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What to say to a sexual assault survivor

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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.


Continued Support 



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, y en español a
    • 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.
BACA JUGA:   Are psychologist and therapist the same

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

“Don’t let your own feelings of anger or sadness get in the way of you being there for your partner,” Ms. Engel said. Getting angry, even at the person who did this to your friend or loved one won’t help, she said. In fact, it could just scare your friend into closing off. Your job isn’t to “fix” your friend, make them feel better, or take their pain away. Your job is simply to listen.

It’s especially important to believe your friend’s story. It’s sad that this has to be said, but that’s the climate that we’re in right now. Let them know that above all, you believe them.

Wendy Maltz, sex and relationship therapist and author of “The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse,” offered this handy list of possible responses:

  • “Thank you for sharing.”

  • “You are not to blame for what happened to you.”

  • “You didn’t deserve what happened to you.”

  • “I’m sorry this happened to you.”

  • “You are not what was done to you.”

  • “That was abuse, not healthy sexuality.”

  • “I support you in your healing process.”

  • “I respect you for addressing this.”

  • “I love you.”

While every survivor and each story is unique, it’s useful to educate yourself on the impacts of sexual abuse. It’s not the responsibility of a survivor to educate you — especially when it’s so easy to read more on your own — and being informed beforehand will make you a better partner in recovery. Books are a great place to start.

Ms. Engel recommended reading the books “Allies in Healing: When the Person You Love Was Sexually Abused as a Child” by Laura Davis and “Sexual Assault [Rape]: Moving From Victim to Survivor” by Lizyvette Ramos. The Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) also has a section on its website about post-abuse recovery.

As a psychotherapist specializing in sex therapy, I work with a lot of sexual abuse survivors and their partners. The impacts of sexual abuse can be extremely difficult to understand if you haven’t experienced the abuse yourself, and it may help to learn some of the common impacts that abuse can have on a loved one. Here are some common ones I see in my practice. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and remember, each survivor’s experience is unique.

  • Dissociation: A survivor’s body can be physically present, but their mind can be in a completely different place, especially during intimate moments.

  • Getting triggered: Survivors might jump or tense up when someone gets too close, even if it’s someone they love and trust. Certain words, actions, sounds, gestures or even smells could send them into a heightened state of agitation. Many sexual abuse survivors can also be hypervigilant.

  • Difficulty making healthy decisions: Some sexual abuse survivors find it tricky to make healthy decisions about their sex lives after abuse. They might have poor body image or low self esteem. They may find themselves becoming intimate with people who don’t respect them, or in situations that feel unsafe.

  • Low libido or an avoidance of sex: Many survivors don’t want to revisit the specific activities that traumatized them.

  • Shame: Many survivors feel as if they’re broken or damaged goods. Male sexual abuse survivors can feel a different kind of shame, since male sexual abuse isn’t discussed nearly as often, and carries a different kind of stigma.

This list shouldn’t be used to diagnose your loved one, but rather, to give you a foundation if your loved one wants to discuss the ways their abuse may affect their life.

BACA JUGA:   Are psychologist and psychotherapist the same

[Content warning: This story contains details about violence and sexual assault.]

Devastating national news about sexual assault is constant, and that’s because unfortunately, the crime is too. Every 92 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), and approximately one in five U.S. women is the victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime, per the CDC. To put this into perspective for you, that’s an estimated 25.5 million women in this country who will be directly affected by sexual assault.

Research shows that while less than half of survivors get medical care or a forensic exam, the majority do turn to friends and family for help. “When it comes to sexual assault, that first instance of telling your story to someone else will make or break how easy recovery is going to be for you,” explains Brittany Piper, a survivor, sexual violence expert, and healing coach.

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Sadly, many people don’t know what to say or do when someone tells them they’ve been sexually assaulted. Blame a lack of substantial sex ed: There’s a focus on the acts and facts of sex (the reproductive system, birth control, STIs, etc.), but no one really learns about “the feelings, emotions, and relationships that go into sex,” Piper says.

Whether a survivor discloses their sexual assault to you right after it happens or years later, it’s important to know what is and isn’t an appropriate response. Here’s what experts and survivors advise:

What You Should Do

Let your friend take the lead.

Put away your opinion and just listen to what they have to say. “A survivor’s story could come back in pieces,” says Megan Thomas, communications specialist for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “For someone who’s disclosing for the first time, this incident might have impacted the way they’re recalling it.”

Even if you can’t follow the chronological order of the story, now is not the time and place to question what they’re saying.

Say you believe them.

