How to Disclose Sexual Assault as a Survivor, and How to Listen as a Friend

sexual assault

Trigger warning: This article discusses sexual assault.

The movie Promising Young Woman started a lot of honest conversations around sexual assault. Although it was fiction, it encapsulated the lived experience of many — if not all — women.

Since then, reality has trumped fiction. We’ve heard stories from Brittany Higgins, from Grace Tame. Post-humously, we’ve heard the stories of Kate, and about Sarah Everard. We’ve looked at these stories, instances, cases and known that it could’ve easily been us — and that in some cases, it has been us.

According to ABC News, there’s been a “surge of women reporting sexual assault to police”, specifically in Canberra. But often, survivors don’t report their cases to the police — for a myriad of reason, all of which are valid. Sometimes, people only want to disclose their stories to those that they trust — a family member, a friend, a loved one.

This isn’t a foolproof guide to how to disclose your story of sexual assault to someone — everyone’s story is different, and there’s no one way to do it.

But this is advice from a professional, Amber Rules, director and founder of Rough Patch, an affordable counselling and mental health care service — who also advised us on how to practice self-care during a triggering news cycle.

No matter where you are in your story, if you’re a survivor, a listening friend — or both — we hope it helps.

For Survivors, Telling Their Story

How do I know someone is trustworthy enough to tell them this news?

“In short, you don’t. Making a choice to tell someone about a traumatic experience can be a big step and you should prioritise your safety. If you think they can keep your confidence, that’s a good start. If you know they’ll listen without interrupting, blaming or trying to fix, that’s also great,” says Rules.

“Realistically, many people are inexperienced or unskilled at responding compassionately to something as traumatic as sexual assault. It’s unfortunate, but you may find the person you confide in says or does something unhelpful due to their lack of experience.”

Is there anything I can do to prepare for this conversation?

“There are no rules for having a hard conversation,” explains Rules.

However, “A few starters might be to ensure you’re well-rested, write things down that you want to remember to say (our memory and mental clarity is often impacted by traumatic events), let the person know you have something important and sensitive to talk to them about so they are somewhat prepared, and ensure you do it at a time and place that is confidential and with no interruptions.”

She also suggests ensuring there are no children or other vulnerable people around.

How do I bring it up/start this conversation?

“Again, there’s no right or wrong way, but you could start with ‘I have to talk to you about something sensitive and painful. Is that okay?’ or ‘I need to tell you something difficult and to begin with, I just need you to listen. Would that be okay?'”

What do I say? Is there certain wording I should use?

“Say whatever feels right for you — remember that you don’t have to tell them every detail of what happened if you don’t want to. Sometimes it can be traumatising to relive something when we’re disclosing it. You can stop anytime you want, and you don’t owe anyone any details you don’t want to share.”

What do I do next?

“You may want to ask the person to help you find support, or perhaps to come with you to appointments,” advises Rules. Or, “You may find that just getting it off your chest is enough.”

“Whatever choice you make, know that it’s entirely up to you what you do and how quickly you do it, and that you’ve got the choice to change your mind about anything at any time.”

What are the benefits of disclosing it?

“You may find that you feel better, or more supported. It may help you think more clearly or not feel so alone. Keep in mind that disclosing painful information can sometimes make us feel more vulnerable or have regrets, but this doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.

“You may just need to pace yourself, and remember that the shame which can emerge is because of the traumatic event itself, not because you should feel ashamed about what happened.”

For Friends, Listening to Their Story

What should I do while someone is telling me?

“First of all, listen without responding,” says Rules. “Demonstrate to the person that you care about them by maintaining eye contact, using open body language, and not being distracted by devices. Just listening is a powerful support tool.

“Once the person has said everything they need to, gently ask them how you can support them. You might say something like ‘That sounds awful, I’m so sorry you had that experience. How can I best support you?’ or ‘I’m not sure how I can be helpful or what to say, but I’m here for you.’

“NEVER ask for more details unless it’s absolutely necessary, allow the person to tell you as much or as little as they want to. You don’t need details to support them. While you might be having big feelings yourself, remember that your anger or tears aren’t necessarily helpful. Don’t make the moment about you, but instead say something like ‘I’m really sorry that happened, and I feel so angry on your behalf. What can I do to help?’

“Remember that the person may not be ready to tell anyone else, especially not police or other authorities. Respect the pace that they need to go, and let them know you’ll support them whether or not they decide to report.

“Familiarise yourself with available supports, such as the Rape Crisis Hotline or local counselling services. If you’re not sure how to help, sometimes it can be useful for a support person to call a helpline or see a counsellor by themselves to get more tips about how to help the survivor.”

Are there any phrases/specific wording I should use to support them?

“Try and stay away from any language that implies blame or shame. NEVER say things like ‘What were you doing in that situation?!’ or ‘You know better than that!’, etc.

“It’s okay not to have all the answers, but it can be really supportive if you say something like ‘I don’t know how to help but I’m going to find out’.”

What other ways can I help them?

“The person who has experienced a traumatic event is likely to be having a really hard time doing basic things, including figuring out where to get help. Doing simple things like bringing them groceries, helping them plan or write lists, etc, can be really useful when they’re having a hard time thinking clearly.

“Never take it upon yourself to tell anyone, even the people closest to the survivor, what has happened. You can encourage them to talk to other people, but it’s vitally important that you maintain their confidence.”

Should I help them get support? Why/why not? If yes, How do I do that?

“Yes, absolutely. Offering to help them make appointments, driving them there, even going into the appointment with them to start with can be supportive. Health providers will let you know if they need you to step out, but should be okay with a support person joining,” said Rules.

“Giving the survivor options is always good for example, you might say to them ‘Would you like me to drive you there? And then when we arrive I can either wait in the waiting room, or I can come in with you. You don’t have to decide until the day.’

“Seeing a GP is always a good starting point for different supports. You can go to your own GP and tell them what happened and ask them to help you find supports for your friend. You can also call crisis lines and let them know you’re a support person, and they can give you more advice. Lastly, you can also see a counsellor by yourself for a single session, who can point you in the right direction for supports.”

If you or someone you know needs help, please contact BeyondBlue on 1300 224 636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14. If you or someone you know has been the victim of a sexual assault, please contact the Sexual Assault & Domestic Violence National Help Line on 1800 Respect (1800 737 732) or head to The Australian Human Rights Commission for a list of state by state resources.

Read more stories from The Latch and subscribe to our email newsletter.