Recognizing sexual violence is not always easy, especially if the victim is a child. A child's reaction can differ depending on his or her age, personality, and the nature of the offense. Sometimes child victims do not appear upset by crimes that seem very serious to adults. Inside, however, they might be frightened, angry or confused.
Child victims are sometimes afraid to tell anyone about what has happened, especially if the offender is a close friend or family member. They might be afraid that people will be angry with them, that it is their fault that the abuse happened, or that no one will believe them. They might also be afraid that the offender will do something bad to them or their family if they tell.
Adult victims of sexual violence can also experience fear, shame, and guilt about being sexually assaulted. Therefore, they may delay reporting the incident, or they may not report at all.
Many times, an offender will tell their victims:
- That something bad will happen if the victim tells
- That the offender will hurt or kill the victim or the victim's family
- That no one will believe the victim
- That parents and friends won't like the victim anymore
- That reporting the abuse will break up the family and the victim will have to live some place else
- That the family won't have enough money to live on if the offender goes to jail
Some victims think the abuse/assault was their fault, and they feel ashamed, guilty or embarassed about it. These are just some of the reasons victims might take back what they first said about being sexually assaulted.
Victims of sexual abuse can display a variety of physical, emotional and behavioral signs.
Supporting a Survivor
Sexual assault is an extremely personal experience that many people may never choose to disclose to anyone else. If a survivor shares their story with you, your reaction can impact whether they share their story in the future. Here are some powerful ways to support a sexual assault survivor:
- Believe them.
- Acknowledge their courage in sharing their story. It takes a great deal of courage and trust to share the personal experience of sexual assault with another person. Many people never share their story for fear of not being believed.
- Listen without questions: As allies, it is not our job to prove or disprove their story. Let them know that they are not alone and that there is help and support available.
Listen & Empathize
- Empathize and normalize their feelings.
- Be non-judgmental and keep their private information safe.
- Listen to them and their needs. Not everyone has the shared experience of sexual assault, but we all have experiences that have caused us pain and trauma. Treat them the way you want to be treated in your moments of pain and trauma. Remember, everyone reacts differently to trauma like sexual assault.
- Share compassion: avoid blaming, shaming, or accusing someone of not reacting “like a victim.”
- Offer to help by connecting them to local resources.
- Empower them in making their own decisions about what resources they want to connect with.
- Help them explore any immediate safety concerns such as seeking medical care.
- Assist them in identifying resources close to them (like us) with experts who support sexual assault survivors. If they choose to contact those resources, stay with them through this process. Once they are connected to Advocates, our staff and support team can go along with them to appointments with medical providers, law enforcement or other responders.
- Support their agency: avoid pushing them towards reporting to law enforcement or disclosing details. It is important for the individual to reassert their right to self-determination after the trauma of sexual assault.