Sexual violence: the importance of so-called “informal” support


Sexual violence, whether it involves offenses of a sexual nature (including sexual assault and rape) or non-judicial acts, constitutes a major social problem whose consequences, particularly human, are considerable.

Often, it is to relatives that the victims confide in the first place, which raises questions about how they can respond in an appropriate way.

Although it is accepted that the prevalence of violence remains largely underestimated in official data, studies and surveys make it possible to better understand the extent of this. International data thus indicate that one in five to one in three women will be a victim of sexual violence in her lifetime.

Furthermore, available studies indicate that while men are less affected (or claim to be less affected), they may also be victims of sexual violence.

Very long term consequences

In addition to significant health problems, physical and mental (including symptoms of post-traumatic stress or related clinical manifestations), the consequences of sexual violence may manifest in different spheres of life : in the family, social field, and/or in that of intimacy.

Thus, isolation or disengagement from social relationships, but also professional and economic ones, can occur (particularly through a difficult return to employment or a loss of productivity).

Moreover, studies highlight the impact of sexual violence on parenting, suggesting possible consequences long and very long termOr "transgenerational", i.e. over several generations. Hence the need to consider sexual violence as a public health problem.

Rebuilding victims, both physically and mentally, is a long, difficult process that can rarely be done alone. Revelation or disclosure, that is to say being able to talk about the violence suffered, is generally an important step in this rebuilding process insofar as it makes it easier to seek help or support.

Less than 10% of victims file a complaint

In this regard, some reports suggest that while most victims – around 60 to 70% according to the sexuality, safety and interactions in a university environment survey conducted among 6 Quebec universities – reveal the violence suffered, they do so. very little – at least initially – with "formal" or "official" actors such as the police or the gendarmerie, health professionals, or even staff members or institutional representatives.

By way of illustration, and on the sole offense of rape (not including other forms of sexual violence), the latest report published by the High Council for Equality between Men and Women reports that in France, less than 10% of the 84 women claiming to be victims of rape or attempted rape file a complaint.

In the vast majority of situations, the victims therefore prefer so-called “informal” support, especially friends and family, to talk about the violence suffered.

They generally anticipate more empathetic reactions from those close to them, while filing a complaint (or institutional reporting) is perceived as potentially having harmful effects: fear of not being believed, or at least see the veracity of the reported facts questioned.

Benevolent listening

In addition to a necessary reflection on the fear, even distrust, of victims with regard to judicial and institutional authorities, the preference given to "informal" support raises the question of the ability of everyone to be able to hear the words of people who are victims of violence and respond to them in an appropriate way.

Indeed, if the revelation of the violence suffered constitutes an important step in the process of reconstruction, the way in which the words of the victims are received is a determining factor.

When the reactions and behaviors do not meet the expectations of the victimized persons, or are even negative (for example, a form of attribution of blame to the victim, disempowerment of the perpetrator, or general lack of empathy), the effects can be extremely deleterious.

Among the possible consequences, the clinical symptoms and health problems can be exacerbated, the victims can be led to “wall themselves” in silence for several years and thus, to face alone the trauma of the violence suffered.

Conversely, positive reactions, marked by a benevolent listening, an absence of judgment or simply a non-questioning of the facts reported, are likely to support the reconstruction process, both mentally and physically.

These positive reactions encourage the search for help from health professionals, and can encourage the filing of a complaint and/or subsequent institutional reporting when the victims wish to do so.

What implications?

Also, support does not only involve the development of institutional resources, but also involves training, or at least raising everyone's awareness of the reality of sexual violence.

Indeed, the few studies available indicate that if the people who receive the word of the victims are – in the vast majority of situations – fundamentally well intentioned they may not always know how to react, what to say or how to say it.

In these situations, reactions may be based on erroneous representations of sexual violence. Some question, for example, the relationship between the author. and the victim, the way the victim behaved towards him. Others ask if the attacker was armed or used physical force, or even minimize the seriousness of the facts reported.

It is crucial to remember the negative effects of these reactions, such as "it's not that bad", or "try to forget and move on". In view of the expectations of the majority of victims, proactive listening – “I'm here for you, I'm listening to you”, or simply a benevolent listening – “I believe you”, should be given priority.

Create enabling conditions

While sexual violence is a major social problem, it is necessary to create favorable conditions so that victims, when they wish, can talk about the violence suffered. Without denying the importance of filing a complaint or institutional reporting, it is necessary to:

  • Being able to hear, and accept that for some victims, the reconstruction process does not go through these actions;
  • Be aware that in the majority of situations disclosure is first made to friends and/or family members.
  • Because their reaction is fundamental in the process of reconstructing the victims, but also because it cannot be expected that it "goes without saying" or that it is easy to hear the reality of sexual violence, efforts must also be devoted to raising people's awareness of how to hear their voices heard and to support victims.

Massil Benbouriche, Lecturer in Psychology and Justice, University of Lille

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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