What is sexual violence and rape?
Sexual violence, or sexual abuse, can be defined as any behaviour perceived to be of a sexual nature, which is unwanted and takes place without consent or understanding. Rape is when a man has penetrative sex with another person against their will. This includes vaginal, anal and oral penetration. Sexual assault covers any other sort of sexual contact and behaviour that is unwanted, ranging from touching to any other activity if it is sexual.
Anyone can be a victim of rape or sexual assault, regardless of age, sex, ability, race, sexual orientation or gender identity. For some individuals, rape or sexual assault may be a single incident. Others may be assaulted, regularly or occasionally, over a long period of time. Yet, for some individuals, they may be assaulted by different people at different times in their lifetime. The media tends to show rape and sexual assault being carried out by strangers, at night, in the dark and involving threat or force. Yet, most assaults are carried out by someone the victim knows, such as a: sexual partner, casual acquaintance, family member or other. Most rapes are committed indoors, usually in the home. Rape and sexual assault are often part of domestic abuse, along with emotional and physical abuse. Many individuals who experience domestic abuse find the sexual violence the most difficult to talk about. Being violated by someone you know is a significant breach of trust. Forced sex within a relationship is sexual assault and is still a crime.
How can I help someone who has been raped, sexually assaulted or abused?
If a member of your family or a friend tells you they have been raped, sexually assaulted or abused, it is probably one of the hardest things they have ever had to say. It could have taken them weeks, months or even years to feel able to tell someone what has happened. Acknowledge the courage it has taken for them to share this information with you. Most people will not have had much experience in hearing disclosures of abuse or in helping friends and loved ones through the healing process, so it will be normal to feel uncertain what you can do to help.
- Listen to what the person tells you. What they have said is important.
- Accept what they say and believe them.
- Do not judge what you hear.
- Reassure them, they do not have to cope on their own, there are professionals who can help.
- Let them know they are not to blame, the person who raped or assaulted / abused them is fully responsible.
- Avoid taking over, give the person space to make the right decisions for themselves.
- Be patient, they will need time to make decisions and to make sense of what has happened.
- Put your feelings to one side. You may be upset and shocked by what you hear, but let the person know you care and want to help them.
- Allow them to tell you what has happened in their own time, without pressuring them for details.
- Respect their decisions, even if you do not agree with them.
- Ask them how you can help.
As you are doing this on behalf of a victim, seeking help and guidance can be difficult. The main thing to remember is that help is available and support for family and friends is accessible.
Various organisations are available to assist throughout this process and their experience and expertise can be the difference in how a victim of sexual violence or abuse deals with their feelings.
Why not start by contacting The Rowan – phone the Freephone helpline on 0800 389 4424. However, in an emergency situation contact the police directly by dialing 999
Mental Health & Wellbeing
After a traumatic experience, it is normal for people to feel upset and have some difficulties. Recognising what some of these are may help you to support your friend or relative. Symptoms and reactions will vary from person to person; they are likely to change over the course of time. Your friend or relative may appear perfectly calm and unaffected by the incident, this is a normal reaction too. It may not necessarily be how they are feeling inside, or other symptoms may develop later on.
Common reactions can include:
- shame and guilt
- anxiety, including feeling panicky
- anger and irritability
- intrusive memories of what happened
- feeling like the assault / abuse is happening again (as known as ‘flashbacks’)
- sleep problems and night terrors
- disrupted eating patterns
- social isolation
- depression and low mood
- alcohol/drug abuse
- refusal to discuss the experience
- lack of interest in life
- difficulty in concentrating
It is normal to have a reaction to such a traumatic event. Symptoms can last for weeks / months after an assault, so do not expect the person to be back to their normal self during this time. Talking with a counsellor can help the person understand their feelings and reactions, and help manage them over time. If the person’s symptoms do not seem to be improving over time, you may wish to encourage them to consult their GP for further support and advice. Only the person can know when they are ready to speak to a counsellor so try not to pressure them to do so. Share information with your friend or relative and give them space and time to think about what they need at that time.
Medical & Sexual Health & Wellbeing
Encourage your friend or relative to get medical care even if they do not appear to have any physical injuries, or if the assault happened a while ago.
To look after their sexual health, the person should be given information about accessing emergency contraception and medication which reduces the risk of HIV infection, known as PEPSE (Post Exposure Prophylaxis for Sexual Exposure) which needs to be taken within three days (72 hours) of the assault, where there is thought to be a risk of contracting HIV. So from a sexual health and wellbeing aspect, it is worth speaking to someone for medical advice. The person may wish to visit their own GP, a local Sexual Health Clinic (also known as a Genitourinary clinic / GUM clinic) or contact The Rowan directly.
As well as providing medical examinations, emergency contraception and PEPSE to those who need it, The Rowan can also offer a screen for Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and treatments where required.
For more details about support agencies see the Contacts section
Taking Care of Yourself
If someone you know has been raped, assaulted or abused you are likely to be affected by it in some way. For instance you may feel upset, angry, confused or helpless. It is important you look after yourself. Even if your friend or relative does not want to talk to a counsellor, you can get support for yourself. Talking to a counsellor can help you understand your own reaction to what has happened and enable you to support your friend more effectively. You can contact The Rowan directly or refer to the Contacts section of the website for further information on support agencies who may be able to help you further.
Emergency Support – PEPSE
Victims of sexual assault can be at increased risk of contracting HIV. Emergency medication can be provided to victims who have been raped in the last 72 hours.
For more information, please contact The Rowan on 0800 389 4424 (calls will be charged from mobiles).
If you or someone you know is in distress or despair, there is a range of services available to help.
Lifeline is the Northern Ireland crisis response helpline service for people who are experiencing distress or despair. Please contact their 24 hour support helpline on 0808 808 8000.