How to support sexual assault survivors
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It’s not always easy to know what to say when someone tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted, especially if they are a friend or family member. For a survivor, disclosing to someone they care about can be very difficult, so we encourage you to be as supportive and non-judgemental as possible.
Sometimes support means providing resources, such as how to reach the National Sexual Assault Hotline, seek medical attention, or report the crime to the police. But often listening is the best way to support a survivor.
Here are some specific phrases RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline staff recommend to be supportive through a survivor’s healing process.
“I believe you. / It took a lot of courage to tell me about this.” It can be extremely difficult for survivors to come forward and share their story. They may feel ashamed, concerned that they won’t be believed, or worried they’ll be blamed. Leave any “why” questions or investigations to the experts—your job is to support this person. Be careful not to interpret calmness as a sign that the event did not occur—everyone responds to traumatic events differently. The best thing you can do is to believe them.
“It’s not your fault. / You didn’t do anything to deserve this.” Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind the survivor, maybe even more than once, that they are not to blame.
“You are not alone. / I care about you and am here to listen or help in any way I can.” Let the survivor know that you are there for them and willing to listen to their story if they are comfortable sharing it. Assess if there are people in their life they feel comfortable going to, and remind them that there are service providers who will be able to support them as they heal from the experience.
“I’m sorry this happened. / This shouldn’t have happened to you.” Acknowledge that the experience has affected their life. Phrases like “This must be really tough for you,” and, “I’m so glad you are sharing this with me,” help to communicate empathy.
There’s no timetable when it comes to recovering from sexual violence. If someone trusted you enough to disclose the event to you, consider the following ways to show your continued support.
- Avoid judgment. It can be difficult to watch a survivor struggle with the effects of sexual assault for an extended period of time. Avoid phrases that suggest they’re taking too long to recover such as, “You’ve been acting like this for a while now,” or “How much longer will you feel this way?”
- Check in periodically. The event may have happened a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean the pain is gone. Check in with the survivor to remind them you still care about their well-being and believe their story.
- Know your resources. You’re a strong supporter, but that doesn’t mean you’re equipped to manage someone else’s health. Become familiar with resources you can recommend to a survivor, such as the National Sexual Assault Hotline 800.656.HOPE (4673) and online.rainn.org, y en español a rainn.org/es.
- It’s often helpful to contact your local sexual assault service provider for advice on medical care and laws surrounding sexual assault. If the survivor seeks medical attention or plans to report, offer to be there. Your presence can offer the support they need.
- If someone you care about is considering suicide, learn the warning signs, and offer help and support. For more information about suicide prevention please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 800.273.TALK (8255) any time, day or night.
- Encourage them to practice good self-care during this difficult time.
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, it’s not your fault. You are not alone. Help is available 24/7 through the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE or visit the Online Hotline, y en español a rainn.org/es.
When someone you know has been sexually assaulted, it can be difficult to know what to say or do. Oftentimes, the best thing you can do is to just make yourself available. It’s also important to actively listen to what they have to say if they want to talk.
Strive to be supportive and nonjudgmental and assure them that you believe them. It’s also important to remind your loved one that what happened was not their fault and that they didn’t do anything to deserve what happened to them. Oftentimes, survivors of sexual assault will blame themselves for what happened.
You also should let them know that you’re sorry this happened to them. By doing so, you are demonstrating that you empathize with their situation and are able to acknowledge how the assault has impacted their lives.
Finally, remind them that they are not alone and that if they need your support, you will be there for them. Here are some additional ways you can support a victim of sexual assault.
It’s normal to feel outraged or even shocked by what your friend or family member has experienced, but expressing these emotions may cause your loved one to experience more pain or even confusion. Listen to what your loved one has to say without having any large, emotional outbursts.
Also, refrain from making threats against the perpetrator. While it may feel like you are being supportive, these types of comments can just add more stress to the situation.
Most people want to reach out and hug the person who has been assaulted. But it’s important to remember that this person may not want to be touched. As a result, be sure you ask permission before hugging your friend or family member.
You also should refrain from putting your hand on their arm or holding their hands until you ask permission. Simply asking “Can I give you a hug?” goes a long way in re-establishing your loved one’s sense of safety and control.
Then, if your friend declines, respect that decision. Never try to force your loved one to hug you. This violates their sense of autonomy and takes away their control.
