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  • Writer's pictureDr Heather Dyson

Empathetic and Informed: Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Violence



Addressing disclosures of sexual violence requires a sensitive and empathetic approach. Whether you are a friend, family member, or professional, responding appropriately is important in supporting survivors and fostering an environment of trust. This guide aims to provide insights and practical tips on how to respond to disclosures of sexual violence.


Understanding Sexual Violence

Before delving into effective responses, it's helpful to have a basic understanding of sexual violence. Sexual violence encompasses a range of behaviours, including sexual assault, harassment, and abuse. Survivors may experience a myriad of emotions such as fear, shame, guilt, and anger. Recognising the seriousness of these experiences is the first step toward providing meaningful support.


Any disclosure of sexual violence is an incredibly personal and a vulnerable moment for survivors. Creating a safe and non-judgmental environment is central in encouraging survivors to share their experiences. Here are some key elements to consider:


  1. Creating a Safe Space.

By choosing a private and quiet setting, you create an environment where the survivor feels safe to share their experience. This setting minimises the risk of the survivor being overheard, promoting a sense of control over who has access to their personal and sensitive information. A private space helps build trust and ensures that the survivor can express themselves without the fear of judgment or unwanted intrusion.


  1. Active Listening.

Active listening goes beyond simply hearing the words spoken; it involves demonstrating genuine interest, empathy, and a willingness to understand the survivor's perspective. This entails giving your full attention, making eye contact, and using verbal and non-verbal cues to convey your engagement. Avoid interrupting, as it can disrupt the survivor's flow and make them feel unheard. By actively listening, you create a supportive atmosphere where the survivor feels valued and respected, fostering a deeper connection and trust.


  1. Affirming the Survivor's Experience.

Believing and validating the survivor's experience is fundamental to providing effective support. Sexual violence often comes with feelings of shame, self-doubt, and fear of not being believed. By explicitly stating that you believe the survivor, you counteract these harmful emotions. Avoid questioning or doubting their experience, as this can retraumatise the survivor and contribute to feelings of invalidation. Validating their feelings reinforces that what they went through is real, and their emotions are valid.


  1. Respecting Autonomy

Empowering the survivor to make decisions about their disclosure and subsequent steps is key in respecting their autonomy. Survivors may have varying comfort levels regarding reporting the incident, seeking professional help, or discussing the matter with others. Pressuring them into specific actions can be retraumatising and counterproductive. By offering information, options, and support, you allow the survivor to regain a sense of control over their life. This approach reinforces the idea that they are in charge of their healing journey, promoting empowerment and self-determination.


Responding to Disclosures

Responding to someone who discloses an experience of sexual violence requires a thoughtful and empathetic approach. Your response can have a profound impact on the survivor's healing process and therefore deserves some thought and reflection. Here are some steps to consider:


  1. Stay Calm and Composed:

Acknowledge your own emotional reactions but strive to maintain a calm and composed demeanour. This is fundamental for creating a safe and supportive environment for the survivor. A composed response reassures the survivor that you are capable of handling the information, and it helps prevent the survivor from feeling like they need to manage your emotional reactions in addition to their own. By staying calm, you convey a sense of stability and readiness to provide the necessary support.


  1. Express Empathy and Support:

Initiating the conversation with expressions of empathy and support is important. Phrases like "I believe you," "I'm here for you," and "I'm sorry you experienced this" convey a genuine commitment to standing by the survivor. This initial expression of empathy helps establish trust and lets the survivor know that they are not alone. Avoiding judgment and offering assurance can create a space where the survivor feels validated and heard.


  1. Avoid Victim-Blaming Language:

Be mindful of the language you use to avoid inadvertently blaming the survivor. Victim-blaming language includes questions or statements that imply the survivor is at fault, such as "Why were you there?" Instead, focus on the actions and accountability of the perpetrator. Use language that places responsibility on the person who committed the harm rather than questioning the survivor's choices. This approach helps to counteract societal misconceptions and supports the survivor in understanding that the responsibility lies with the perpetrator.


  1. Respect Confidentiality:

Prioritise the survivor's privacy and autonomy by respecting the confidentiality of their disclosure. Only share their information with explicit permission and avoid discussing it with others without their consent. Respecting confidentiality reinforces trust, as the survivor knows that their disclosure won't be disclosed without their consent. This respect for privacy is vital in creating an environment where survivors feel safe to share their experiences openly.


  1. Encourage Professional Support:

Suggesting professional resources is a key aspect of support. Acknowledge that professional help, such as psychological therapy, can be immensely beneficial. Offer to assist in finding appropriate resources, providing contact information for support hotlines or recommending qualified professionals. However, it's important to respect the survivor's decision if they are not ready to seek professional help. Pressuring them may exacerbate feelings of vulnerability, so offering support without imposition is key.


Long-Term Support

Providing long-term support to a survivor of sexual violence is a commitment that requires ongoing understanding, empathy, and dedication. Here are some ways in which you can aid that process:


  1. Check-In Regularly:

Regularly contact the individual after the initial disclosure is central for maintaining a supportive connection. Regular check-ins demonstrate your ongoing commitment to their well-being and reinforce that you are there for them throughout their healing journey. During these check-ins, ask open-ended questions about how they are feeling and if there's anything specific they need support with.


