How To Support Sexual Assault Survivors
How To Support Sexual Assault Survivors
When a friend trusts you enough to disclose to you that they have experienced a sexual assault there can be lots of thoughts going through your mind. Here are the Dos and Don’ts of how to be a good friend and to support them at this time.
First and foremost:
Don’t Freak Out
Becoming upset or angry on your friend’s behalf could intensify any emotional distress they may be experiencing.
Do Gauge Your Friend’s Current Emotional State And Needs
Did the assault occur last night, or did it happen months or years ago? Is your friend in crisis, or are they simply sharing a story with you in context of current events? As a friend, and not a trained crisis counselor, your job, more often than not, is to listen and affirm. If your friend is in crisis, you can help them access the right resources.
Don’t Shy Away From Discomfort
It can be hard to know how to respond, but if your friend is sharing a difficult story with you, stay there with them. You don’t need to pry for details or freak out on their behalf to be present, open, and attentive.
Do Believe Them
And make sure they know it.
Do Mirror Their Language
If a friend uses the term “rape,” use the term “rape.” On the flip side, if a friend shares a story about an incident that you might label “assault,” but doesn’t use that term, you should use whatever language they’re using instead.
Do Follow Their Lead
Similar to mirroring language, let your friend direct the conversation. They might start sharing a story about an assault, and then change the subject. You can ask if they want to continue to talk about the assault, or offer to talk about it at a later time, but don’t push them to talk about it.
Don’t Pass Judgment Or Ask Questions That Imply Judgment
Refrain from asking questions like, “Were you drinking?” or “Are you sure that’s what happened?” Studies show that responding to trauma with blame or shame can actually re-traumatize a survivor. This phenomenon is known as “secondary victimization” and it can have a harmful, silencing effect. (1)
Don’t Use This As An Opportunity To Tell Your Own Story
You might have a story of your own, and you might want to share it as a way to show your friend that they’re not alone. But keep these thoughts to yourself at this time. Do your best to focus on your friend, and keep your tone positive-neutral.
Do Ask Open-ended Questions
Open-ended questions are a useful way into the conversation, and they can also offer a form of “permission.” Some survivors may worry that no one wants to hear about what happened, or they may even feel guilty for sharing their story. To counter these tendencies, try asking: “Do you want to tell me more about what happened?” or “What would be most useful right now?” You can also offer options: “I could ask you questions about what happened, or I could distract you by talking about something else… What do you think would be most useful?”
Do Remind Your Friend That It Was Not Their Fault
It is common for survivors of sexual violence to experience feelings of guilt or shame. For many people, being reminded that whatever happened is not their fault can be a huge relief. Remind them more than once!
Don’t Pressure Them To Report
Unless your friend is specifically asking for your opinion, follow their lead. Reporting can be emotionally and functionally disruptive so it’s important that it’s their decision to take this kind of action.
Do Support Your Friend’s Decisions
As long as your friend is not at risk of harming themselves or others, be supportive of whatever choice your friend makes regarding reporting, going to the hospital, or discussing the matter with other people.
Don’t Forget To Take Care Of Yourself
Listening to and supporting other people during traumatic experiences can induce a form of secondary trauma, called vicarious trauma. It’s important to be aware of this kind of stress, and remember that you can’t be someone’s emotional support person 100% of the time. (That’s what a therapist is for!) Be honest with yourself about your emotional capacity, and set boundaries around your limits to offer support. This will help you avoid burnout, and ensure that the support you’re providing your friend is the best you can offer.
Resources for Survivors of Sexual Assault:
Free, confidential phone hotline:
Free, confidential 24/7 chat:
Resources for Friends and Loved ones of Survivors:
(1) "Being Silenced: The Impact of Negative Social Reactions on the Disclosure of Rape" American Journal of Community Psychology 2006, Ahrens, C https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1705531/#CR7