How to support survivors of sexual assault
1 in every 6 American women is a survivor of attempted rape or completed rape, and as is 1 in every 33 American men. Every 73 seconds an American is sexually assaulted, so it is likely that at some point in your life you will find yourself in a position in which you or someone close to you has experienced an instance of sexual assault and it’s helpful to know some steps following such an experience.
What to do when a friend comes to you about sexual assault
Ask them what they expect from you
Oftentimes, our first instinct when a friend comes to us with any kind of issue is to give them advice. Not just in this scenario, but especially in this one, make sure you ask them if they want advice or just for you to listen. They may want advice from you, but they may also just want someone to listen to them.
- ✿ Don’t pressure the person into talking, but let them know you’re there to listen to whatever it is they wish to share. Don’t press for further details if they seem reluctant.
- ✿ Realise that getting angry at their abuser might not be the response they want. Be careful with anger, because it may actually scare the survivor into closing off if they aren’t ready to confront their abuser directly or even open up to more people about their experience yet. Treat anger with caution as it may signal to them that you are insisting on action being taken, while they may not be ready for that.
- ✿ Let them know that you believe them. Don’t question them as they speak. If you catch yourself saying “are you sure __ happened?” recognise that you are being defensive of the perpetrator and hold your comments to yourself.
Respect their personal space as they recount their story
Even if physical affection is something that comes naturally to you and your friend, be weary in this situation. Ask them first if they would like a hug or any kind of comforting physical contact as they recount their story to you
Demonstrate ongoing support and awareness
- ✿ Let them sit with their emotions for a while if that’s what they wish to do. Don’t tell them to cheer up, but instead tell them it’s okay to be upset.
- ✿ let them know that you’re there for them and on their side
- ✿ understand that it will take time for them to recover
- ✿ recommend therapy or legal action but do not in any way push this on them
Recommendations of things to say
- ✿ “I respect you for addressing this”
- ✿ “I care about you and believe you”
- ✿ “you didn’t deserve what happened to you”
- ✿ “what happened is not your fault”
- ✿ “don’t blame yourself for what happened”
- ✿ “I’m glad you told me”
- ✿ “is there anything I can do to help now?”
Why don’t survivors of sexual assault come forward sooner?
Survivors of sexual assault may often come forward about their experiences long after the assault actually happened. Shame and fear often play a role in silencing survivors for longer periods of time. Additionally, the first person that the survivor opens up to often sets the tone for the future in regards to them opening up. If the first person they tell is dismissive and questions their credibility, survivors often are even more tempted to keep the experience to themselves. Some other common reasons that cause survivors to keep their experiences include:
Shame & self blame
as human beings, we often want to believe we have control over what happens to us, so when there is an instance in which we feel very little control such as sexual assault, in hindsight survivors often are tempted to place the blame on themselves, replaying the moment and wishing they had been more stern, more aggressive, less timid. but this is not the survivor’s fault.
Fear of consequences
those who are the perpetrators of sexual assault often hold some sort of power over the victim, and this causes fear over what that person would do if they were to come forward
Fear of not being believed
- ✿ they fear responses such as “you’re making this up for attention” or beliefs that they are coming forward about the assault purely for revenge on the perpetrator and not for justice
- ✿ there is fear that people will claim they are over-exaggerating the circumstance
- ✿ if the person was someone they knew, which most often it is, then there is fear associated with friends not wanting to believe somebody they know is a sexual assaulter. sometimes the perpetrator can be someone the victim and victim’s friends were/are friends with, which creates a lot of discomfort and fear when coming forward
- ✿ in high profile cases, there is fear of being labeled as an opportunist, concocting a story simply to reap the benefits of the attention, money, or something else, etc.
- ✿ they feel there is no point in coming forward about their story as what has been done is already done and they believe there is nothing they can do about it now
- ✿ this feeling of helplessness/hopelessness can often stem from seeing how other survivors are scrutinised and dismissed after coming forward with their stories, and how their abusers often get by without consequence
the 5 D’s: disbelief, denial, dissociated, drunk, or drugged
- ✿ many survivors don’t come forward about their experiences because in the moment they were drugged, drunk, or dissociated due to the shock, they often develop a fear that they can’t trust their memories, a fear that is accentuated through the responses they are given when recounting the story to friends
- ✿ they question their own ability to accurately recount the story in detail and thus choose to remain silent altogether to avoid having to debate an experience that could have been particularly traumatizing
- ✿ some survivors are in denial for other reasons, such as they don’t want to believe that it happened to them, they try to brush it off so that they can continue life as it was before the assault, they may likely know the perpetrator and perhaps have feelings for or a friendship with their abuser that makes them want to be in denial that it ever happened
Finally, there are many other reasons why survivors don’t come out about their experiences ever or even right away, talk to the survivor themselves for more information on what they personally may be dealing with and how you can help. The length between the sexual assault and the survivors story should never discredit the survivor.
