Disclosure is likely to be the most frightening thing that this person has had to tell anyone in their whole life. Respect that. Disclosure requires enormous courage and inner strength from the survivor.
The possibility of the abuse being compounded by disbelief, feelings of being dirty and betrayal of the (possibly loved) abuser all conspire to make this area treacherous. We must do all in our power to provide a safe and supportive arena in which the person may speak freely, and without judgement or blame. Putting counterviews such as the person being right to bring the matter up and to praise their courage, are helpful, as these will help negate the immediacy of feelings of low self-value that the person may be experiencing at the time.
Make it easy and safe for the survivor to talk to you. As the story is repeated, more details may be revealed. Be aware that the story may be different, to a greater or lesser degree, each time it is told. Don’t expect a factual, chronological, and logical account, such as you may expect in a textbook. It may be (and quite likely will be) jumbled, confused, contradictory, and told with a factual flatness with little feelings attached to it. In dissociated survivors, it may well be told in the third person. You may find that the survivor will tell the story in an off-hand or even jocular fashion. He/she might do this to keep the feelings at bay while reassuring the listener that he/she doesn’t have to take the story too seriously. It’s almost as if they might be saying “don’t worry, I won’t lose control, it wasn’t that bad”. Don’t be put off by this. Any confusion can be sorted out later.
The first stage is just to listen; keep your own confusion at bay; the person will spot it and be disempowered by it. All survivors are unique individuals and respond to different approaches, but here are some general Do and Don’t principles which have been found to be helpful when listening to someone who is telling you of their sexual assault.
Listen attentively. Pay attention to what the person is saying and not what you believe he or she might be saying by assumption. Tease out gently points for clarification if they are ambiguous. It is quite possible that there will be parts of the story which conflict with others as the survivor struggles to recall the event and its proper chronology.
Listen empathically. Try to put yourself in the survivor’s shoes and understand what it must have been like for her or him, not for you. Understand from the survivor’s perspective how it was. For example, if the person is blaming him/herself, stay empathic to their feelings of self blame. You might want to say something like “It feels that you are blaming yourself and that seems like a heavy burden to carry.” Statements like this can give the person a feeling that you are with them in their struggles and they are therefore likely to feel less isolated.
Statements which oppose client feelings, such as “you have no reason to blame yourself” are not likely to be helpful at this stage when the person is actively blaming him/herself.
Believe the person. The way that you listen (your language, your body language, your demeanor) will send signals to the survivor that you believe or disbelieve.
You may well hear stories that seem improbable; that is the nature of some sexual abuse, particularly if someone is reporting an ongoing abusive relationship rather than a single occurrence of an assault. You may think that what the person is saying is far-fetched and maybe imaginative, either because of the description of what was done and/or how the person responded. We ask you to be completely open-minded and take at face value what the person is saying. We talk of suspending disbelief.
Although rare and probably extreme, we know of (not isolated) instances of sexual abuse being part of a satanic and ritualistic practice.
Don’t hurry the survivor. Let the survivor tell their story in their own time. It may be that it becomes repetitive and you are anxious to get on to the next bit, but it is important for the survivor to be “held” so that she/he feels they have the time and space to be heard and to recall.
Don’t make judgements. The survivor’s story may seem strange to you and you may think that you would behave in a different way in those circumstances. But you weren’t in those circumstances and are therefore unable to say how you would respond. Judgements can come about because we compare the survivor’s behaviour against our own norms and behaviour. These are inappropriate when we are hearing someone else’s experience.
Don’t make comments. Let the survivor tell of their experience without comments like, “that’s dreadful” or “he is a vile man” or such like. The survivor will decide if it’s dreadful or if he is a vile man. Contributions from you may not be helpful. See Listen empathically in the DO’s above.
Don’t make assumptions. You may be tempted to think that what the person is saying is unlikely because you make assumptions about the person, the place, the time, the way it was done and other things. Don’t! Just hear the story, however unlikely it may sound.
Don’t blame. Always work from the basis that it is NEVER, EVER the survivor’s fault that they were sexually assaulted or that they contributed to their experience in any way at all. If you start to think like that then you have lost it. It is extremely likely that the survivor will be experiencing a lot of self-blame with thoughts such as “if only I hadn’t done this or that” or “if only I had not gone to that place”, “if only, if only, if only . . .” . These can be very destructive and are feelings that are usefully worked on in therapy but not during disclosure. Do not contribute to or compound the survivor’s own feelings of self-blame, fault and shame.