How to Deal With Sexual Violence
Sexual violence is any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature that makes someone feel upset or scared. It can take lots of different forms and includes things like sexual assault, stalking and voyeurism. It can happen to people of all ages, backgrounds, cultures, sexualities, faiths and ethnicities. It affects women and girls more than men and boys but it can also be experienced by anyone, regardless of their gender.
Often victims and survivors find it hard to talk about what happened, especially in the first instance. They may have feelings of guilt, shame, fear, disbelief and anger. They might not believe the assault/abuse actually took place or that they did something to deserve it, particularly when it was perpetrated by someone they know. This can be especially true of men and boys who may think they deserved it because they weren’t fighting back or that they didn’t try to stop it.
In many cases the assault/abuse is carried out by someone known to the survivor – such as an acquaintance, friend or ex-partner. It can also be perpetrated by people that the survivor trusted or considered to be a caretaker (like parents, teachers or babysitters) or even their own family. It’s also very common for survivors to have dissociation during the abuse and some do not remember what actually happened.
For many survivors, their experience of sexual assault/abuse is shaped by the culture they live in. This is because sex and abuse are still taboo in some societies, with victims not being believed or supported by the wider community. This can have a huge impact on the survivor and how they experience the event(s).
When talking to a victim/survivor about their sexual assault, it’s important to be empathetic and understanding of how they might be feeling. You should never put pressure on them to talk about it or to tell you everything that happened, as everyone reacts differently and at their own pace. If they do decide to share, don’t push them for details as this can be very triggering and it’s important that they feel comfortable sharing.
After the sexual assault, it’s likely that the survivor will experience some form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This can include a wide range of symptoms including:
When you are supporting a victim/survivor, it is essential that you listen in a non-judgmental way. It is also important that you don’t ask them about the details of their assault/abuse as this can be incredibly difficult and distressing. They will most likely not be able to tell you everything that happened, and this is completely normal. You might find that they have difficulty in their relationships and in their sexuality and they might develop a distrust of others, or start having flashbacks. They might develop eating issues or experience problems sleeping. There is also a risk that they might have feelings of suspicion or paranoia, and may become fearful of certain characteristics in strangers such as side-burns, straight hair or the type of car their attacker drives. They might have suicidal thoughts or violent fantasies.