How to support a survivor
If somone confides in you about their sexual assault, it can be confusing about how to respond. You might worry that you won’t say the right thing, giving the right advice and how to support them best. This is why we created a step-by-step guide to give you the right tools to support a survivor.
- ✿ Before you do anything else, thank them for being brave and sharing what happened with you. It can take a lot of courage tell someone about a traumatic event such as a sexual assault. By thanking them, you are acknowledging that bravery.
- ✿ Validate their experience. Tell them that their experience and emotions are valid and you are here to support them the best that you can.
- ✿ Ask them how they would like you to respond. Do they want advice? Do they just want to rant? Do they want emotional support? Once you know what kind of reaction they are looking for, you can tailor the following steps to fit their needs.
- ✿ Ask them if they are thinking about reporting it. They might say no. Remember that even if you think they should report it, this is ultimately not your choice and they need to prioritize their safety and comfort.
- ✿ Do not confront the assaulter yourself. This might put the survivor in a dangerous position.
- ✿ Help them come up with the next steps. These steps will likely include the care and maintenance of their mental and physical health.
- ✿ Ask if they need help developing a plan to take care of their mental health. Give them information about mental health resources for survivors of sexual assault.
- ✿ Look at RAINN’s sexual assault page linked here. This page gives a good overview of different paths to explore legally, mentally and physically after an assault.
- ✿ Provide them with some mental hotlines: National Teen Dating Abuse Hotline: Text LOVEIS to 22522 or speak to a peer advocate at 866-331-9474, Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor, RAINN Hotline: Call 800-656-4673
- ✿ Let them know about support groups: Safebae launched their “Survivor Support Saturdays” in January 2021. This is the link to register for this monthly support group, Psychology Today has a search engine that allows you to find a support group in or near your zip code. This is the link.
- ✿ Help them come up with some self-care ideas: Tell them about mindfulness apps like Headspace or Calm, Make a plan to go on a walk or get coffee together.
- ✿ Ask if they need help developing a plan to take care of their physical health. If they do, provide them with information regarding STIs/STDs and, if they are concerned about an unplanned pregnancy, emergency contraception.
- ✿ Let them know about the Victims of Crime Act of 1984. Although this is mostly used in emergencies and extreme scenarios, once Medicaid and other insurance has already been applied, the Victims of Crime Act of 1984 can provide financial compensation for medical and psychological care. Although it might vary from state to state, most compensation funds require that the survivor reports the assault within 72 hours of its occurrence. Given the short time frame of eligibility, it is important to mention that the Act exists, even if the survivor does not pursue that route. On average, compensation is around $25,000 however it might vary from state to state. More on the act is linked here.
- ✿ Remind them that they are loved and that you will continue to listen to them and support them.
By taking care of your own mental health and establishing your own boundaries, you will actually be a better support system for a survivor. Your job isn’t to be a therapist, it’s to be a support system and a friend.
Important things to remember when supporting a survivor
While the 10 step plan can help you maneauver a conversation with someone who confides in you about their assault, there are some other important facts to remember about sexual assault and recovery.
- ✿ Everyone heals differently. Some might be incredibly traumatized, while others processed the event fairly quickly. Do not push someone to heal faster or slower. They know themselves best.
- ✿ Don’t force them to tell you what happened. Re-telling the exact events might be just as traumatic as the original assault.
- ✿ Be aware of any shifts in behavior. This might include substance abuse, inconsistent sleep patterns, irritability and withdrawal from socialization. If you notice any of these shifts, you might want to check-in with them again and encourage them to start therapy or counseling as they might be depressed.
- ✿ Follow their lead. If they want space, give them space. If they want to stay busy, help them come up with things to do. It’s all up to them./li>
- ✿ Don’t be nosy. For example, it’s none of your business to ask about the results of their STI or STD tests. It’s also none of your business what they talk to their therapist about.
- ✿ Don’t gossip about what happened. This isn’t your story to tell. Respect the privacy of the situation.
- ✿ Believe them. It is also not your place to question the authenticity of their assault. Be a support system instead of isolating someone who is vulnerable and who was brave to tell you about their experience.
- ✿ If you are worried about the safety of the survivor, talk to a trusted adult about how to keep them safe.
- ✿ Don’t make jokes about rape, sexual assault or harrassment. These are literally never ok - or funny for that matter - but it is especially important to censor yourself when you are around a survivor.