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How to talk to a loved one who's been sexually assaulted.

Content warning: This post discusses sexual assault. 

Helping your friend through the aftermath of a sexual assault is something none of us ever want to imagine having to do. It’s one of those things we put in the ‘too unbearable to think about’ basket and are called macabre and doomsdayer for even allowing such thoughts to enter our minds in the first place.

But with approximately one in five Australian women experiencing sexual assault at some point in their lives, the reality is that we need to know what to say and how to say it. And while every person’s feelings, needs and responses will be unique after experiencing sexual assault, the Centre Against Sexual Assault‘s Carolyn Worth says there are some universal points that are important to remember when trying to offer support and help your friend through the situation.

1. Believe what the person is telling you. 

When someone decides to open up and tell you what’s happened, it’s important to believe them wholeheartedly and without question. “It seems obvious, but often will people will say things like, ‘where were you?’ or ‘what were you doing?’, which isn’t helpful to people because they’ve already asked themselves those questions,” Worth says. The best thing a friend can do, she says, is to simply listen and let the person speak for as long as they need to.

how to help someone who has been sexually assaulted
When someone decides to open up and tell you what's happened, it's important to believe them wholeheartedly and without question. (Image: iStock)
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2. Try not to get upset. 

It's human nature to be shocked and deeply upset if someone you love has just told you they were sexually assaulted. But doing so can cause the victim to get worried that you can't cope with what they're telling you.

"They don't want the response of someone else being upset because they're already upset," Worth says.

Instead, Worth recommends trying to keep a brave face as best you can for the sake of the victim and deal with your initial response at a time when they are not around.

LISTEN: Meshel Laurie sits down with Sarah Ferguson and Andrew, a former abuser, to discuss domestic violence. (Post continues...)

3. Ask the right questions. 

"Asking questions is what comes naturally to people," Worth says, but it's how you ask and what you ask that matters. Questions like 'why were you walking home alone?' or 'how much did you have to drink?' are not helpful and are likely to stop the victim talking and leave them feeling worse than they already do. Whereas open questions, like 'what happened next?' can be good, Worth says, because they allow the victim to be in control of the information and share as much as they feel comfortable.

4. It's okay to say you're sorry. 

One thing I really wanted to know was if it's okay to tell someone you're sorry. Obviously, it's a case by case basis, Worth says, and you know your friend and what they are like well, but as a rule, it's okay. "I don't think it's inappropriate to say to someone 'I'm really sorry it happened to you; this shouldn't happen to people.' It could have happened to them on Saturday or it could have been four years ago, but that's still a valid sentiment. You can also simply say, 'I don't know what to say.' One thing you shouldn't say, Worth stresses, is "I know how you feel." Because even if you do, this is about them, not you.

You can also say, 'I don't know what to say.' (Image: iStock)
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5. Help them put a support plan in place. 

After gauging how your friend wants to handle what's happened, it's important to try to map a way out of the situation. "Ensuring they have someone to talk to if they need to, and someone to support them to decide what it is they want to do, is really important," Worth says. "If you're to be the person, it's really helping people look at what your options are."

6. Make suggestions, but don't force a path of action. 

It's well known that sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes around the world. So while you may feel one course of action is the best, it may not be what your friend wants to do, and it's important to respect that. The best thing you can do, Worth says, is some research and offer your friend a number of options, or simply let them know that there are services available for whatever they choose - be it talking to the police, seeking counselling or anything else they may need to help them.

7. Know that different reactions are okay. 

There is no cookie cutter way for a victim of sexual assault to respond. "Some people are just devastated and it really causes some damage for a long while and then they have to come back from that dark place," Worth says. "But a lot of people take a more practical approach." The best way to navigate the situation is to read the signs and cater your assistance to that. "Saying things like, 'If I can do anything to help I'm really happy to,' because that's the sort of things you say to friends anyway," Worth says.

If you or someone you know needs to speak to someone about sexual assault, contact 1800 Respect.