Beliefs to be reinforced
It's neither possible or desirable to prescribe which counselling approach is best suited to your provision of support to victims of sexual assault. That will depend on an interaction of the needs, concerns and assumptions of your client and on your personal counselling style, skill base and the range of techniques available to you. However, several general principles do apply.
- It is essential that the counsellor communicate to the sexual assault survivor that they are believed. By validating their experience you validate their sense of self.
- They are not responsible for being sexually assaulted and the counsellor does not believe any view which locates responsibility with the victim.
- The counsellor does not equate the assault with an act of infidelity or promiscuity and does not see the victim's as less 'moral' because of the assault.
- Their survival of the assault means they did the right thing.
- They have the opportunity to make decisions about events which affect their lives (i.e. whether to report the crime, tell family, friends etc).
- They have the counsellors support no matter what decisions they make.
- That with their consent, the counsellor will actively encourage support and co-operation from family and friends.
- It is important to discuss any beliefs or assumptions about sexual assault that are perhaps contributing to the victims distress.
- The counsellor does not demand or expect immediate open communication with the victim's regarding how they feel or the details of the assault.
There are also Specific Processes For Counselling which will assist you to reach these goals and diffuse the trauma effects of sexual assault. These include:
Draw attention to the links between experiences which the survivor sees as specific to him or her and the experiences of other assault victims.
"You know, many survivors I've spoken to say that they feel similar to the way you said you felt immediately after the assault....an overwhelming sense of grief."
It is important to recognise any features which are specific to the person's situation that may make his or her feelings, thoughts and behaviours unlike those of others.
"...as you said, when Ann was assaulted, there was a lot of support around....people she could call on. In a way your situation is very different isn't it?
You know no one, who you can really count on, that won't blame you for what happened. This may explain why you're finding it harder to stop blaming yourself. What do you think?"
Believing, validating feelings and statements, and 'de-guilting'
The victim's feelings and statements should be believed and validated, not ignored or re-interpreted. Strengths should be recognised so that the survivor can value and re-claim the control they have lost. This also means recognising outside institutional and social pressures that stimulate a person to act, think and feel a particular way. A sexual assault survivors' feelings, thoughts and behaviours are entirely justified given the outside pressures they experience.
"....it is understandable that you blame yourself for the assault, especially when society usually blames women for inciting sexual assault even though no one deserves to be raped."
" ....people around you act as though you're no longer yourself. They don't know how to respond to you and sometimes avoid you. No wonder you're feeling so down."
"...it is understandable that you did not scream or try to get away from the rapist. If you had tried either of these things, you may have been bashed or even killed."
Encouraging the survivor to speak for him/herself
As a victim, the sexual assault survivor had their power totally denied and there is a need to support them in developing or re-developing direct, assertive communication rather than covert, manipulative or physically aggressive communication.
Re-labelling the experience
This involves exploring and reframing the significance or meaning that can be given to a feeling, thought or behaviour. This is particularly important for sexual assault survivors who, in retrospect, often perceive their actions in a self-blaming way.
"...perhaps he assaulted you because he wanted to show he had power over somebody, not because he had an uncontrollable sexual urge."
Explore with the survivor alternative 'contexts' in which a situation, feeling, thought or behaviour considered unacceptable would be alright.
Survivor: "I tried to get him to take me home because my husband was there and I might have been able to get free. But he said he didn't believe me when I told him there was no one home. I should have fought him more, it was my fault."
Worker: "It seems to me that you tried to survive in the best ways that you knew how. The idea of getting him to take you home was pretty clever. Anyhow, there was no guarantee that fighting him would have been more effective. You did the best you knew how to. That is all any of us can do..."
Reducing emotional distance and power difference
Reducing the distance and relative power difference between the counsellor and the survivor is an important factor in helping them to regain control over their lives. Situations then become "we" not "us" and "them." Personal struggles and experiences, where appropriate, may be shared. The counselling process can be demystified and explained and knowledge and limitations can be shared.
"I can really understand that feeling of being immobilised with fear. For years when I was living alone, I would lie in bed and hear noises outside but be too scared to move. It took going to a self-defence course before I was able to leap out of bed and check the noise. In being able to do that now, I feel like I've reclaimed my sense of safety."
Films, books and articles about sexual assault and other survivor's experiences can help survivors understand the social reasons for their personal experience and social pain.
This may mean openly acknowledging the contradictions and conflict between what the counsellor would like to do personally for the victim, what the victim would ideally like from the counsellor and from the agency for which the counsellor works and what the agency asks or obliges the counsellor to do. Pressures may also come from other agencies and/or individuals especially if the counsellor works in an advocacy role as well.
Survivor: "...if I talk to you, will you promise not to say anything to anyone else?"
Worker: "... I can't promise you that I won't talk to someone. In this agency we support each other in our work and sometimes we feel the need to talk to each other about people we are working with. I can promise you confidentiality within the agency and we are very particular about that. You might even want to use a different name it that would make you feel easier..."
Placing sexual assault in a wider context
Explore with the survivor's the history of sexual assault and conditions in society which combine to create the crime. This is an important tool in an 'empowering' helping relationship.