“I think what would have been the most helpful for me to hear at the time is: ‘You are believed. You are telling the truth. I believe that this happened to you. And it’s not your fault,’” says Ashley-Michelle Papon, survivor and media liaison for After Silence, an online support group for survivors of rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse.

Survivors are already questioning themselves and their experience internally, Piper says. “After my assault happened, I immediately blamed myself without anyone else even blaming me,” she says. “For someone to come to us, shake us of those thoughts, remind us that our experience is valid, and say that no matter what, we didn’t deserve that can really help us in our recoveries.”

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Thank them.

For real: It’s an honor that your friend or family member confided in you, so tell them so. “Say something that recognizes the tremendous pain and fear that can come at the very idea of sharing this,” says Miriam Joelson, survivor and organizer for survivor civil rights nonprofit Rise. She suggests trying something like: “Thank you so much for trusting me with your story” or “I’m honored that you would share this with me, and I really want to be there for you.”

Give your friend the power to take action (or not).

Start your response with empathy. Ask questions like: “How can I support you? What do you need? What would help you to feel safe, feel comforted?” suggests Brooke Axtell, survivor, human rights activist, and founder of healing community She Is Rising.

Then transition from empathy to action. Say: “There are resources available for you for recovery and for responding to this. Are you ready to talk about that?” suggests Axtell. If they are, refer your friend to a sexual abuse expert (Axtell says that RAINN is a strong resource for finding sexual assault service providers near you).

If they’re not ready to talk with a pro, simply say: “We don’t have to explore or talk about this right now, but would it be okay for me to send you a brief text or email so you have a few options if, at any point in time, you want to look into it?” advises Axtell.

Remember that every survivor is different.

Maybe you know someone who reported their assault and sought treatment immediately; maybe you know someone else who didn’t disclose what happened until years later. The truth is, what helped one person isn’t necessarily going to be the same thing that helps another.

“Everyone heals differently,” says Piper. “As an ally of a survivor, I would remind people that the road to survivorship is not one size fits all.”

What You Shouldn’t Do

Don’t try to make sense of it.

It’s human nature to want to comprehend the hows and whys of every situation, but your questions will probably just come across as victim blaming (and real talk: this isn’t about you).

“I think the natural instinct when a good friend tells you about this terrible thing that’s happened is to ask a lot of questions because you’re trying to understand it,” says Scott Berkowitz, president of RAINN. “The problem is that, more often than not, your friend is hearing those questions as accusations. It may come across as if you’re questioning their actions or suggesting that they were somehow responsible.”

Don’t tell them what you would do in their situation.

Because you literally aren’t in their situation. It’s easy to offer advice and tell them how you would act given the circumstances, but it’s not helpful for the survivor.

“People always think that they’re going to Superman out of the experience. Maybe you would, but you didn’t experience it, so there’s no way of knowing that,” says Jennifer Li, survivor and activism coach for Rise.

Don’t cry.

It can be heart-wrenching to hear that someone hurt a person you care about, but try to keep your emotions in check. Think about it from your friend’s perspective: “I can’t be the strong one in this moment, and you’re kind of making me be the strong one and have to take care of you while I’m telling my narrative,” says Flannery Houston, a survivor and activism coach for Rise.

Don’t preach wisdom.

Those “we’re never given more than we can handle” memes may be fine on your aunt’s Facebook page, but they’re not cool in this conversation. “People may attempt to encourage a survivor by telling them that everything in life has a purpose and meaning and they’re so strong, they’re going to overcome this,” explains Axtell, who is also the author of . But these “assurances” really just convey that you aren’t comfortable with their suffering.

Don’t ghost.

More times than not, this person doesn’t need space. So check in tomorrow. And again. And again. “While trying to give them space, you might be sending the message that you don’t want to be part of this—that you don’t want to be there on an ongoing basis for them,” Berkowitz says. But remember, you don’t need to bring up the assault. You just need to be there for them.

Going Forward

Some days are going to be harder than others, Piper admits. “Sexual assault is the most pervasive trauma that someone can have in their life. It affects everything: your relationships and your sense of safety in your body and in the world. It’s an imprint that lives with you forever.”

To help, get behind your friend as they take back their power in whichever way they choose, suggests Axtell. “I think the role of an ally or loved one is to support us in creating our own justice—however we define that.”

If you have been sexually assaulted and want to talk to someone, you can reach the National Sexual Assault Hotline 24/7 by phone (800.656.HOPE) or online.

Alison Goldman

Alison Goldman is a writer and editor based in Chicago.