Support a Survivor

When a survivor comes out about having been raped or sexually assaulted — whether it be their first time telling anyone or their hundredth — recognize that the process can be extremely difficult and that you should be as supportive as possible. When a victim comes out to you, remember that they have chosen to trust you with a part of themselves. Respect this.

DOs and DON’Ts for When a Survivor Comes Out to You about Sexual Assault

For a lot of people, the idea of supporting someone who has endured sexual violence is scary, often not because they don’t want to be supportive, but because they are not sure what say or how to respond. Here are a few pointers. Check out specific guidance based on your relationship to the survivor after these initial hints.

DOs:

  • Put them at ease. That doesn’t mean you can make the pain go away or that they shouldn’t be crying or upset or showing whatever emotion they are showing. It does mean letting them know that you hear what they are saying and that you are emotionally open to them. Let them know that you are there for them and receptive to what they are saying.
  • Express anger and sadness at their injustice. 
  • Validate their feelings about the experience, acknowledging pain without catastrophizing. If they start to minimize what has happened to them, let them know that you believe them and that there is no need to minimize what happened to them.  What they went through is understandably very painful.  Something survivors will often do is express that they feel that they shouldn’t “complain” about having been raped, particularly if they are privileged in other aspects of their life, such as education or socio-economic status. Let them know that rape is not a way to balance out the other good things they may have in life. Another way a survivor might minimize the abuse is by saying that since sexual violence is common, it’s  “not that big of a deal.”  Remind them that statistics don’t take away from the hurt or pain they are experiencing.
  • At the same time, remember that while sexual abuse is always inexcusable, it isn’t always traumatic. Sometimes sexual abuse is earth-shattering for a victim; sometimes it’s a disturbing but small bump in the road. Just as you shouldn’t minimize the assault, don’t catastrophize either. Stay attune to the survivors’ attitude and don’t assume or dictate how she or he must feel.
  • Express admiration for their courage and recognize how difficult this must have been for them. Tell them how genuinely impressed you are by their resiliency and recognize that this must be very difficult, but that they can find support in you and others.
  • Be strong and take care of yourself. The survivor you know is suffering and they have probably reached out to you for assurance and support; give them exactly that! It’s because of strong and supportive friends and family that many of us have survived the process of recovery from sexual assault. You’ll be better able to respond to the survivors’ needs, though, if you also take care of yourself. Secondary trauma is real, and you should — while respecting the survivors’ confidentiality — turn to your own support system and be realistic about how much you can provide.

Do NOT:

  • Question the validity of the victim’s claims. A victim’s worst fear is not being believed. Having someone question whether or not a person was actually violated, assaulted, or raped is a huge insult that can shake a survivor to his or her core. They have decided to trust you with a very personal story and they count on your support. Doubting the validity of their claims will only cause them more pain. Also, remember that over 92-98% of REPORTED rapes are not false reports. If they choose to report, many others will be skeptical — you can leave that job to police, school administrators, rape culture, etc.
  • Seem cold or unapproachable. If you do this, the survivor may feel like they have no right to talk about what has happened to them. They may feel confused and lost as they struggle to reconcile a dismissive attitude towards their struggle with their own pain. Don’t make this situation more difficult than it needs to be for them. Open yourself up to them and make your presence and support known.
  • Make excuses for the perpetrator. The assailant’s actions are inexcusable. Don’t suggest that the survivor approach the assailant to make sense of what happened or to “clear the air.” Don’t suggest a simple apology will remedy the problem.
  • Tell the survivor what they must do. You can suggest what course of action they can take, particularly if they ask for your advice. Suggest resources they may use or offer to explore resources available to them, such as filing a report with law enforcement, talking with an attorney, seeking out therapy or medical aid, and talking to a rape hotline.
  • Minimize the assault. Remember that one kind of rape or assault — by a stranger, an acquaintance, a friend, a partner — isn’t more or less “legitimate” than another. Don’t anticipate the ways in which a particular type of violence will affect a survivor, and don’t expect that one is necessarily more traumatic than another.
  • Question why the survivor has decided to tell you now, even if it has been months or years since the assault.
  • Shoulder the burden alone. A survivor may demand more of you than you are able to give. You are probably not trained to manage a survivor’s recovery, and may be emotionally exhausted. Be kind and honest with the victim about what you are able to do, and encourage him or her to seek professional help through a hotline or therapist.
  • Share the survivor’s story without his or her permission. 

