with child abuse – contact the correct authorities (Police and Child Safety Services)

– Remind them that there is no wrong or right way to react after being assaulted and that your door is always open for you to listen to them.

– Be aware of ‘secondary trauma’. As a witness or supporter to someone who has experienced such a traumatic event, we can’t help but take some of the emotional pain in as well. It is important to acknowledge that this will also affect you and that this is a normal reaction to have. Finding appropriate coping strategies to manage this will not only give you a greater understanding of the topic but can prevent interference in providing your support to the survivor themselves.

Again, this post did not focus on the usual aim to take a lighter look on life, but I thank you for taking the time to read this regardless, and to raise further awareness on the every growing number of sexual assault cases out there.



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