At Our Voice, we also serve “secondary survivors” – family, friends, parents, partners, and allies of those who have experienced sexual trauma. These resources are here to support YOU in how you support your loved one.
How You May Be Impacted
Shock. It may feel like your world has been torn apart. You may experience silence, numbness, or feeling as if you are watching yourself go through daily routines. This is normal, and it will pass, and usually gives way to other feelings.
Anger. You may feel angry at the perpetrator, especially if it is someone you know. You may be tempted to hurt that person, which can make things even worse. It’s not worth the potential of going to jail or adding to your own traumatic experience. While anger is normal, it’s also important to make room for your loved one’s feelings. If you are busy screaming and yelling, your loved one may feel overwhelmed by your anger, and like there isn’t space for their own feelings about being assaulted. You may also feel angry at your loved one, for not telling sooner or for giving too many details about their abuse. You may find yourself wanting to blame your loved one as if they somehow caused or invited the assault. This is not helpful at all, will make the situation worse, and is a symptom of Rape Culture as we discussed earlier. Anger is normal when someone we love has been hurt, and it’s important to find healthy outlets for anger, such as exercise or loud music.
Shame. Rape Culture tells us that someone who has been sexually assaulted is somehow “dirty” and should be avoided. You may find yourself feeling some kind of stain or stigma, as if being connected with your loved one makes you worth less. You may be worried about the reactions of others who find out, or try to hide or minimize what happened. Shame is normal when we have been receiving the messages of Rape Culture all of our lives, and we need to be kind and compassionate towards everyone impacted by the abuse. Turn toward your loved one, and find other friends or family who will treat you kindly and with respect for what you’re going through.
Sadness. Often underneath anger and shame is sadness. It hurts that someone we love has been hurt so deeply. It’s okay to feel sad and to have less energy. This is an opportunity to take good care of ourselves and our loved one by being comforting and gentle. It’s okay to cry.
Anxiety. You may be worried about saying or doing the right or wrong thing. It’s a good time to be aware of not constantly asking your loved one “Are you ok?” or “What do you need?” and treating them like a broken doll. It’s also important to not ignore our own anxiety and discomfort, and then ignore our loved one, pretending that everything is normal. Everything isn’t normal right now! And it’s normal to worry about that, wondering when some kind of normalcy will return. It’s important to be patient and understanding with your loved one, and to know that healing takes time.
Fear. You may worry about a sexual assault happening again to your loved one, or to yourself. While it’s important to be careful and proactive, this can also lead to excessive worrying. What is most important is being present with what is happening now, more than worries about the future. We can’t control the future, but we can be a positive influence on the present.
Guilt and helplessness. You may feel responsible in some way, like you should have done something or known in some way how to stop or prevent the sexual assault. This is something you probably share with your loved one. The most common belief for survivors of sexual trauma is “it’s my fault” – and it is not your fault, nor your loved ones. It is the perpetrator’s fault. While it’s important to acknowledge guilty and helpless feelings, it’s also important to stay focused on the present, supporting your loved one, and the future, how you will both work toward healing.
Loss of intimacy. Your loved one may be withdrawn, and you may not know what to say or do, to reconnect. It’s important to be patient and understanding, especially if you are romantically involved with your survivor. This guide has suggestions for what to say and do during these times, as well as what to not say or do. It can be helpful to remember that your loved one may need privacy and confidentiality, and may not want to discuss the details of what happened.
Vicarious trauma. Even if you haven’t been sexually traumatized yourself, you may experience your loved one’s trauma as if it was your own. This can include irritability, trouble sleeping, significant change in appetite and desires, nightmares, frustration, explosiveness, numbness and distance. Each one of these symptoms can be addressed and worked through in counseling.
Ways to Support Your Loved One
Focus on the survivor’s needs and feelings. This is a time for you to be more selfless. Just as if your loved one was in a car accident, they may need support with a variety of things. This can include remembering to drink water and to eat, support with transportation and scheduling, companionship so they are not alone, listening, helping them navigate their way through or out of prior commitments, and communicating with the police.
Channel your feelings appropriately. You will probably have a range of strong feelings, including anger, despair, sadness, and numbness. While it is important not to hide your feelings, keep in mind that your loved one is probably experiencing all of these feelings too, and that they need you to work out your feelings with someone else – a trained counselor or trusted family or friend. Try to be as calm, patient, and understanding as you can while you are with your loved one. Young children who are survivors will see parents’ or caregivers’ feelings and use them as a model for how they feel. Strong reactions can further traumatize a child.
Support the survivor’s choices for their healing, including police or medical involvement. While it’s important to encourage your loved one to seek counseling, forcing anyone into counseling is generally fruitless. Healing can only happen when someone is ready to engage and start the work. Your loved one also may be reluctant to make a police report, or receive medical attention. It’s okay to share your opinion, and ultimately (unless your loved one is a minor) the choice to engage with counseling, law enforcement, or medical services is the survivor’s. Our Voice can help you and your loved ones understand what your options are, to make an informed decision.
Let your loved one know it wasn’t their fault. This is one of the most common beliefs for survivors – that somehow the abuse was their fault or could/should have been avoided somehow. It’s not your job to convince them it wasn’t their fault, but to hold that possibility for them. Here are some other appropriate things to say: I believe you, I’m so sorry this happened, I’m here, it makes sense you feel this way.
Use language your loved one uses. There are many different terms for sexual abuse and assault. The word “rape” is strong, and can be difficult to survivors to use or hear. At Our Voice, we use the term “unwanted or abusive sexual experiences” which includes many different things. Sometimes survivors will talk about “the incident” or “what happened.” Let them choose which words to use, and use those words. Some other terms you may hear are: date rape, sexual assault, assault, sexual abuse, abuse, molested, and drug-facilitated sexual assault (DFSA).
Recommended Readings and Resources
“Allies in Healing” by Laura Davis
“The Sexual Healing Journey” by Wendy Maltz (if the survivor is your romantic partner)