  1. Educate Yourself:

Taking the time to educate yourself about the impact of sexual violence, trauma, and recovery processes is a proactive step in providing effective support. Understanding the psychological, emotional, and physical effects of sexual violence equips you with knowledge to respond empathetically. Familiarise yourself with available resources, such as literature, documentaries, or online platforms, to stay informed about best practices in supporting survivors. This knowledge empowers you to provide more tailored and informed assistance.


  1. Respect Triggers and Boundaries:

Survivors of sexual violence may have triggers—situations, words, or actions that evoke distressing memories or emotions associated with their trauma. Be mindful of potential triggers and respect the survivor's boundaries. Allow them to guide the conversation and avoid bringing up topics that may be emotionally challenging without their consent. By respecting their triggers and boundaries, you contribute to a supportive and non-retraumatising environment.


  1. Encourage Self-Care:

Advocate for self-care practices that promote the survivor's mental and emotional well-being. Self-care can take various forms, so encourage activities that align with the survivor's preferences and needs. This may include engaging in hobbies, spending time in nature, practicing mindfulness, or seeking professional therapeutic practices. Reinforce the importance of self-care as a vital component of their healing journey, and offer assistance or companionship if they express a desire for it.


  1. Join Supportive Communities:

Encourage the survivor to seek out support groups or communities where they can connect with others who have had similar experiences. Sharing stories and coping strategies with individuals who understand their journey can be profoundly empowering. Supportive communities provide a space for validation, understanding, and the exchange of coping mechanisms. This sense of camaraderie can help the survivor feel less isolated and contribute to their overall well-being.


Addressing Legal and Reporting Options

While respecting the survivor's choices and autonomy, it's important to be aware of legal and reporting options. Here are some considerations:


  1. Inform about Reporting Options:

When discussing reporting options, it's useful to approach the conversation with sensitivity and respect for the survivor's autonomy. Provide information about reporting the incident to law enforcement, outlining the potential processes and outcomes. Be transparent about the challenges and uncertainties that may arise during the legal process. It's important to acknowledge the survivor's agency in deciding whether or not to pursue legal action. Emphasise that reporting is a personal choice and should align with their own comfort and readiness.


  1. Assist with Reporting, if Desired:

If the survivor expresses a desire to report the incident, (and you feel able) offer your support in navigating the reporting process. This may involve accompanying them to the police station, offering emotional support during interviews, or helping them find legal assistance. Assure the survivor that they are not alone in this process and that your role is to assist in any way they find helpful. Respect their decisions and boundaries throughout, as the reporting process can be emotionally taxing.


  1. Understand Mandatory Reporting Obligations:

Depending on your profession and jurisdiction, you may have mandatory reporting obligations. It's important to familiarise yourself with the legal requirements in your area to ensure compliance. Certain professionals, such as healthcare providers, educators, or psychologists, may be obligated to report instances of sexual violence. Understanding these obligations is vital for both your ethical practice and legal compliance. If you are unsure of your responsibilities, seek guidance from relevant authorities or legal professionals.


  1. Advocate for Victim's Rights:

Empower the survivor to explore their rights as a victim of sexual violence. This includes understanding the potential avenues for legal protection and support. Encourage them to consider protective orders, which can restrict the perpetrator's contact with the survivor. Inform them about the availability of legal representation, as having an advocate can be useful during legal proceedings. Additionally, make them aware of victim compensation programs that may provide financial support for medical expenses or therapy. By advocating for their rights, you help the survivor make informed decisions about the legal aspects of their situation.


In summary, responding to disclosures of sexual violence requires a delicate balance of empathy, respect, and support. By creating a safe space, actively listening, and respecting the survivor's choices, you contribute to their healing process. Remember that your role is to be supportive, understanding, and non-judgmental, and to empower survivors to make decisions that align with their own healing journey. Together, we can foster a culture of empathy and compassion, breaking down the barriers that survivors often face in seeking help and justice.


Below are a list of charities you can contact if you, or someone you know, has been a victim of sexual violence:

1.      Rape Crisis England & Wales (RCEW): https://rapecrisis.org.uk/

2.      The Survivors Trust: https://www.thesurvivorstrust.org/

3.      Victim Support: https://www.victimsupport.org.uk/

4.      Women's Aid: https://www.womensaid.org.uk/

5.      Survivors UK (Specifically for male survivors of sexual violence): https://www.survivorsuk.org/

6.      NAPAC (National Association for People Abused in Childhood): https://napac.org.uk/

7.      The Havens: https://thehavens.org.uk/

8.      LimeCulture Community Interest Company: https://limeculture.co.uk/

9.      Respect UK (Dealing with domestic violence and abuse): https://www.respect.org.uk/

10.   Galop (Support for LGBT+ people experiencing hate crime, domestic abuse, and sexual violence): https://galop.org.uk/

 


Photo by Lee Jeffs on Unsplash

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