Empower Your Loved One
Remember, when your friend or family member was assaulted, they were stripped of their control in the situation. For this reason, you want to empower them to make decisions about what steps to take next. Avoid giving too much advice or trying to fix the situation. Instead, if they want to get a medical exam or report the incident to the appropriate authorities. offer to go with them.
Do not pressure them into taking steps they are not ready for. As much as you want justice, your loved one needs to decide what steps to take and when.
Remember, this sexual assault is not your story to tell. So, do not share the details of your loved one’s experience without permission. Let the victim decide who to tell about the assault.
Most victims of sexual assault struggle with a great deal of shame and embarrassment. Sharing the details of the victim’s experience with others will just deepen those wounds. Allow your loved one the opportunity to decide who knows what happened.
Ask How You Can Help
It’s human nature to want to take charge of the situation when someone you love is hurting. But it can be very disempowering to the victim. Instead, ask what your friend or family member would like for you to do. Sometimes the answer will be as simple as just being there.
For instance, loved ones sometimes are afraid to be alone. So, they may want you to stay with them for a few nights. Or, they might want someone to go with them to the emergency room because the idea of getting a physical exam is frightening.
Rather than assuming you know what your friend or family member needs, ask them instead. And, if it is something you can help with, by all means, do so.
While it is important to be supportive and a good listener, you cannot do these things at the expense of your own health or responsibilities. For instance, do not skip classes or call off work every time your loved one calls. Instead, set a time to talk that works for both of you.
Remember, you can be a support person and a friend, but you are not your loved one’s counselor. For this reason, you need to be sure you are still taking care of yourself and meeting your obligations for work, school, and family.
Do not allow your loved one’s crisis to consume your own life, as it’s not a healthy option for either of you.
It’s best to find a balance between being someone your loved one can count on and being someone who practices good self-care.
The best way to support a victim of sexual assault is to educate yourself on the issue. Research your community’s resources and provide your loved one with the information. Additionally, learn what you can about how victims of sexual assault may be feeling.
This information will help you better understand your loved one’s experience as well as what their recovery may be like. It also will help dispel any misconceptions you might have about sexual assault.
Moving from victim to survivor takes a lot of hard work and is often best addressed through counseling. Encourage your loved one to consider counseling, but do not insist on it. Counseling won’t be effective unless your friend or family member is open to it and wants to work on healing.
Additionally, you don’t want to take away your loved one’s control. Instead, gently suggest counseling and offer several options for support groups. You also can suggest individual therapy and then step away so that your loved one can make a decision about how to heal from being assaulted.
Be Aware of Red Flags
People who have been sexually assaulted experience a range of emotions. In fact, no two people will think or feel the same way as the next person. Consequently, it is important that you know how to recognize any red flags in your loved one. These indicators may be a sign that your friend or family member is in crisis.
For instance, if they seem to cry all the time, talk about wanting to die, or have lost interest in their favorite activities, they may be suicidal or depressed. Other things you need to watch for include changes in eating and sleeping habits, nightmares, and flashbacks.
If your loved one is experiencing any of these things, seek to get help right away. Encourage them to talk with a counselor or to seek medical attention. In an emergency, do not be afraid to call 911.
Continue to Extend Invitations
Don’t be surprised if your loved one refuses your invitations to see a movie, have coffee, or go to dinner. It is not uncommon for victims of sexual assault to isolate themselves. But don’t give up on them.
Continue to invite them to do things with you. Even if they decline, most people still appreciate the invite. It helps them feel like they are still valued and loved—especially at a time when they feel so alone.
Be patient with your loved one. Eventually, they will accept your invitations. Just don’t give up and stop asking. They need to know you are there even if they refuse the offer.
Honor Their Recovery
Healing from sexual assault is a long process that never truly ends. What’s more, the path to recovery looks different for everyone. But for the most part, survivors will learn to recognize what happened to them while resolving their feelings and emotions.
They also will need to address any negative behaviors or habits they developed in order to cope with their situation. Finally, many survivors of sexual assault also focus on reclaiming their personal power and addressing any intimacy issues. As your loved one works through this process, it’s important that you are patient and supportive.
A Word From Verywell
Supporting a friend or family member that has been sexually assaulted is not a one-time situation. The healing process is ongoing and you want to be as supportive as you can. Touch base periodically with your friend or family member. Even if the assault happened a while ago, that does not mean that the pain is gone.
Remind them that you still care about their well-being and ask if they need anything. Be willing to listen if they need to vent and point them toward appropriate resources when needed. Remember, you can support your loved ones through the healing process, but you cannot heal them.