December 7, 2023 Dec 07, 2023 11 min read
Sexual abuse is extremely prevalent and on the rise in both Canada and the US. This unfortunately means that many of us will at some point find out that someone in our lives is experiencing sexual abuse. But knowing how to handle this type of information is complicated. That’s why we’ve put together this detailed guide to help you figure out how to help a victim of abuse or assault in your own life.
Below is a detailed guide to figuring out what to do when you find out someone in your life is being sexually abused.
We’d like to be able to share more of our resources and support with you.
To figure out how best to handle a situation like this, you’ll first need to assess the circumstances.
Start by considering the following questions…
Your best course of action will look different depending on the age of the victim, your relationship to them, and how you found out. For example, if the victim is your child, you will want to handle the situation much differently than if the victim is an adult acquaintance.
It’s normal to feel motivated to take action immediately after finding out that someone in your life is being abused. However, it’s important to first consider that a response plan might already be in place.
If possible, find out whether the victim is already receiving the support they need or whether you’re among the first people to know. Needless to say, if a plan has been established and the victim is receiving support, it’s okay to simply digest the information and move on. If you know the victim well and would like to offer emotional support one on one, check out our article “How to Support a Loved One Who Has Been Sexually Assaulted.”
Once you’ve determined the circumstances of the abuse, you can develop a customized action plan.
Below are some examples of how you might approach the situation based on several potential scenarios.
If the victim is below the age of consent in your area, this is considered child sexual abuse. If you are a mandated reporter of any kind (a teacher, government worker, social worker, doctor, etc.), you are legally required to report the abuse to the relevant authorities. Keep in mind that, in Canada, all people have a duty to report child abuse to the authorities in accordance with child welfare laws. In other countries, only individuals serving in certain professions have a legal duty to report.
Even if you do not have a legal duty to report, you should still strongly consider reporting the abuse for the sake of the victim. If reporting the abuse to the authorities doesn’t feel like the right option, it’s highly recommended that you reach out to a support organization in your area that can help you decide what to do. While it might feel like an obvious choice to tell the victim’s parents or caregivers about the abuse, this is not always the best choice. Many victims of sexual abuse are victimized or mistreated by members of their own families.
In the US, reports of cyber abuse of children can be submitted by calling the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 1-800-843-5678 or online here. For a US state-by-state guide to reporting all types of child abuse, check out this list provided by the Child Welfare Information Gateway.
For more information, check out our article “I Found Out My Child is Being Sexually Abused Online. What Should I Do?”
If you find out that your child is being sexually abused by another parent, caregiver, teacher, or anyone else in their life, your top priority should be to ensure their safety as soon as possible. This could mean relocating, switching school districts, or ending relationships with certain friends or family members.
Although uncovering child sexual abuse in your family is devastating, confusing, heartbreaking, and oftentimes life shattering, all of this pales in comparison to the trauma your child will continue to experience if they’re kept in an abusive situation.
For personalized help deciding how best to help your child, call your nearest crisis centre and ask to speak to an advocate. To locate a crisis centre or crisis line in your area, use our Find Services tool.
Deciding how to approach a close friend, family member, or partner after finding out they are being sexually abused is a highly nuanced process that will depend on the nature of your relationship to that person. The examples discussed below assume that the victim is an adult and that a plan is not already in place to support that person.
If you found out about the abuse from the victim directly, a good first step is to simply ask them how they would like to be supported. Some victims simply need someone to talk to and may not want further assistance, which is completely okay. That said, the victim may also want help getting connected with resources or information or getting themselves out of the abusive situation.
Depending on their needs, helping your loved one might look like…
Any time you’re offering support to a victim of sexual abuse or violence of any kind, it’s extremely important to remember that you are a helper and not a rescuer. The victim should be the primary decision maker whenever possible.
If you found out about the abuse second or third hand but the victim is someone you have a close, trusted relationship with, use your best judgment to decide whether it would feel appropriate to start a conversation about it. Although this can feel extremely uncomfortable and complicated, letting that person know that you’re there for them in a gentle and caring way can help the victim understand that they have a support system.
