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How can I help someone who has been sexually assaulted or raped?

Sexual assault is a crime. A sexual act is defined as something a person did not consent to and includes rape (an assault involving penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth) or other sexual offences such as groping, forced kissing, child sexual abuse or the torture of a person in a sexual manner.

Sexual activity with a child under 16 is also a criminal offence. This includes involving children in watching sexual activities or in looking at sexual images online or taking part in their production.

People who have been sexually assaulted may not show any outward signs or physical injuries. Sexual assault can be reported in the same way as any other crime, even if there are no signs that an assault has taken place.

Most sexual assaults are carried out by someone known to the person. This could be a partner, former partner, relative, friend or colleague. Assaults can happen anywhere, but is usually in the person’s home or the home of the person carrying out the assault.

Supporting a friend or partner after sexual assault

If someone has told you that they’ve been raped or sexually assaulted, it’s likely to have been one of the hardest things they’ve ever had to say. It may have taken them weeks, months or even years to feel able to talk to anyone about what has happened.

Most people have little experience of helping someone through a traumatic event such as a sexual assault or rape, so it’s normal to feel unsure about what to do. What’s important is that you care enough about that person to want to help. 

If your partner or friend has been sexually assaulted or raped, it will almost certainly have an impact on your relationship. There are things you can do to help you both get through this difficult time together.

For relatives, friends or partners, The Havens website has advice on what you can do to help someone who has been sexually assaulted. The advice includes:

  • Don’t judge or blame the person for what happened: listen to them and don’t push them to tell you more details than they’re comfortable to give.
  • Allow them to be in control: ask how you can help – you might have ideas about what they should or shouldn’t be doing, but it's important to allow them to come to their own decisions without feeling pressurised. You could help them find useful information, but don’t insist on them doing anything or speaking to anyone they don't want to – for example, a sexual assault referral centre (SARC), the police, their GP or a support service (see below for where to get help after a rape or assault).
  • Don’t take over: respect their decisions and never plan their recovery for them. Only they know how they feel, so it's important they’re allowed to recover at their own pace. Trust is important, so never break your promise of confidentiality.
  • Listen and be patient: as well as listening, you need to remain patient. Try not to ask them about details of the assault, because they might not feel ready to talk about it. If they don’t feel ready to talk about their experience, you may suggest that they write it down to help them "let it out" and begin to make sense of what has happened to them.
  • Give them space: knowing when to give someone space is essential. An important part of their healing process will be to take back a sense of control over their life, so allow them to do this. A person who’s been assaulted may find physical contact difficult and may not want to be touched, so you should respect their wishes.
  • Be supportive: they may need your support for a long time.

You should also take care of yourself. If someone you know has been raped, you will probably be affected by it in some way – for example, you may feel upset, angry or helpless.

Talking to your GP or a counsellor can help you understand your own reaction to what has happened and allow you to support your friend better.

Emotional reactions

After a traumatic experience, it's normal for people to have difficult and distressing symptoms. Common symptoms include:

  • replaying what happened in your mind
  • feeling like it’s happening again (flashbacks)
  • anxiety, including feeling panicky or jumpy
  • anger and irritability
  • sleep problems and nightmares
  • avoiding doing things you previously enjoyed and withdrawing from friends and family
  • depression and low mood
  • shame and guilt
  • blaming yourself
  • behavioural changes: the person’s eating habits may change, they may be ill or have other physical symptoms

Following a sexual assault or rape, people will react in different ways. They may experience a variety of feelings and emotions for a long time after the assault. They may find that talking to a counsellor or clinical psychologist is helpful. However, only they will know when they’re ready to speak to a therapist, so don’t pressure them into it. Let them decide who they want to confide in.

Issues with intimacy

Many people don't want to be touched by or to be intimate after an assault. Ask your partner or friend what they do and don’t feel comfortable with and respect their wishes. If sexual difficulties last for a long time after an assault, you and your partner may want to consider seeing a psychosexual therapist. Speak to your GP or you could contact your nearest Sexual Assault Referral Centre, which can provide a range of confidential support and specialist services to people who have been affected by sexual violence.

Where to get help after a rape or assault

If you think the person needs medical attention, always ask their permission before you call for help. Don’t break the trust they have in you.

  • Try not to wash or change clothes if the assault has just happened. Evidence may be lost if the person decides to report the assault.
  • Help is available either from the local police or from a Sexual Assault Referral Centre, which provide specialist medical, practical and emotional support. They have specially trained doctors, nurses and support workers to care for people who have been raped or sexually assaulted.
  • Sexual Assault Referral Centres can also provide a forensic medical examination, but only if a person gives consent. You can still use a Sexual Assault Referral Centre even if you don’t want a forensic medical examination or you don’t want to report the assault to the police. However, the sooner an examination takes place after a sexual assault, the greater chance of collecting evidence. 
  • Forensic medical examinations can provide evidence that’s useful if the case goes to court. Results can be stored and won’t be used without the person’s consent. Retrieval of stored forensic samples has helped to identify and prosecute serial rapists. 

The Site is an organisation for young people that has made a video about what to expect when you visit a Sexual Assault Referral Centre. People of all ages may find this video useful.

You can also use any of the following services, but they may not provide you with all the help and support a Sexual Assault Referral Centre can:

  • a doctor or practice nurse at the person's GP surgery 
  • a hospital accident and emergency (A&E) department 
  • a genitourinary medicine (GUM) or sexual health clinic
  • a pharmacy
  • a young people’s service
  • NHS 111
  • the police, or dial 101 
  • in an emergency, dial 999
  • the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247  (free to call)
  • a voluntary organisation, such as Women’s Aid, Victim Support or The Survivors Trust (both for males and females)
  • the Rape Crisis national freephone helpline on 0808 802 9999 (12-2.30pm and 7-9.30pm every day of the year) 
  • a young person’s online counselling service, such as www.kooth.com (for 11-25 year olds)
  • Against Rape – the joint website of Women Against Rape and Black Women's Rape Action Project. Information on rape, domestic violence, racist sexual assault, and seeking asylum after rape
  • Rights of Women – provides free legal advice and information to women affected by sexual violence
  • Womankind – helping women worldwide to improve their lives
  • Mankind – information and support for male survivors of rape/sexual abuse
  • Survivors UK – services are provided by trained professionals who are specialists in the field of male sexual violence

Further information:

Page last reviewed: 05/11/2015

Next review due: 05/11/2017