Inspired by courageous local heroes, like Saxon Mullins, Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins, conversations surrounding sexual assault have recently leapt to the forefront of Australian media. And, while national conversation leads to greater topical exposure and potential for change, sadly it also serves as a trigger for survivors of sexual trauma.
Sexual consent is a serious thing. It isn’t an optional concept to be sporadically practiced, or worse, swept beneath the rug. When you consider a nation-wide neglect of safe sexual consent has led to an estimated 1 in 6 women (17%) experiencing an episode of sexual assault since the age of 15, the chance of you knowing one of those 1.6-million women is high.
It begs the question; if a friend reached out to share their experience of sexual assault with you, would you know how to respond? Admittedly it’s hard for anyone to know what to say or how to act in this situation. While there’s no right or wrong way to respond to an experience of sexual trauma, our list of tips on how to support someone who has been sexually assaulted will steer you in a helpful direction.
When someone discloses a sexual assault to you, it means they have identified you as someone they can trust and feel safe with. Holding space for these types of conversations can become heavy, quickly. Know that while lending your ears to actively listen is encouraged, you shouldn’t feel a need to solve all problems or find instant solutions. Being present and absorbing the bulk of the message is enough to minimise the pain and lessen the burden for someone who chooses to share their sexual assault experience with you. In short; refrain from providing advice for the sake of providing advice.
Let them know you believe them
A common fear of sexual assault survivors is that they won’t be believed. The best thing you can do is to let them know they are supported. Whichever stage of the healing journey they are at, knowing that they have your unwavering support will help enormously. Don’t underestimate the power of just being there.
There is no set timeline for sexual trauma recovery, so your patience will be one of the best assets you can bring to your friend’s recovery toolbox. Every human responds differently, so avoid placing pressure to fulfil expected recovery milestones. The fact that someone has been brave enough to share their experience with you is a big enough step in itself.
Create a safe space
It can be extremely challenging for someone to share their experience of sexual assault. Your friend or loved one is opening themselves up to levels of vulnerability beyond the ordinary, so try to be mindful of creating a space where they can feel their most comfortable. This could simply mean moving to a quieter room, switching off televisions, turning off your mobile phone, and remaining judgment free.
The impacts of sexual abuse can be complex and difficult to understand. Although every case is different, educating yourself on the impacts of sexual abuse will help you to grasp a basic understanding of what your friend is going through and how you can best respond. You’ll find the Internet and library to be your best friends, starting here:
Honour their recovery
The road to recovery can look different for each individual survivor. Ultimately, it’s up to your friend or loved one to call the shots on how to move forward with their healing and at what speed. Honour their needs without forcing them to partake in anything they’re not ready for. While professional help will prove beneficial, your friend shouldn’t feel pressured into this stage of recovery until they feel 100-percent ready. Be patient with their needs during every step of the journey.
Healing from sexual assault is a long journey. Once you’ve had the initial conversation, become an ongoing source of support by regularly checking in. Maintaining an open line of communication enables your friend to feel safer in revealing more information when and if they’re ready.
Self-care is important, too
These situations can take a toll on you, mentally and physically. When your friend comes to you, chances are it won’t be a one-time event. The healing process is ongoing, so remember to take some time out of your regular routine to connect with those you feel safest with, write in a journal, meditate, be mindful, lightly exercise, and nap when you feel it’s necessary to recharge.
If you don’t feel comfortable checking in with a friend or family member for confidentiality of your friend or otherwise, seek professional help. You can explore therapy or reach out to telephone support through services like 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732), Lifeline (13 11 14) or the best sexual assault helpline for your state.
In 2018-19, 97% of sexual assault offenders recorded by police in Australia were male. Enough is enough. Women of Australia are tired of being abused, ignored, accused, misled and not believed. When it comes to the respect women and the female body, we certainly are not ovary-acting. The sexual assault needs to stop.
Remember, don’t go it alone. Please reach out for help.
Lifeline: 13 11 14 or lifeline.org.au
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636 or beyondblue.org.au
Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800 or kidshelpline.com.au
Headspace: 1800 650 890 or headspace.org.au
Are you anxious? Take the Beyond Blue quiz to see how you’re tracking and whether you could benefit from support