Some of us might find ourselves in situations from time to time where people we don’t know all that well confide in us about experiences of abuse. When this happens, it can be very difficult to know what to say or do. While the right path forward will vary depending on the situation, there are some key things to keep in mind that can make it easier to know how to respond when interactions like these come up.
If you do not have a close relationship with the victim but they approach you directly to share about their abuse, it’s okay to ask them plainly what kind of support they’re looking for. Of course, you might not be the person to offer them that support, but you may be able to point them in the right direction.
Sometimes sexual trauma survivors simply need to share their stories, and that’s okay. If you feel comfortable listening, you can support that person by receiving their story with compassion. Remember that you are allowed to have your own boundaries when it comes to fielding other people’s stories of abuse, and you are not obligated to listen to anything that makes you upset or uncomfortable.
In the event that the person sharing their story with you expresses a need for support beyond being listened to, you might be able to help them get connected to relevant resources in your area. Using the Go Thrive Go services database, you can look up information about sexual abuse resource organizations near you. You might write down a few phone numbers or web addresses for the person to use if they choose.
Just remember that even when people open up to us about their abuse, it is not our responsibility to rescue them from their circumstances. Always be careful about offering advice, information, or support that you don’t feel truly equipped or qualified to provide.
If you do not have a close relationship with the victim and you found out second or third hand, it’s probably best not to involve yourself directly in the situation. Abusive dynamics are often highly complex, and involving ourselves when we don’t understand enough about the situation can potentially cause harm.
If you feel strongly that you want to help the person anyway, find out first whether the information you were told is true. While false reporting is very uncommon, information heard “through the grapevine” should always be vetted before assuming it’s entirely accurate.
If you determine that the information you received is likely to be true, you could consider anonymously passing on resources to the victim, such as a phone number for a sexual abuse helpline or other equivalent services in your area. It’s best to refrain from reporting abuse on behalf of others, unless the victim is a minor.
If the person being abused is your child, friend, partner, or other loved one, it’s extremely important to offer genuine, non-judgmental emotional support and validation. First, emphasize the fact that you believe them and that they are not at fault.
Especially if you are a parent of a child who has experienced any form of sexual abuse, particularly cyber abuse, it’s very important not to punish your child for what they’ve experienced. Even if you feel that your child was engaging irresponsibly online or doing things you deem inappropriate, your child is still a child and they deserve to be regarded and protected as such.
Finding out that someone in your life is being sexually abused is complicated to say the least. But when we break down the situation and consider our circumstances, it becomes a little easier to decide how to move forward. Consider saving this article as a guide for navigating these complex situations and check out our other articles on how to offer support to victims of sexual assault, abuse, intimate partner violence, and child abuse.
Sexual abuse is unfortunately extremely common across the globe and is currently on the rise in both Canada and the US. If you find out that someone in your life is being sexually abused, the best path forward will depend on your relationship to that person as well as how old they are and how you found out about the abuse. If the victim is a child, you should strongly consider reporting the abuse to the authorities. If you have a duty to report (also known as “mandated reporting” in the US), you are legally required to report all suspected or known child abuse to the authorities. If the victim is an adult, you can provide support by listening to their story, asking what kinds of resources and support they need, helping them readjust their life to get free from abuse, or pointing them in the direction of relevant social service organizations. Regardless of how you navigate the situation, it’s extremely important to offer emotional reassurance to the victim so that they know that they are believed and that what has happened to them is not their fault.
Dana Anastasia (they/them) is an independent writer, editor, podcaster, and artist. With a degree in interdisciplinary sociology and a background in domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy, Dana brings a keen awareness of victim and survivor needs and experiences to their work.
Canadian Centre for Child Protection – https://www.protectchildren.ca/en/resources-research/taking-action/
Child Welfare Information Gateway – https://www.childwelfare.gov/organizations/?CWIGFunctionsaction=rols:main.dspList&rolType=custom&rs_id=5
Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres – https://sexualassaultsupport.ca/statistics-sexual-violence-in-canada/