Professional help, while important and appropriate for parts of a survivor's journey, does not substitute for loving, caring friendships, marriages or other love-relationships, or family support.. Counsellors themselves acknowledge the benefits of survivors having good support systems outside of counselling.
If you are the friend, family member or significant other of somebody who is being sexually abused in a relationship, or has been, there are several things you can do to make her journey to safety and healing easier. Partner rape is a type of rape that many women find little understanding for - but just as survivors remember people who blamed and hurt them, they also remember those who were there for them in a positive way. If you are grappling with aspects of partner rape, you may find looking around this site helpful.
Rape, by it's nature, can shatter a woman's sense of dignity. Women repeatedly hurt by relationship violence may have come to accept the perpetrator's view of them. Your treatment can help her reinstate a sense of value and dignity.
If you're reading this page because you care for and want to assist a survivor, she is very lucky to have you in her life. Remember, you're a very important resource. In fact, you're wonderful - give yourself a hug from me.
Callisto seeks comfort from her sisters after Zeus has raped her. Diana and Callkisto, Peter Paul Rubens
CARING FOR A SURVIVOR
The following does not imply that a survivor of partner rape isn't responsible for her feelings or her healing. But it does acknowledge that there are things which can impact on that in a favourable or disfavourable way. Go easy on you - it is very distressing to know a loved one is being or has been hurt, but you are not responsible for the decisions she makes, or any violence which occurs.
Compassion doesn't mean you have to pretend she isn't responsible for the choices she makes - you can suggest that a violent partner is unlikely to stop hurting her while she is there, but do this without saying she's responsible for what he does. If she beats herself up about having remained in the relationship, you can say you're glad she did get out. Highlight that she's courageous for surviving what she has.
Women raped by partners often don't identify the sexual violence as rape because they are confused or find it too painful. She might say something like "he makes me do things I don't want to", or 'he gets angry when I don't want to have sex so I give in to please him". Please, feel free to tell her that what she is describing is rape/sexual assault. If she is distressed by this, ask her if she would consider speaking to rape crisis counsellor - let her know that she deserves this support. But be gentle - telling of rape by a partner can be terrifying, and strident declarations that 'that is rape and you have to do something about it right now!' run the risk of frightening her - she may not feel able to open up to you again. You can call it rape - even while accepting that for her right now, naming is too painful.
If you think she's hinting at sexual violence, you can gently ask if there have been times she's had to do sexual things she didn't want to. She may feel relief. Research does indicate that if women are asked about partner rape, they will want to speak about it 1.
She may call it rape herself. Due to the myths and silencing around partner rape, she may question her right to name it as sexual assault/rape. Affirm that it's right for her to give this crime it's name. You can also see this page on the importance of naming IPSV to survivors.
Be honoured that she trusts you. It takes a lot to tell about partner rape - many partner rape survivors automatically expect to be told that their rape isn't on a par with other types, or that it cannot be a serious hurt to them. If they remained in the relationship after the rape, they may be deeply ashamed and expect frank ridicule. Also, if the survivor still lives with and loves her partner, telling might feel like betraying him, or unfolding what is her deepest secret and pain.
Please be prepared to challenge any stereotypes of rape that you might have held. Remember, rape is not less a crime in one context than another.
THINGS TO DO
Espouse safety first: Help her explore other options if she is still unsafe. You might suggest a domestic violence service. You need to do this without "bossing" or strongarming, though. Make suggestions by all means, and know that it's up ton her whether she follows them or not, and that you will not think less of her whatever she does.
Tell her you respect her, and that it is never okay for anybody to hurt her.
Acknowledge that sexual violence in relationships is real rape (if she expresses doubts).
Be aware of your limits. Don't offer help that you can't give - help her find other resources.
Support her in any anger or sadness she might express. Tell her it's valid. If she expresses no feeling at this time, that's what some women do - it's important to know that two survivors might have completely different responses.
Tell her that the responsibility for the assault/s is the perpetrator's.
Remember that she is capable of making her own choices, even though she may not know what they are right now, or they might appear to be poor choices. She needs you to accept her (this doesn't imply accepting the violence). But if you can accept her as a person, you increase her sense of having options.
Appreciate that she may have stayed for some quite valid reasons.
Be prepared to accept that she may still have positive feelings for the partner who raped her. She doesn't need to feel as if her feelings are crazy or stupid.
If she is going through a legal process, such as applying for a restraining order, or she has prosecuted the perpetrator for rape, she's likely to need support. Offer to go with her to court or other agencies of you can.
Assure her that she is not betraying her partner because she needs to heal.
Send flowers, or an affectionate email. Cook her a meal. Offer to get her kids out of her hair for little while.
Maximise her strengths i.e. tell her you think she's strong for survivng.
