Sexual violence: Ways to cope and get support

Published on December 16, 2021 |Last updated on November 2, 2022

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It’s common to feel a range of emotions if you’ve experienced sexual violence. An incident of sexual violence refers to any unwanted sexual activity where consent and / or permission is not freely given. You may feel shame, trauma, fear, loss, grief, anxiety, confusion, depression, guilt and more. You may not know how exactly to react. What happened was not your fault. Here, Good2Talk shares tips for caring for your physical and emotional health as well as support options.

If you’re in immediate danger, reach out to emergency services or mobile crisis support (if available in your area). You can connect with a sexual assault support service by searching Good2Talk’s Campus and Community Services Directory.

It can take a while to truly understand the impacts of sexual violence. You may not realize until years later that what occurred is considered sexual violence. You may have blocked out your feelings in response to a traumatic event. You may worry the incident was “not bad enough” or too long ago. Any and all of these responses are valid.

A misconception around sexual violence is that it only happens between a person and a stranger. However, sexual violence can happen when you’re in a committed relationship with someone you love. In fact, sexual violence committed by an intimate partner is a common experience, especially on post-secondary campuses. This article about what constitutes healthy and unhealthy romantic relationships may be helpful to learn more.

How can I work through what I’m feeling?

There’s a range of coping strategies that survivors of sexual violence may find helpful. The tools that work for you now can shift over time or change in the future, and that’s OK. 

Reach out for support:

  • find a mental health professional and / or trauma-informed therapist who is welcoming, friendly, approachable and believes your experience
  • try trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (TF-CBT), psychotherapy, etc. 
  • try a support group to connect with other survivors
  • phone or text Good2Talk’s 24/7 support services 

Try different coping strategies:

  • reflect through journaling, letter-writing or this self-awareness workbook from Kids Help Phone
  • create a routine and care for your physical health — through exercise, sleep and nutrition
  • make time for self-care and activities you enjoy
  • try grounding tools like a body scan, breathing exercises, meditation, mindfulness, etc.*

*For some survivors, activities that bring awareness to your body can be a difficult experience. These tools aren’t for everyone. They may be more helpful further along in your healing process and / or with the support of a mental health professional.

Get involved with your community:

  • spend time in environments and spaces where you feel comfortable and safe — a friend’s house, place of worship, community centre, etc. 
  • reach out to a community organization or volunteer and advocate for other survivors, if you feel ready

What if I’m nervous to share what happened?

It can be extremely difficult to talk about an experience of sexual violence, even to those closest to you. When, how and if you share what happened is completely up to you. There’s no specific timeline and your experience and healing journey is unique to you. When you’re ready, post-secondary counsellors or Good2Talk counsellors are available to support you in exploring your options.

If you’re thinking about sharing your experience with someone, it may be helpful to plan in advance. These resources from Kids Help Phone can help you prepare:

Reporting sexual violence

Some survivors may choose to disclose their story to a mental health professional without wanting to pursue any further action.* Some survivors may wish to report an incident formally. There is no obligation and the choice is completely up to you. 

*You deserve to know up front what level of confidentiality you have with a mental health professional so that you can make choices that feel right for you. Often, they will explain their duty to report (and what’s involved) to you at your first session. If they don’t, it’s OK to ask! You can also ask any other questions you may have about when and why they might be obligated to report information you’ve shared so it feels clear to you. 

Many post-secondary campuses have a designated staff member or office for sexual violence support and education. They can help you understand your options so that you can make an informed decision around whether to report or not. They may also be able to provide accommodations to support you physically, academically and emotionally.

There are also community organizations that offer support for survivors of sexual assault and sexual violence. Some offer services including legal and advocacy support and sometimes can accompany you to the hospital, police station or to court appointments. You can search Kids Help Phone’s Resources Around Me tool to find resources available throughout Ontario (try using keywords like sexual assault or sexual violence).

Taking care of yourself

There are things you can do to feel safer if you’ve experienced sexual violence and the person who assaulted you is still in your life or on campus:

  • learn what supports are available to you and how to access them (on and off campus)
  • invite a friend to join you if you’re traveling or moving around on campus
  • be mindful about posting your location on social media or online
  • keep a list of contacts close by so that you can reach out if you feel worried or unsafe
  • make a plan for getting home – that way if you feel uncomfortable or unsafe in a situation you can act on it right away

If you’ve experienced sexual violence, need support processing and navigating its impacts on your physical, emotional and spiritual well-being, or help determining the best course of action to take, Good2Talk’s professional counsellors and crisis responders are available 24/7 via phone and text. Remember, what happened is in no way your fault. And no matter what you’re experiencing, your feelings are valid. 

Photography credit: Cesar Ghisilieri

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