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The period immediately following a sexual assault is often emotional and confusing. While some survivors have dramatic outbursts, others appear very controlled, unaffected, and calm. Regardless of the nature of the immediate reaction, the individual will be deeply affected by the assault. Responding appropriately from the outset assists in the recovery from this traumatic event.
Most survivors initially experience a state of shock, numbness, confusion, and disbelief. This condition, which may last a few moments or several days, is usually followed by a state of deep fear for personal safety. If you have contact with the survivor at this point in time, you can be most helpful by being physically present, as s/he may feel very vulnerable alone. Be sensitive to whatever feelings are expressed and offer emotional comfort and support. The survivor has been treated very badly, and at this point needs to feel cared for and nurtured.
One of the most important things to communicate is that you believe the assault occurred. As the individual is ready to talk about what happened and his or her reactions, listen carefully and concentrate on understanding what is being expressed. Do not push the person to talk about the assault, rather allow him or her to initiate sharing feelings and information as s/he is ready. Periods of silence are okay, too. You don't have to talk every time your friend stops talking.
A calm, accepting attitude shows that you care and in no way hold her or him responsible for the assault. Any comments that hint at "blaming the victim" may add to any guilty feelings, increase the trauma, and delay the recovery process.
Many friends and family members experience an intense emotional reaction to the assault of their loved ones. Anger and a desire to seek revenge are the most frequently reported, along with frustration at not being able to protect the ones you care about from the assailant. While your feelings are valid and important, this is not the time to be sharing them with the survivor, who is already overwhelmed. You may want to seek out a support person for yourself, a friend or trained counselor who understands the feelings and experiences involved following such a traumatic event.
Finally, you should obtain permission before touching the survivor, even if you have routinely engaged in physical contact in the past. Remember, the survivor was personally and violently violated and may have a strong aversion to any physical contact with others, no matter how slight or inconsequential the contact may seem to you.
Specific Ways to Help
Offer your companionship, provided that both of you are comfortable with that arrangement. If s/he would prefer to be with someone else, you must respect these wishes. You may want to offer to contact this additional support person, as a gesture of support. If you are uncomfortable in your role as support person, it is essential that you recommend that the survivor consider others to contact. Unacknowledged discomfort may be perceived as rejection and may seriously hamper recovery.
Ask how you can help. Do not take action, such as contacting acquaintances, family members, police, or counselors, unless requested. The only exception to this is if the individual is threatening to self-harm. To ensure the safety of your friend, contact Missouri S&T Police (341-4300) who will contact a counselor to assist you.
Exploring options for the first few hours and days following the assault is often helpful. Because sexual assault reduces feelings of control and power over one's life, it is essential that the survivor choose which steps to take. Although you may disagree with these decisions, it is imperative that you support them. Respecting these decisions helps the survivor regain feelings of personal power and self confidence. The pamphlet, What to Do If You've Been Sexually Assaulted, provides both information about medical, emotional, and criminal/disciplinary considerations and available resources.
You can assist your friend in understanding these alternatives and weighing the consequences of each. If the individual chooses to obtain an exam or report to the police or judicial officer, it would be especially helpful for you to offer to go along. Although s/he may decline, knowing that you are willing is comforting. If the person decides to contact another friend, family member, or the CDSW, you may offer to initiate contact.
Consider offering your ongoing companionship to the survivor, particularly for the first day or so following the assault. Suggest that the person stay with you, another friend, or family members, or assist in making arrangements for a trusted individual to stay with her or him. Because the trauma of sexual assault entails a significant recovery period, your ongoing emotional support, to the degree you are comfortable providing it, will be greatly needed. Make an effort to be available to provide continued support.
Emotions which may be experienced and/or expressed after the initial shock subsides include guilt, anger, fear, depression, disgust, shame and powerlessness. During recovery, the survivor may appear calm and unemotional one moment, and then suddenly display intense feelings in response to an external or internal reminder of the trauma. While it may seem to you that the survivor is "going crazy", s/he is experiencing a normal grief reaction to a very abnormal situation. You can normalize the emotional experience by reminding her or him of this fact. While it is painful, reminders of the assault provide the impetus necessary to experience, express, and work through the trauma.
Continue to express interest in understanding the survivor's emotional state. Be patient and understanding when you interact. Each individual has his/her own way and rate of recovery. Avoid imposing your expectations. If you feel overwhelmed with the extent to which s/he is relying on you, encourage her/him to speak to a counselor. Be alert for signs that indicate self-blame and challenge these assumptions with facts. No one asks or wants to be assaulted. Review the handout describing myths and facts about sexual assault and help the survivor to reappraise responsibility for the crime. Additionally, be sensitive and respect the times when your friend wants to work on his/her feelings alone.
When the survivor appears to be feeling more in control, you may want to share the impact the incident has had on you. You may be experiencing strong emotional reactions to the trauma. It is neither healthy nor constructive for you or the relationship to suppress your feelings indefinitely. Sharing your feelings and vulnerabilities allows the survivor know how much you care.
Additional Information For Sexual Partners
If you've had an ongoing sexual relationship with the survivor, you can expect a disruption in sexual activity. Many survivors experience considerable anxiety with physical intimacy of any sort. S/he may have fears of getting physically close or certain sexual acts. S/he may display a loss of sexual desire or responsiveness, feel unattractive and dirty, or fear a loss of control. Consequently, many survivors refrain from sexual contact for a period following the assault. During this difficult period the survivor needs sensitivity, patience, and understanding. Many survivors experience flashbacks to the assault during sexual activity, particularly if there are cues that remind her of the assault. Talk together regarding feelings and concerns both of you have and discuss what would help reduce any fears or discomfort.
Most survivors report that it is important for them to have personal control of the sexual decision-making since that is a freedom they lost during the assault. Let your partner determine when and under what circumstances you will resume sex. To further increase the feeling of personal power, the survivor may wish to assume the role of initiator. If the two of you have difficulty reaching an understanding, seek the assistance of a trained counselor, who will facilitate your communication on this most sensitive topic. It is important for you to remember that the period of sexual abstinence is usually temporary and can be overcome with patience and understanding.
If She is Raped by McEvoy and Brooking; Recovery by Helen Benedict; and Coping with Date and Acquaintance Rape by Andrea Parrot