In many situations, the person who has been harmed is waiting for just one thing in order to open up: for someone to extend a hand. The person may also decide on their own to speak with someone they really trust. Once the silence and isolation are broken, the person begins to see the possibility of making it through. That’s when reactions from loved ones are crucial. While some reactions may be helpful to the person who has experienced sexual violence, others may be harmful, or even destructive, and as such they may aggravate the consequences of the sexual violence. The following table will help you differentiate between what’s helpful and what’s not.
You may realize that you’ve taken a harmful attitude in the past. Don’t worry—you can make up for it.
- Asking direct questions and putting words in someone’s mouth. Trying to extract all the details.
- Talking over the person.
- Listening to what the person has to say without judging.
- Letting the person express things in their own words, in their own way and at their own pace.
- Showing skepticism.
- Questioning what the person says.
- Believing what the person says.
- This is the person’s experience, and their perception.
- Their narrative may seem unlikely or disjointed. But there’s always time later to try and put the puzzle pieces together. For the moment, focus on what the person is saying and experiencing.
DISMISSING, MINIMIZING, OR, IN CONTRAST, GETTING DRAMATIC
- Minimizing sexual violence, in the hopes that it will help the victim get over their pain more quickly or because you see the sexual violence as being no big deal. This attitude tells the person they’re not normal for feeling the way they do, which can prevent them from expressing their feelings and feeling better.
- Receiving what the person says without minimizing or amplifying the facts, emotions or consequences.
- Active listening (reflecting back and paraphrasing) is very useful in helping you focus on the person.
UNDERSCORING THEIR WEAKNESSES
- Suggesting what the person could have said or done.
ENCOURAGING THEIR STRENGTHS
- Praising their good choices.
- Underscoring their strengths, their courage in talking about it, and so on.
- Not getting involved, telling yourself it’s none of your business, and it’s not your problem.
- Ignoring their request for help.
- Being available, whether to talk about it, to accompany the person to a help centre, or to help them file a complaint.
- If you don’t feel able to help the person, it’s important to say so and to help them find another person who can.
- Blaming the person because they didn’t defend themselves, or for any other reason.
- Implying that the person must have provoked it, that they share some of the responsibility for what happened.
- Judging the person negatively because of what they went through.
- Telling them it wasn’t their fault that they experienced sexual violence.
- The assaulter is entirely responsible for their own actions.
- The person’s responsibility is to take care of themselves.
- Emphasizing their qualities, and giving them opportunities to have positive experiences and successes.
TAKING CONTROL OF THE SITUATION
- Making all the decisions for the person.
- Taking charge of the person.
- Not respecting their decisions.
HELPING THE PERSON TAKE BACK CONTROL OF THEIR LIFE
- Encouraging the person to make decisions, and respecting those decisions.
- Smothering, punishing, overprotecting, preventing the person from going out and seeing friends or sleeping elsewhere.
ENCOURAGING THEIR AUTONOMY
- Helping the person reclaim power over their life, while remaining present for them.
- Giving them space to breathe, to get their bearings, to become aware of their own emotional state.
- Helping them imagine protection and defence scenarios.
PREVENTING THE PERSON FROM EXPRESSING NEGATIVE EMOTIONS
- Preventing the person from expressing their emotions, saying that they shouldn’t live in the past or that it’s not good for them.
VALIDATING THEIR EMOTIONS
- Allowing the person to express their emotional experience, even if it’s hard. It’s normal for them to feel the way they do: anger, sadness and so on.
GETTING RILED UP OR AGITATED
- Showing very intense emotions: crying incessantly or going into a violent rage.
TRYING TO STAY AS CALM AS POSSIBLE
- Being honest about your feelings.
- You may need to cry or to name your anger. It’s very important to explain who it’s directed at to avoid making the victim feel responsible for your emotions.
- Putting lots of pressure on the person to undertake a process or file a complaint.
RESPECTING THEIR PACE
- Referring them to specialized resources.
- Offering to accompany them when they’re ready to take steps.
TAKING FOR GRANTED THAT THEY HATE THE ASSAULTER
- Going to tell the assaulter what you think, or blaming the assaulter for what they put the victim through.
- Threatening to kill the assaulter.
FOCUSING YOUR EFFORTS ON THE VICTIM
- Helping protect them, and avoiding outbursts that may be harmful.
PROMISING TO KEEP THE SECRET
EXPLAINING THAT THEY NEED TO TALK ABOUT IT
- It may be dangerous to promise to keep the secret. The person may need protection.
INAPPROPRIATE NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION
- Avoiding looking at the person
- Being distracted
- Touching the person
- Good eye contact
- Open body language