People who have been sexually abused all handle their trauma differently. Some choose not to discuss it while people, like myself, do so somewhat openly. All paths to healing are unique to the individual.
It can be hard for partners, friends, and family members to know how to respond when survivors talk about their experiences. The topic of rape understandably tends to make people uncomfortable. Most say something like, “I’m sorry that happened to you.” There are those, however, who get defensive or treat the subject as a burden.
“Why do rape victims want to talk about it if the experience was so traumatic for them?”
“That happened to you YEARS ago. You need to get over it.”
“We’ve all had bad experiences. Seems like you’re just complaining for attention.”
Being met with those kinds of reactions is incredibly tough for survivors. When you’re doing everything you can to recover, you can’t keep people around who minimize trauma or claim it’s a choice to be upset by it.
If someone you care about has been sexually abused, here are some dos and don’ts for how you can support them.
DO: Try to understand why they might want to talk about it.
It may be tempting to assume survivors bring up their trauma for sympathy or social capital. The truth, however, is that victims of sexual abuse are often met with skepticism and hostility for speaking up.
Your loved one may want to talk about their traumatic experience for any number of reasons, like these:
For survivors, talking about their trauma is often necessary to process and heal from it.
They may wish to spread awareness about the realities of sexual abuse and the fact that it’s so common.
They may want to open up in order to help you understand them on a deeper level.
They may be wondering about your views on sexual abuse in order to assure themselves that you’re ‘safe’.
Understanding will help you get a sense of how you can be supportive. You don’t have to give advice or play therapist. In fact, doing so isn’t advisable and should be left to a professional. Just by listening and holding space for them to speak, you’ll be doing them a great service.
DO: Read about PTSD.
Sexual abuse is one of the most common causes of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I thought I knew what PTSD was until I was diagnosed with it. It’s not just a matter of being haunted by a memory we can’t forget. The condition can end up impacting one’s entire world view, behavioral patterns, and emotional coping mechanisms. You may notice the following:
Trust issues: We tend to be skeptical of new people and may need more time than usual to trust them. To do so can feel like a great risk.
Hyper-vigilance: We often go to great lengths to ensure nothing bad happens in the future, constantly on the lookout for red flags.
Trouble sleeping: We may sleep too much, too little, have trouble falling asleep, or have frequent nightmares.
Anxiety: People with PTSD are often on edge, fearing something terrible could happen anytime.
Memory problems: In cases of long-term, chronic PTSD, our attention is wired toward avoiding danger, which can make it more difficult to solidify neutral or positive memories. At the same time, we may block out details or entire chunks of time related to the traumatic experience itself.
Emotional distress: People with PTSD may be triggered into intense feelings of sadness, anger, or fear by sights, sounds, ideas, or feelings related to their trauma. This can include panic attacks, flashbacks, and instances of dissociation.
Self-blame: We may blame ourselves for the choices of others in an attempt to feel a sense of control.
Negative worldview: We may view certain types of people or humanity in general as inherently evil, selfish, or untrustworthy.
Difficulty concentrating: PTSD sufferers often have intrusive thoughts related to the trauma they’ve experienced, resulting in a short attention span or general feeling of ‘brain fog’.
If your loved one suffers from PTSD, knowing their triggers will help you both keep the vibe light and positive. Some triggers are obvious. For example, many victims of abuse or assault will avoid the area where their trauma occurred.
Other triggers may be subtle and harder to understand. One of my triggers is surfing, which was my rapist’s main hobby. When the topic comes up, I think of him and the event every time. Consequently, I prefer not to talk or think about surfing and I certainly never want to try it. This reaction would undoubtedly seem strange to outsiders, but it’s ingrained in my brain all the same.
It’s important to note that people with PTSD can’t just “snap out of it” and control their symptoms. If it were that easy, we’d go right ahead and do it. PTSD is a serious condition and a constant struggle for some, not a joke or a choice. It can be treatable with time, interpersonal support, and professional help, but is not likely to magically disappear.
DO: Provide reassurance.
Survivors of sexual trauma often undergo stress while forming new relationships. We may even have doubts about the people in our lives long after trust has solidified in their minds. This isn’t necessarily a sign that you’ve done anything wrong, so don’t take this personally. There are things you can do to reassure trauma survivors that you’re trustworthy.
Tell us how you feel, especially about us. If we’re unsure, we may subconsciously end up filling in the blanks with worst-case assumptions that are way off the mark. (Unfair, I know!) There’s no need to go overboard with flattery or compliments. Just let us know you dig us once in a while.
Make it clear you’re a massive fan of consent. We want to know ASAP that you’re not one of ‘those people’.
Point out that our feelings make sense. People with PTSD often fear being ‘too much’ for those around them and self-isolate or hold back their emotions as a result. It’s healthy to be pissed off about having been sexually abused though, right? Remind us of that if we apologize for our feelings.
Let us know you’re here to stay, through good times and bad. If we’re confident that you won’t leave us for breaking down or opening up to you, true trust and affection can begin to blossom.
DO: Honor boundaries, BIG-TIME.
The most traumatic part of sexual abuse, for many, is the memory of having our boundaries crossed with little to no regard for our feelings. It’s the feeling of being used and objectified, and the pain of knowing that people can be so heartless. When something so personal has been taken from you, it’s hard to ignore the fear it could happen again.
Do everything you can to respect the boundaries of your loved one. If they don’t want to be touched, don’t do it. If they want to leave a place, let them. If they express a limit in the bedroom or say they’re not in the mood for sex, absolutely don’t push them. Be a person they can trust to respect their autonomy.
DO: Create positive experiences together.
The more your loved one can see and believe in your trustworthiness and compassion, the more at ease they’ll feel with you. The more positive experiences you share together, the more quickly you’re likely to bond.
This doesn’t mean you’ve got to slap on a smile and perform to keep things hunky-dory all the time. Disagreements and interpersonal problems go hand-in-hand with relationships. How you handle those challenges will determine whether your loved one feels safe while you’re both working through it. It’s important to keep the connection respectful.
Aaaaaaand now, some don’ts.
DON’T: Try to fix them.
You can’t solve or erase your loved one’s trauma, so don’t try. It’s something they’ll have to navigate themselves.
Just do your best to support them as they take steps to heal.
DON'T: Shrug off what they say about their trauma.
If your loved one is talking about their experiences with sexual abuse, it means they want you to listen. It may be uncomfortable to hear, but if you care for them, it’s a part of understanding who they are.
DON'T: Act like sexual abuse is rare.
Sexual abuse is far more common than we all want to believe. To question, doubt, or minimize your loved one’s experience is one of the most hurtful things you could do.
Chances are, they’re telling the truth.
DON'T: Tell them to get over it.
To repeat: survivors of sexual trauma can’t just snap their fingers and suddenly be well. The road to recovery can be long for some and often requires professional help.
DON'T: Tolerate abusive treatment from them.
Your loved one may carry a lot of anger over what happened to them. While their feelings are valid, they are no excuse to mistreat or abuse others. Set boundaries in these cases and communicate them clearly. Your well-being and happiness are just as important as theirs.
Studies on sexual trauma and PTSD, in particular, have shown that social support or a lack thereof has a potent and direct impact on the sufferer’s chances of recovery. You’re not responsible for your loved one’s trauma, but your influence can go a long way to help.