Sexual violence, whether it is a matter of offenses of a sexual nature (including sexual assault and rape) or of non-judicial acts, constitutes a major social problem whose consequences, particularly human ones, are considerable. Often, it is to relatives that the victims confide in the first place, which questions the way in which they can respond in an appropriate manner.
Although it is accepted that the prevalence of violence remains largely underestimated in official data, studies and surveys make it possible to better understand its scope. International data thus indicate that one in five women to one in three women would be the victim of sexual violence in her lifetime.
In addition, available studies indicate that if men are less affected (or report being less affected), they can also be victims of sexual violence.
Very long term consequences
In addition to significant health, physical and mental issues (including symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or related clinical manifestations), the consequences of sexual violence may occur in different spheres of life : in the family, social field, and / or in that of intimacy.
Thus, an isolation or a disengagement from social relations, but also professional and economic ones can intervene (in particular through a difficult return to employment or a loss of productivity).
In addition, studies highlight the impact of sexual violence on parenthood, suggesting possible consequences long, and very long term, even “Transgenerational”, that is to say over several generations. Hence the need to consider sexual violence as a public health problem.
Reconstructing victims, both physically and mentally, is a long, difficult process that can rarely be done alone. Disclosure or disclosure, that is, being able to talk about the violence suffered, is generally an important step in this process. reconstruction process to the extent that 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 – in the range of 60-70% [selon l’enquête sexualité, sécurité et interactions en milieu universitaire menée auprès de 6 universités québécoises]- reveal the violence suffered, they do so very little – at least initially – with “formal” or “official” actors such as the police or gendarmerie, health professionals, or even members of staff or institutional representatives.
By way of illustration, and on the sole offense of rape (without 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 84,000 women claiming to be victims of rape or attempted rape file a complaint.
In the vast majority of situations, victims therefore prefer so-called “informal” support, especially friends and family, to talk about the abuse.
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 of see the veracity of the reported facts questioned.
In addition to a necessary reflection on the fear, even mistrust, of victims towards judicial and institutional authorities, the preference given to “informal” support raises the question of ability of everyone to be able to hear from people victims of violence and respond to them in an appropriate manner.
Indeed, if the revelation of the violence suffered constitutes an important step in the reconstruction process, the how the voice of victims is received is a determining factor.
When the reactions and behaviors do not meet the expectations of victims, or even are negative (for example, a form of attribution of blame to the victim, disempowerment of the perpetrator, or a general lack of empathy), the effects can be extremely harmful.
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 thereby, to face alone the trauma of the violence suffered.
Conversely, positive reactions, marked by benevolent listening, an absence of judgment or simply a non-questioning of the reported facts, are likely to support the process of reconstruction, both mentally and physically.
These positive reactions encourage seeking help from health professionals, and can encourage the filing of a complaint and / or a subsequent institutional report when the victims wish to do so.
Also, support does not only go through the development of institutional resources, but also involves training, or at least making everyone aware of the reality of sexual violence.
Indeed, the few studies available indicate that while the people who hear from 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, it may happen that the reactions are based on erroneous representations about 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 perpetrator was armed or used physical force, or even downplay 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 am here for you, I am listening to you”, or simply benevolent listening – “I believe you”, should be favored.
Create the right 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:
To be 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 the disclosure is first made to friends and / or family members.
Because their reaction is fundamental in the process of rebuilding the victims, but also because it cannot be expected to “go without saying” or to make it easy to hear the reality of sexual violence, efforts must be made. also be devoted to sensitizing people on how to hear the word and support victims.