My Loved One Was Sexually Assaulted – What Can I Do?
Supporting a friend, family member or loved one who has experienced rape or sexual assault can be incredibly challenging. Far too many of our Native people are raped every year, every month, and every day, and it can be hard to understand what they are going through, how best to help, or even what to say.
Anyone can find themselves a survivor of rape or sexual assault. It can happen regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, tribal affiliation or status, economic status, disability, or religion. Sexual assault can also occur within our most intimate relationships, including marital rape, and it can be one of the most traumatic forms of relationship abuse. Whether in a relationship or not, rape and sexual assault go against our traditional life ways, and survivors are never to blame.
It is important to understand that everyone’s reaction and journey after the rape or assault may look different. When supporting your loved one, here are some important tips to keep in mind:
- Believe her. Or him. Or they. Or anyone. Far too often survivors of rape are not believed; instead, they are questioned. This response is unfair and can be traumatic for a survivor of assault. When a person is raped, there is a destruction of power and their personal sovereignty. When a survivor comes forward with their story, believing the story can help them reclaim that power and strengthen their personal sovereignty. To support someone in rebuilding their power and personal sovereignty, let the survivor determine what the best next steps forward are for themselves. When your friend, family member or loved one is given the appropriate resources and support, they can begin rebuilding some of the power that was stolen from them.
- Supportive, sovereignty affirming responses do not have to be complicated. Saying ‘I believe you’ is oftentimes enough, but certain responses can have unintended consequences. Avoid passing judgment, questioning the survivor such as ‘Why didn’t you say no?’ or ‘What were you wearing?’, or criticizing your loved one for not recognizing red flags or risk factors you feel they should have. Survivors often get blamed for the violence they experience, so asking your loved one why they didn’t do something to prevent the attack may reinforce that perception. No matter the reason for the assault, sexual assault and rape are never okay.
- Responses to traumatic experiences such as rape can vary. It is common for people to experience mixed or changing reactions to trauma. Survivors of trauma may feel shock, fear, depression, anger, guilt, increased or new substance use, or even difficulty sleeping. Understand you will not always be able to fix your loved one’s pain and that it will take time for your friend or relative to heal. However, by listening to and supporting your loved one, you are playing a major role in that process.
What Options Does My Friend or Relative Have?
While it is paramount that the survivor decides how to move forward after sexual assault or rape, you can help your friend or relative understand what their options are. Here are some actions to support your loved one in being safe and healthy as possible and assist with moving forward emotionally:
- Get connected to help. There are rape crisis centers all across the country, and some tribes have victim advocacy programs or sexual assault advocates. Programs like these can support survivors in many ways, including assistance with navigating the legal system, providing emotional support, and completing a rape kit. You can find a list of rape crisis centers here. For assistance in finding culturally specific resources, you and your loved one can call the StrongHearts Native Helpline together by dialing 1-844-762-8483. It’s safe, anonymous and confidential, and advocates are available Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. CST.
- The importance of forensic testing. The most common forensic testing for sexual assault is a rape kit, which is a collection process where evidence from the attack is gathered, including physical materials (i.e. clothes, DNA, etc.). A rape kit can be helpful if your loved one decides to report the attack and seek criminal charges. However, completing a rape kit does not necessarily mean the survivor is reporting the rape. Trained professionals will administer the rape kit, typically at a hospital or clinic. Many tribal hospitals and clinics also offer access to a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE). To complete a rape kit, contact a sexual assault center or call 1-844-7NATIVE for assistance in locating helpful resources where available.
- Consider emergency birth control options. It is important to know that emergency contraception after an assault is an option for your loved one. In cases of heterosexual rape of females and where protection (i.e. condom) was not used, it is important to consider obtaining the morning-after pill or pursuing some other form of emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy after rape. Emergency contraception is available at Indian Health Service facilities.
- Get tested. Being a victim of sexual assault is a traumatic and unfair experience that no one should have to endure. During this time, it is also important to consider the physical consequences of unwanted sexual contact, where it may be in the best interest of the survivor to get tested for sexually transmitted infections (STI) after the assault. If the survivor wants to pursue this option, the best idea is to talk to a doctor.
- Report the assault. Reporting sexual assault is often a complicated and layered decision for survivors. Your loved one may find it difficult or challenging to trust the legal system, or feel like reporting may do more harm than good. However, reporting the assault is critical if your loved one chooses to do so. If your loved one decides to file a report, you can encourage them to:
- Call 911.
- Contact local law enforcement authorities (tribal or state).
- Reach out to a medical professional.
Some survivors may have little to say about the attack or may not want to take any action after the assault. Remember, sexual assault is a traumatic experience, and it is your loved one’s choice in how to proceed.
No matter how your friend or relative chooses to heal, it is important that the next steps are their choice. Whatever steps they take forward are steps to rebuilding their personal sovereignty. As a friend, you can support a survivor by believing your loved one and listening.
If you need assistance with supporting your loved one, call the StrongHearts Native Helpline at 1-844-7NATIVE (1-844-762-8483), available from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Central time, seven days a week, to get help. Callers reaching out after hours may connect with the National Domestic Violence Hotline by selecting option 1. All calls remain anonymous and confidential.