THINGS NOT TO DO
Don't inflict a secondary wound, for example never suggest that her rape is lessened by the fact that it was her partner - go here for more information on secondary wounding and it's damage. Be careful of well-intentioned secondary wounding too, such as "Why didn't you come and sleep at my house?"
Don't use cliches such as "Why don't you just leave?" or "Aren't you thinking of the children?" Conversely, never tell her she is a bad mother because she is considering leaving. All too often , women are branded bad mothers if they stay, and bad mothers if they leave.
Don't "rescue" or "take charge"; it isn't up to you to produce a certain outcome. Rescuing can feel as controlling to a survivor as an abuser.She has had her autonomy taken away from her by sexual violence - the sooner she regains power and control over her own choices, the better. It is fine to make suggestions if they are not imposed as 'you shoulds'.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that because she has left (if she has) that everything will be okay now. In fact, she could experience PTSD related responses, and down the track may need you more than ever.
Never suggest that 'it's all over now, why don't you just forget about it?' In fact many women try to do just that but need to think about it again and get support in order to heal
Don't expect the survivor to comfort you. You might well need support and comfort and this is very valid. But survivors can take responsibility sometimes for having upset somebody, and feel bad about having spoken out.
Don't sound off about the perpetrator if she is still in the relationship, much as you feel like it. If you're really angry, vent it to somebody else (but keep her confidentiality).. She may love and still have loyalty for him, and expressions of anger such as this run the risk of silencing her again. Rather than saying 'that bastard! how could he do that to you?' you could say 'I'm concerned that this has happened to you'.
Don't think you need to have all the answers. If you don't know how to respond to something, it's okay to say so - but let her know that you care.
Never confront the perpetrator. If he is violent, you could be putting her at further risk.
Don't make light of her religious or emotional concerns. You can, however, say that you don't believe religious tenets support her being abused sexually or otherwise. If you feel it's appropriate, you may like to direct her towards asking a domestic violence service what pastoral counselling exists.
It's very important that you don't see her rape as the product of a dysfunction between the couple, or as a marital tiff. Partners use rape to control, degrade and violate just the same way strangers do (see this page).
HOW YOU MIGHT FEEL
You are human. Any responses you have don't mean that you are weak, or a bad friend. Don't be too critical of yourself.
Triggered - If you're a survivor yourself, you might find what she tells you triggers off strong feelings around your own experience/s. Do engage support for this.
Frustration - especially if she appears to have other resources, but is still being hurt. The ties that bind women are many. Your frustration is a really natural feeling, no matter how much you care. But it is important to take that frustration elsewhere - to another person who understands domestic violence issues, perhaps.. Sometimes, you and she might have made safety or leaving plans, and you later find that they've fallen through and she's chosen to remain. This could be intensely frustrating. You're only human - however, don't make her feel she's failed you by remaining in the relationship, or by not following suggestions. She may feel a lot of shame. Let her know that your love and caring for her is not dependent on her following plans.
Helplessness - Somebody you care about has been hurt. You could find that you feel overwhelmed by the sense that you didn't protect her, or cannot change the circumstances.
Anger at the perpetrator - that's perfectly valid but watch how you express it to her.. You can say 'I feel really angry at the thought of anyone hurting you'. Be careful though, that she doesn't interpret that as anger at her. Also, remember that she does not need you to be her hero and bust his head!
Weary - You might find that you get tired of saying things that don't seem to make a difference. But believe me, your respect and acceptance of her is making a difference. She will remember who treated her with dignity and respect.
Listened Out - while a woman is healing from rape, she may need to talk about it many times. She's trying to make sense of it, and in covering what appears to be the same ground, she's actually bringing new lessons away with her. It's very important she has space to do that, but perfectly understandable that you might think 'if I hear about the rape one more time I'll scream'. Do scream if you need to - just not at her. It's really fine for you to set limits too; you can tell her if you really are not in a place to hear it. It's more appropriate if she has a counsellor for certain parts of her journey. It's more likely than not though, that she will be entirely respectful of your space, and will be anxious that you're sick of hearing about it. If you're fine with it, let her know that it's really okay to talk to you. Many survivors are extremely apologetic about telling of their experiences and feelings. Let her know she has nothing to be sorry for.
You don't have to be the end all and be all. Look after yourself.
TAKING CARE OF YOU
If you are supporting a woman who has been raped by her partner, your self-care is really important. Remember that at no stage do you and your needs for comfort, peace, support or the things you enjoy become unimportant. Rest and play, and say "no." If you would like support from other people supporting survivors of sexual assault, please feel free to join Pandora's Aquarium as a secondary survivor. This is something you can do for you to process your feelings, not necessarily to find out how to help the survivor. Please don't feel you have to be a substitute crisis-line - there are people who are trained and paid to deal with abuse-related crisis. It's better for her and will put less strain on you, if she has as many resources as possible.