Sexual assault is, unfortunately, an all-too-common occurrence. But thanks to the history of shame and ignorance surrounding the topic of sexual assault, many people don’t know how to handle a disclosure of sexual assault from another person. They may not realize how critical the period following a sexual assault can be in terms of determining how the victim may be able to recover and move on from the abuse.
Additionally, there are different concerns for child and adult victims of sexual assault, and each type of disclosure should be handled with care and consideration for their differing needs.
If a child tells you that they have been sexually assaulted, keep these key points in mind:
- Always believe the child. False reports of child sexual abuse are very rare. The first step in the process should be to thank the child for trusting you with their story and reassure them that you love them. If you feel you must ask questions, be sure they are open-ended and not leading questions. (For example, ask the child, “You said he touched you. Where did he touch you?” rather than “Did he touch you there?”) Also, be careful not to express emotional responses to the child’s answers. Even seemingly positive emotions, such as relief, can create a desire in the child to “whitewash” the details—or even take their story back altogether.
- Help the child feel secure in the knowledge that the abuse is not their fault, and that they will be okay. Children may hold themselves responsible for the actions of others, often past the point that adults would see as reasonable. They may also believe that because they gave permission for the abuser to touch them or participated willingly in the abuser’s “games”, that they are to blame for the abuse. Let them know that the grown-up in a situation is always responsible for knowing what’s right and what isn’t, not the child. And reassure them that with help and support, they can recover from the experience and live a full, happy life.
- Seek help immediately. Don’t wait for someone who is required to report the abuse, like a teacher or counselor, to do so. The sooner that measurable action is taken and a safe environment is restored for the child, the better. Also, make sure that the child’s entire family receives appropriate help to deal with their feelings surrounding the abuse. Grief, anger, outrage, and self-blame are all common reactions to a child’s disclosure of abuse, but as understandable as those emotions are, they can be damaging to the child if not handled in an appropriate place and manner.
If the person who discloses a sexual assault to you is an adult, your role can change quite a bit. Keep these tips in mind if another adult reports to you that they have been sexually assaulted:
- First and foremost, don’t criticize the person’s actions leading up to or during the sexual assault. Maybe they drank too much. Maybe they wore a revealing outfit. Maybe they didn’t scream or fight off the perpetrator. None of that matters. If the person did not (or could not) consent to a sexual encounter, then that person was sexually assaulted.
- Never make excuses for the perpetrator. It does not matter if the perpetrator was intoxicated, or thought the victim was “playing hard to get”, or believed that the action was consensual. Again, if the victim did not (or could not) give consent, then a sexual assault occurred. Excusing the perpetrator in any way downplays the damage done by their actions, and can make it more difficult for victims to come forward. It can also allow perpetrators to continue assaulting others.
- Offer to listen and to be there to support the person who was assaulted. Remember, the assault isn’t your problem to solve. The victim simply needs to know that you believe them, that you sympathize, and that you’re willing to help in any way you can.
- Recognize that the victim can’t “just get over it”. Sexual assault is a traumatic, life-changing event. While survivors can and do recover every day, expecting them to “go back to the way they were” on a specific timeline is both unrealistic and hurtful. Recovery takes time and may change a survivor in profound ways.