How should you respond if someone confides in you that they have been raped? What should you do? What is the right response? First, if it just happened – get them to the hospital. Encourage them to get medical attention immediately. They shouldn’t take a shower or change any of their clothing. Offer to drive them to the hospital. They need to be seen immediately at an Emergency Room that is large enough to do forensic exams. The hospital staff will need to be able to collect evidence if the victim decides to prosecute. If the victim showers or changes clothes, they are destroying possible evidence.
If the rape was not recent and they are just confiding in you, there are several things every rape survivor wants to hear:
- I’m sorry.
Most likely you are not the offender, but regardless showing sympathy speaks volumes to the victim. Only recently have I heard this response – “I’m sorry.” “I’m sorry you went through something like that.” “I’m sorry what you were taught at church made you feel trapped.” It’s such a simple statement – “I’m sorry,” yet so powerful! I was completely caught off guard by this response, but it also gave me great comfort and encouragement. “I’m sorry” validates the offense. You are acknowledging that what was done to the victim was wrong. Without saying as much, the simple statement “I’m sorry” also embodies the next two statements: “I believe you” and “It’s not your fault.”
2. I believe you.
You don’t have to say these exact words, but affirm to the victim that you believe them. Depending on the source, roughly 2-8% of rape claims are false (ndaa.org). Most likely this person is telling the truth! 42% of college rape survivors never tell anyone. The fact that this person has choose to confide in you is huge. Honor that! Honor them! Thank them for having the courage to share with you. Keeping a rape a secret is a huge burden for someone to bear – I know I kept mine a secret for months. A rape victim already feels isolated, don’t further isolate them by not believing them.
3. It’s not your fault.
Again, you don’t have to say those exact words, but imply them as much as you can. Self-blame was a huge struggle for me and I am guessing for a lot of survivors. Don’t ever say: “What did you expect?” “Well, look at what you were wearing.” “You were asking for it.” “You put yourself in a bad situation.” “That’s what happens when you party (or drink or do drugs).” These comments don’t help. Even if the victim made bad choices, they never deserved to be raped! There are no “rape-able offense.”
4. What can I do to help you?
Encourage them to contact their pastor or find a counselor who specializes in sexual assault, abuse and/or trauma. If they are already receiving help, encourage and affirm them in their decision. If they turn down your offer for help – don’t give up. Continue to reach out to them. If you are concerned they may be suicidal or think they really need immediate help. Call someone on their behalf – don’t sit idly by. Call a Pastor or the crisis line – the point is – do something! I am so grateful for the man who started making phone calls on my behalf. He helped save my life. You could be that person for someone else.
You should not be the only one supporting the victim, but offer to help them. Ask them if they have contacted anyone to receive additional help. Even if they say no and they are doing fine – don’t believe them. It took me a year and a half to start asking for help. It’s a process. The sooner a victim can get help processing what happened the better. Ask them if you can help them contact a local rape crisis center or help them call the national 24/7 rape crisis line to get resources [800-656-HOPE(4673)]. Check out www.rainn.org for more resources.
5. Acknowledge their struggle.
Rape survivors often experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – PTSD. There are very real and difficult repercussions for rape victims. Don’t dismiss this fact. Don’t assume just because it happened “x” number of days/weeks/months/years, that the victim is “over” it, perfectly fine, or that the victim should be “over” it by now. PTSD can resurface at any time, even if a victim has been doing fine for years.
Triggers can suddenly put a victim right back in that rape scenario or elicit the same psychological or physiological responses for them. Be sympathetic. Encourage them. Never shame a survivor for their struggles. Acknowledge and affirm them. They endured a traumatic event that can take a lifetime to process and heal from. That’s ok. Everyone moves toward healing at their own pace. Don’t shame a victim for taking “too long” in your eyes to move on.
Making statements like: “It’s not that big of a deal.” “It happens all the time.” “Why are you having such a hard time?” “You just need to get over it.” “You just need to let it go – it has been “x” number of days/months/years.” Rape is trauma! It is a violent crime. It is not only a sexual and physical assault – it is a psychological and emotional assault.
Below is a list of common symptoms in Rape Trauma from The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress (aaets.org):
- Intense fear, helplessness, or horror.
- Repeated and distressing recollections of the event, including images, thoughts, or perceptions. Unable to distinguish between past events and reality. Such incidents are often called “flashbacks”.
- Distressing and or frightening dreams about the event.
- Associating various words, happenings, or “triggers” to the actual event which then causes a “flashback”.
- Avoidance of anything that may “trigger” a flashback including not talking about the attack itself.
- Pretending it never happened and an inability to recall anything about the attack, “denial”.
- A feeling of numbness, detachment or “unrealness” about everything.
- A lack of emotion or inability to feel love or care about anything.
- A feeling of depression and isolation.
- A change in sleep patterns. More often or not the ability to sleep or stay asleep for any length of time.
- A lack of concentration.
- Avoidance of being touched, and shying away from loved ones. Sudden movements may startle.
- A lack of trust in anyone, even close family or partners.
- More irritable than usual. Outbursts of anger and crying. Mood swings.
- A feeling of low self-esteem and confidence.
- A feeling of being dirty, or disgusting.
- Deep embarrassment or shame. Sometimes self-blame for events.
- Bitterness and morbid hatred of the perpetrator, with a preoccupation of how to harm or humiliate them.
- Loss of appetite or a change in eating patterns.
All this to say whomever confided in you has been or is going through a lot. Don’t diminish or dismiss this fact. Rape survivors are on a journey toward recovery, some are further along this journey than others, but rape is a traumatic event whose repercussions ripple throughout a lifetime. If someone has chosen to confide in you, consider the opportunity to walk alongside them on this journey a privilege. They trust you. Be there for them. Encourage them. Support them. Never place shame or blame on the victim.
- “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Rape Survivors.” The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. 2014 < http://www.aaets.org/article178.htm>