The impact of sexual assault on relationships
Women's Web gratefully acknowledges the University
of Alberta Sexual Assault Center (UASAC) for granting us permission to repint
its materials and resources on our website. Be sure to visit the UASAC website for additional information, resources, and link to other sites.
If you have been sexually assaulted, be sure to go
immediately to your local hospital or police detachment.
If you are unable to get to a hospital, call the police, your
community sexual assault center, or your community's 24-hour
Sexual assault is a serious crime. Compassionate
support is available and such crimes must be reported to the
Some important things to know about sexual assault/rape
- Sexual assault is not making love. No one "secretly desires" to be
sexually assaulted. Sexual assault is a total violation of a
person's right over his or her own body and ability to make
- Sexual assault is an act of violence. Sexual assault is a violent
assault and is not something the survivor wants or enjoys.
- The survivor is in no way responsible for the assault. Regardless
of the clothes he/she was wearing, where he/she was, or whether she/he was
drinking, knew the assailant, or fought back, the survivor
is never to blame for the assault.
- It is very common for people in terrifying situations to "freeze
up" or become too frightened to fight back.
- Sexual assault is a frightening experience that takes time to recover from.
How you can help
Many people make wonderful supporters, as being a great
support involves listening to the survivor, believing what
he/she says, and providing options for him/her by letting him/her make
his/her own choices.
If someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can help by:
- knowing what to expect from him/her after the assault.
- recognizing and accepting his/her feelings as well as yours.
- communicating with him/her. Show compassion and acceptance.
- allowing him/her to make decisions for herself/herself that
will help him/her to get control over his/her life.
- letting the survivor know he/she has your unconditional love
and support. Share with him/her that you will be there when
he/she needs you.
How should you respond?
Your first reaction may be one of anger and hostility. Those
emotional reactions are normal. It is important that you choose not
to contact or threaten the perpetrator. Threats may result in a legal
action by the perpetrator against you at a time when the survivor
needs your strength and support. Keep in mind that your anger can
shift attention away from the survivor and toward yourself. He/She may
feel guilty for burdening you, frightened of your rage, or reluctant to
upset you further at a time when he/she needs your support.
Empathetic touch (if the survivor is comfortable with it) and speech
may help him/her to feel safe enough to share his/her experience with you.
Tell the survivor that he/she is not responsible for the crime that
was committed against him/her. Avoid asking him/her "why"
questions like "Why didn't you scream?" He/she may feel
judged by such questions. The survivor needs to know that you
do not blame him/her for the assault.
It is very important that you convey the message that you do not
see the survivor as defiled or any less moral than before the incident.
It is important that the survivor understands that you believe him/her
and his/her description of the events, and that the feelings he/she has
about the incident are valid.
Encourage the survivor to make his/her own decisions about future proceedings
on the incident, for example, telling others or reporting. Communicate
your commitment by supporting the decisions she or he makes.
Let him/her talk.
Be patient and approachable; the survivor will express his/her feelings
as she or he feels safe, comfortable, and ready.
Do not pressure the survivor to tell you details or specifics; he/she
will tell you when or if he/she is ready.
Become aware of the parts of the survivor's experience that seem to come
up repeatedly. They may represent areas that need special attention
Consider sharing you feelings about the effects of sexual assault
on your relationship. Consider relationship counseling to help the two
of you deal with the event.
Spend some time helping others involved with the survivor to
learn ways to support him/her. Others need to understand that the survivor
needs a safe, accepting environment where his/her feelings and the
event will not be judged.
If the survivor is a partner
The process toward recovery is a lengthy one. The survivor's partner
may have reactions to the grief that he/she may not understand.
He/she may need to learn to understand and deal with his/her anger
around the situation, himself/herself, and the survivor.
Partners may feel that they are transferring anger to the survivor.
This is common and happens for many reasons.
- The partner may feel taxed or burnt out emotionally because
the need for understanding and patience seems unending.
- The partner may feel that "she/he should put it behind
him/her now and move on with life."
- Anger toward the survivor for what the partner may feel "allowed
the incident to occur" as in an acquaintance
To deal with this anger:
- Continue to do positive activities with your partner—things
you both enjoyed before the assault.
- Be around positive people who will help you to stay "up."
- Watch your urge to act out your anger with violence or drugs, alcohol,
- Communicate your feelings to the survivor and others you trust when
- Issues around sexual activity are very common after sexual assault.
The survivor may experience fear, flashbacks, or difficulties with her/his
own sexual response.
To help the survivor and your relationship:
- Give her/him the opportunity to make sexual decisions. This will
help him/her to feel more comfortable and empowered sexually.
- She/he may need a period of abstinence. Give that to him/her
and express your intimacy with nurturing and loving contact, such as hugs.
- Be patient. Sexual difficulties are quite normal and may be temporary
if the survivor feels loved and unconditionally accepted.
If the survivor is a child, relative, or friend
- Reassure the survivor of her/his sexual rights and that he/she is
not "tarnished." She/he may have significant fears about
sexual intimacy, particularly if the assault was her/his first sexual
experience. Reassure him/her future experiences will not be the same.
- Assure him/her that she/he was in no way responsible for the crime.
- Make yourself available to speak with him/her and answer her/his questions.
- Encourage him/her to maintain a normal lifestyle. Let her/him make
her/his own decisions about social activities and dating.
- Do not blame yourself for the sexual assault for failing to protect
him/her. It is virtually impossible to "protect" her/him. Focus
on helping her/him to recover.
Date rape/acquaintance sexual assault
Acquaintance sexual assault (also
called date rape) presents new issues to its survivors. In
addition to the trauma experienced in stranger assaults, self-doubt,
self-blame, betrayal of trust, and lack of confidence in her/his own ability
to make judgments and good decisions all complicate the recovery process.
Acquaintance sexual assault is very common and highly underreported.
It is important to be aware that this type of assault can happen to anyone.
For the partner, acquaintance assault creates additional issues.
Often the partner will know the assailant and there may be mutual friends
involved. The assailant may have a different version of the incident, and
the partner may have feelings of anger, rage or of doubt in the survivor's
story. Those feelings are very normal, but it is important to remember
that the relationship between the survivor and his/her partner needs to
be accepting and supportive. No one can control what others will say about
the incident or the people involved. What's important is that the partner
believes in and supports the survivor.