How You Can Help
Many people who have experienced sexual or domestic violence either don’t know who to turn to or have had bad experiences when they’ve reached out for help. Your willingness to help can be important to a victim in their safety planning efforts. But while being willing and well-meaning is good, being ready to offer the kind of help that’s needed, while keeping yourself safe, is even better.
What You Can Do
- Initiate a conversation in private and when you have enough time to talk at length, but only if they want to.
- Let go of any expectations you have that there is a “quick fix.” Not doing anything may very well be the safest thing they can do at any given time.
- Challenge false attitudes and beliefs that you may have about domestic or sexual violence.
- Believe victims and let them know that you do. If you know the person who has or is abusing them, it may be hard to believe that they are capable of abuse, but remember that abusers typically act differently in public than they do in private.
- Listen to what they tell you. Avoid making judgments and giving advice. They will let you know what they need.
- Refer them to a service provider who can provide necessary medical attention, counseling or emotional support, safety planning, housing and discuss their options.
- Build on their strengths. Point out the ways in which they have developed ways to cope, solved problems, and showed courage and determination.
- Validate feelings. It is common for victims to have conflicting feelings – love and fear, guilt and anger, hope and sadness. Let them know that these feelings are normal.
- Avoid victim-blaming. Tell the victim that the abuse is not their fault.
- Take it seriously. If you are concerned about their safety, tell them you are concerned without judgment by simply saying, “Your situation sounds dangerous and I’m concerned about your safety.”
- Offer help. Offer specific forms of help and information, such as providing child care, driving them to appointments or assisting with pets.
- Give them control. Abuse and assault take control away from victims. Support their decisions about who to tell, what steps to take, and what types of support they need. Additionally, asking before offering any physical support such as hugs and being upfront about what support you can and cannot provide allows them to take control of their safety and next steps.
- Support and respect their decisions. Remember that there are risks with every decision a victim makes and there is no one way an individual must react to abuse or assault. If you really want to be helpful, be patient and respect their decisions, even if you don’t agree with them.
Recognizing and Responding to Sexual Violence
Sexual violence covers a wide range of behavior, including any type of sexual contact without consent. It may be experienced by, or perpetrated by, anyone. There is no right or wrong way for a victim of sexual violence to react, either in the short or long term. However, understanding what sexual violence is and what a victim or survivor might need can prepare you to best help them.
Potential immediate needs after experiencing sexual violence:
- Assistance in making sure they are physically safe.
- Counselling and emotional support.
- Medical attention can help treat any injuries, as well as possible STIs, and provide emergency contraception. An exam can also be performed to help collect evidence for any future law enforcement action.
- Much of the conduct that constitutes sexual violence is a crime. Such conduct, if it happens in an education or workplace, may also be illegal under other laws. A person may want to pursue reporting the conduct to law enforcement, and/or their employer or school.
Recognizing Signs of Domestic Violence
The effects of domestic violence can show up in many different ways. Being aware of these effects will not only help you better understand the experience, but will help you better identify someone who is being abused.
Visible signs of physical injury include:
- bruises, cuts, burns, human bite marks, and broken bones;
- injuries during pregnancy, miscarriage, or premature births;
- many injuries in different stages of healing;
- someone who suddenly starts wearing long-sleeve shirts or turtlenecks in the summer or scarves (to hide strangulation marks) or sunglasses indoors, when they never did before.
Illnesses that may be related to being abused include:
- stress-related illnesses like headaches, backaches, constant pain, gastrointestinal disorders;
- depression, trouble sleeping, eating disorders and anxiety-related conditions like heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, and panic attacks;
- depression and thinking about or attempting suicide;
- alcohol or other drug problems.
Other behaviors that may result from domestic violence :
- not being able to concentrate or focus at work, missing work or getting to work late a lot, or asking for a lot of time off;
- on-the-job harassment by the abuser, either in person or over the phone; and poor employment history or losing jobs. Behavior changes you may notice that could be a sign of abuse include:
- getting nervous, quiet, or “jumpy” when they are around their partner;
- suddenly not being able to do things with you; and needing to “check in” with their partner a lot, or constantly getting calls, e-mails, or text messages from their partner.
How Can You Know for Sure?
The only way to know for sure if someone you know is being abused is to ask.
- You should always have this conversation in private.
- Keep it simple.
- If there are specific things you have noticed that you are worried about, you might say something like, “I noticed ‘x, y and z’ and I’m worried about you. Is there anything I can do to help?” Or, “It seems like you’re stressed out and unhappy. If you want to talk about it now or some other time, I’ll keep it between us.”
- Let them know that you’re concerned about their safety and that you’re willing to help. Even if the person is not ready to talk about it when you first approach, they might come to you later now that they know you care.
- Let them know that you’re concerned about their safety and that you’re willing to help.