How You Can Help Someone Recovering From Sexual Abuse

Photo: Courtesy of Sundance.
There's a moment in HBO's original film The Tale, where one of the characters, Bill (Common), discovers that his fiancée, Jennifer (Laura Dern), was sexually abused by a 40-year-old man when she was 13, and confronts her about the reality of it.
"That's rape," he says. "That's illegal [...] I don't want you to justify it."
Jennifer, who's still reckoning with the fact that she was sexually abused, immediately goes on the defensive, telling Bill that she's trying to figure it out and that it was "complicated."
"I am not a victim," she tells him. "I don't need you or anybody to call me a victim."
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The rest of that interaction doesn't go well — Jennifer ends up overwhelmed by the conversation, telling him to leave their shared apartment to give her space.
But, even if he may not have approached the situation very carefully, Bill was trying to help, and that isn't a bad thing. It's just that sometimes people don't know what to do or say. If you know someone trying to heal from assault, the main thing to remember is that recovery is possible, even if it's not an easy process, and you can support a loved one as they heal.
Ahead, we've outlined a few things you should know if you want to help a loved one recover from sexual abuse.
Based on the filmmaker's own story, THE TALE is an investigation into one woman's memory as she is forced to re-examine her first sexual experience and the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive. THE TALE will also be available on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand from May 26th onwards. More info and full list of nonprofit partners can be found at thetalemovie.com.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
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Don't assume they don't want to talk about it.

Don't assume they don't want to talk about it.

Sexual abuse might be difficult to talk about, but that doesn't necessarily mean the person doesn't want to talk about it.

For some people, talking out their feelings can be very helpful and cathartic. So if someone you love is recovering from abuse, it can be helpful to let them know that you're there if they want to talk.
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And don't assume they always want to talk about it, either.

And don't assume they always want to talk about it, either.

On the flip side, bringing up that experience too often can force someone to confront difficult emotions when they aren't feeling up to it.

If you're not sure about when or how you should talk about the abuse, Emily Eckstein, PsyD, LMFT, clinical director for The Canyon at Peace Park, says to use the last time you talked about it as a talking point, and say something like, "I know you took a risk last week and shared something difficult with me. I wanted to follow up and see how you are. Is there anything I can do to support you this week?"

Megan Thomas, communications specialist at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, says that you can also check in very generally, without mentioning specifics about the assault or the survivor’s recovery.

"You can just say something like, 'I’ve been thinking about you lately. How are you doing?' or 'I just wanted to let you know I’m here for you if you ever need anything,'" she says.

When in doubt, let the other person take the lead on when and how often they want to talk about it. Let them know you're here to listen, and go with the flow if they suddenly change the subject.
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Don't interrogate them.

Don't interrogate them.

As well meaning as you might be, if you ask too many questions before someone is ready to answer them, it might seem like you're trying to poke holes in their story.

"By asking too many questions, it is easy to come off as judging the individual or the situation," Dr. Eckstein says.

Instead, let them know that they're safe with you, and that you recognize how much strength it took for them to open up.

"Individuals that experience sexual trauma might also feel comfort in hearing that now they are safe, in this moment, and in their relationship with you while highlighting how brave they are to ask for support," Dr. Eckstein says.
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Understand that everyone has different healing processes.

Understand that everyone has different healing processes.

Like Jennifer in The Tale, some people might not want to be seen as victims, and therefore may not address their abuse the way you might expect. It's important to be patient and understand that you can’t force someone to take any steps they don’t want to take.

"Everyone reacts to sexual assault and harassment differently, and for some survivors, part of their response may include denial or distancing themselves from the experience — particularly if the person who harmed them is someone they know and love," Thomas says. "Just let them know you’ll support them in whatever way they need."

Sara Mcgovern, a spokesperson from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), says that the effects of abuse might not even manifest until later in life.

"There is no set timeline for dealing with and recovering from this experience," she says.
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Direct them to good resources.

Direct them to good resources.

As helpful as you may want to be, you don't have all the answers. If someone you know is struggling to recover, you can also point them to local rape crisis centers, the National Sexual Assault Hotline and offer to help them find a therapist.
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