Additional Guidelines Based on Relationship to Survivor

1. Family

  • It can be particularly hard to hear that your loved one has been sexually assaulted. Be prepared to be more closely involved with your family member’s recovery than others, as the survivor may need help financially for therapy, transportation, or someone to talk to regularly. However, also remember that for some survivors, it’s easier to talk to friends than family about sexual violence. Don’t take this as a judgment on your relationship. Respond to the survivor’s needs, but don’t impose your assistance.
  • It’s often especially hard for survivors to tell parents about violence because it often involves an acknowledgement of sexual relationships with others (since much violence happens between people in an existing sexual relationship). Do not victim-blame or tie the violence to other sexual choices.
  • For some families, discussing sex and sexuality at all is extremely difficult. Some families may have never discussed sex before. Be supportive and treat your loved one with respect and maturity.
  • If your child tells you about being sexually assaulted and asks for therapy, help them research therapists in your area. If you are concerned about money, many rape crisis centers offer free counseling.
  • If you find out from someone else that your child has been sexually assaulted, tread carefully. If you broach the subject, make sure you allow your child to define the experience in their own terms. Be careful about using words like “rape” or “sexual assault” in the conversation; try to use the same words they apply to their experience.
  • Remember that some survivors don’t choose to confide in their families — and for a variety of reasons. In the words of one activist:

I didn’t tell my parents about being raped because even though I was working hard in therapy to deal with my “incident,” it took me a long time to put the word ‘rape’ to it. So when I called my mom to tell her about an unpleasant ‘nonconsensual’ sexual experience I’d had two years prior, she didn’t know what I meant. Because I shut her out, she had a hard time giving me the proper support. And the reason I shut her out in the first place is that I was terrified of hurting her, forcing her to imagine what it was like for me, and since it happened the first week of school, I knew if my parents knew what happened they would pull me out. I wanted to stay in school and put what had happened out of my mind. I think I am not alone in wanting to protect my parents from the truth.

2. Friends

  • Be there for the victim in the capacity they need. This may mean listening to them recount the experience, or going out for a fun dinner to take their mind off of the event. Make sure to respond to your friend’s needs and, if he or she is uncommunicative, to gently remind them that you are available. Remember, though, that you don’t have to support your friend alone. Encourage your friend to seek professional help of the kind you are untrained to provide.
  • Being told that your friend’s assailant is an acquaintance or mutual friend can be extremely difficult. However, remember that your friend has probably struggled with this idea a lot before coming to you and that you still have a responsibility as a friend to be supportive in light of their pain. When your friend seems ready, ask him or her how she would like you to behave toward their assailant. Respect that decision.

3. Professors

  • It may feel strange or intimidating to discuss the details of a student’s private life, especially in an academic setting. However, don’t reject your student’s attempt to reach out to you. Be supportive, suggest resources, and be clear with the student about any school policies that make it necessary for you to alert the administration, public safety, or health services about the assault.

4. Activists/Advocates

  • For most advocates and activists, hearing about sexual violence and being approached personally about the issue is not uncommon. While you might love your position as an activist or advocate in your community, that doesn’t mean it isn’t taxing or traumatic to hear about sexual violence frequently. This is particularly true for activist-survivors, who may sometimes be triggered by the stories of others. To take care of yourself, check out our resources on activist burn-out and self-care.
  • In your activist work, remember to centralize the experiences and opinions of survivors. Your work is incredibly valuable, but make sure not to crowd out survivor voices with your own thoughts. The strongest movements are shaped and led by those most affected by the issues at hand.

Other Resources

  • In addition, family members and friends of survivors are welcome to use the RAINN phone hotline and online hotline, as well as seek counseling through rape crisis centers at 1-800-656-HOPE or https://ohl.rainn.org/online/
  • Pandora’s Aquarium. I believe there is also a forum within the site for secondary survivors to discuss how to best help survivors and take care of themselves.

–Katarina Hyatt