Sexual violence refers to all unwanted, forced or unconsented:
- Sexual acts
- Attempts to obtain sexual acts
- Sexual comments
by any person. These include, but are not limited to:
- Sexual assault
- Sexual harassment
- Sexual misconduct
- Child sexual abuse
Throughout the world, women, children and men are affected by sexual violence. It has a profound impact on the psychological, emotional and physical health of the survivor. Although victims and survivors have unique experiences and different reactions, sexual violence can have a lasting effect on their everyday lives. This also involves their social wellbeing as individuals have been devastatingly stigmatised and ostracised by their own families and communities for being a victim.
Some of the impacts of sexual violence include, but are not limited to:
- Nightmares and flashbacks
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Substance use or abuse
- Fear, distrust
- Guilt, shame and self-blame
- Physical injuries
- Sexual and reproductive health problems
- Self-harm and suicide
- Sexually transmitted diseases or infections
Although there are some commonalities, it is important to remember that victims and survivors respond to sexual violence in their own way – there is no “right” or “wrong” reaction. Some victims may keep their feelings to themselves for days, weeks, months or even years after the incident (if they ever choose to share their story), some may express their emotions right after and tell others what happened. These are both normal and common reponses. We must respect each survivor’s choice and way of coping with their trauma, and support them by:
Many victims of sexual violence withhold or withdraw allegations because they are afraid of not being believed or having their experience brushed aside. We must take all complaints of sexual violence seriously. If they entrust you with their story, provide them with assurance and support. Let them know that you believe them and are behind them.
Listen to the survivor without judgement. Put your opinions aside to allow them to share what happened and how it made them feel. Acknowledge their feelings with empathy and compassion. They need a space to be heard and feel understood.
Allowing survivors to make their own decisions
Victims of sexual violence have had their boundaries violated, so it is crucial to let them have control over their decisions. Even if they ask for your input, respect their boundaries and be a willing listener. They’ve experienced a loss of control and need to re-establish it.
There are a lot of myths and misinformation regarding sexual violence that puts the blame on the victims and survivors. These are extremely harmful. You must educate yourself to provide informed and compassionate support. This will also allow you to recognize acts of sexual violence, such as rape jokes and locker room banter, and call them out.
Sexual violence is a community problem – we all need to work together to address it. You can start by allowing victims and survivors to feel safe, respected and empowered. Showing support can make a difference, and have a positive impact on their healing process. Take them seriously, make them feel seen and heard.
If you or anyone you know is a victim of sexual violence, you can contact the Women’s Aid Organisation Hotline at 03 3000 8858 or SMS/WhatsApp TINA at 018 988 8058 .