Supporting a Survivor of Sexual Assault
How to help a friend or loved one
Things to remember when helping a friend
Helping a friend through a difficult situation such as rape and sexual assault can be challenging . It can be difficult to know what to say or how to be supportive.
- Always ensure that your friend is safe.
- If your friend is not in a safe place, your first concern should be helping your friend attain safety and security. This may involve talking with campus safety, law enforcement, changing locks, staying in another location, changing contact information, etc. It is important that safety is established before healing can occur.
- Believe your friend. It is difficult to disclose a sexual assault, especially if people don’t believe you. Trust your friend.
- Listen to your friend’s story. Let your friend talk. Sometimes the most difficult, yet most effective thing we can do is listen without judgment. Our natural instinct often tells us that by giving advice or offering solutions, we can “’fix” a situation, but typically the best help we can give is to provide our support.
- Remember that your role is NOT to define or to prove the assault. The most helpful thing that you can do is to remain supportive while referring your friend to campus or community agencies that are trained in providing assistance and intervention for survivors of sexual violence.
You do not have to have all the answers
If someone discloses to you, it usually means that you are someone they trust. Often, they just want to be heard. Though there is not one “right” way to respond to someone who has been sexually assaulted, the following may serve as a general guide:
- Encourage your friend to take whatever time is necessary to share his or her experience with you.
- Respect the language your friend uses to identify what’s happened.
- Understand that individuals from different backgrounds may express or experience reactions to an assault in different ways.
- Validate your friend’s experiences or reactions.
- Remind your friend that he or she is not at fault, even if he or she has made some unwise decisions.
- Help your friend identify other safe people in his or her existing support system.
- Encourage, but do NOT force your friend to seek medical attention and counseling. Provide resources.
- Allow your friend to make his or her own decisions.
- Asking questions that might imply blame. (i.e. “What were you doing there?”)
- Blaming or judging. (i.e. “You shouldn’t have had so much to drink.”)
- Dismissing feelings or minimizing the experience. (i.e. “You should just forget about it.”)
- Trying to “fix” the problem. (i.e. pressuring to make a report or take certain actions)
If your significant other is a survivor
- Don’t deny or ignore the sexual abuse/assault: Not talking about the assault will not make it go away. Chances are both you and your partner are thinking about what happened, so you must face reality. Sharing emotions and feelings will help your relationship grow and hopefully make it stronger. Communication is essential to any relationship.
- Don’t ask too many questions (unless you are willing to hear the answers): The details of the sexual assault may be gruesome and unpleasant. Your partner will tell you what they feel comfortable sharing. It’s ok to ask questions and show your interest, but hearing the intimate details of a sexual assault can be difficult and you should feel prepared to hear them and be supportive.
- DO ask appropriate questions (show interest): Because sexual assault can be such a volatile topic, more than likely something you say will upset your partner at some point in the relationship. Again, don’t blame yourself, the most important thing is the care demonstrated by showing genuine interest. If your partner seems uninterested in sharing, be patient, you are both dealing with many emotions.
- Don’t blame yourself: As an intimate partner, you must understand that some things will trigger emotional and/or physical responses and memories of the assault. Be patient. Most often it is not something directly related to your actions which are causing your partner’s discomfort. Respect your partner if he/she doesn’t want to have sex or he/she feels “dirty,” this is a common reaction to rape. The assault was not your fault and you can’t blame yourself for what has been done by someone else.
- DO believe your partner and offer unconditional support: Sometimes the most powerful thing you can do as a partner is listen and believe. You do not have to understand the entire assault or emotional response to offer your support.
- DO affirm the experience. As a significant other, you are not a counselor. You should not be trying to solve your partner’s problems or “fix” everything. Your responsibility is to reaffirm your partner’s emotions and confusion.
- DO ensure the survivor’s safety: Make sure the survivor feels comfortable and safe. Understand if he/she doesn’t want to be alone.
- DO educate yourself: If you need help understanding what you or your partner are going through, seek a counselor or find articles to read to educate yourself. No one says you should deal with this all alone. You need to release your possible anger, tension, and confusion as well.