A friend, spouse, parent, child, sibling and intimate partner are all examples of secondary survivors. It is common for loved ones of a victim to experience a range of both physical and emotional reactions. Often, they may experience the same or similar emotions as the survivor. These feelings are normal and it is important to seek help and support.
Loved ones of a sexual assault survivor can call the Rape Assistance and Awareness Program (RAAP) Hotline at 303-322-7273 for anonymous, 24/7 support. RAAP also offers a workshop for secondary survivors called “Someone I Love,” for the partners, family, and friends of sexual assault survivors. The workshop discusses topics such as understanding trauma, helping a loved one through the process, and understanding their role in the healing process. For more information or to sign up for an upcoming workshop, please call 303-329-9922.
If someone you love has been sexually assaulted, these are some common reactions that you may experience. Note: you may experience many other reactions that aren’t listed. Every person who experiences trauma reacts differently, so therefore a range of emotions–listed and not listed–are to be expected.
Anger: Many loved ones feel anger or rage towards the perpetrator. It is common to feel the need to seek revenge by hurting the offender. While these feelings are normal, acting on them will only cause the victim to worry about you and cause him/her to lose more control of the situation. Some may also feel anger toward the victim for not telling them about the assault sooner or engaging in behavior that they felt lead to the assault like drinking or drug use. Please remember that no matter what the victim did or didn’t do, it is never his/her fault. If you are experiencing anger toward the victim, it is important for you to discuss these feelings with a safe person other than the victim to prevent compounding their personal guilt and self-blame.
Guilt: Sometimes loved ones feel personally responsible for the assault and find themselves agonizing about how they could have prevented it from happening. You may find yourself saying or thinking, “If only I did or didn’t do ____ this wouldn’t have happened.” Remember that the only person responsible is the person who committed the rape.
Shock: It is normal to experience shock or disbelief that the assault occurred. Loved ones may feel like the assault didn’t happen or have a hard time believing how someone so close to them could have experienced something so horrific.
Fear: A loved one may fear for the victim’s or their own safety. Sometimes this can make secondary survivors want to protect the victim. For example, you may have a hard time letting the victim out of your sight or make their own decisions. While it is ok to want to help, overprotecting a loved one can take away their feelings of control. It is important to let the survivor gain back control since she/he had it taken away during the assault.
Frustration: It is normal to feel frustrated with the criminal justice system and their ability to help the victim. Some people also feel frustrated with the survivor because healing can take a long time. This is also true of intimate partners–a partner or spouse may feel frustrated at a lack of emotional or physical intimacy from the survivor.
Other reactions: Other normal reactions include feeling depressed or anxious, feeling powerless to help the survivor or hold the perpetrator accountable for the assault, having difficulty listening to the survivor talk about the assault, and feelings that if the assault isn’t talked about the bad feelings will go away. If you have experienced sexual violence in the past, the sexual assault of a loved one may trigger memories of your own trauma.
For information on how to help someone who has been sexually assaulted, please visit How to Support a Survivor.