Thank you so much for this question. When a survivor discloses a sexual assault experience to you, it can often be difficult to know how to respond and support them appropriately. While every situation is different, the following are suggestions from survivors and their advocates.
The first and most important thing you can do is listen to them without interruption. Rather than starting with doubt, start by believing. Allow the survivor to lead the conversation. Match the terminology of the survivor and do not label their experience for them. Avoid asking unnecessary questions and let the survivor know you are glad that they told you. It is important to recognize that silence is okay.
Next, support the survivor. Ask if they feel safe. If they do not, help them call 911 or get in touch with other resources in your community that can support their safety. If they are willing, you may want to help them connect with a local rape crisis center or sexual assault hotline. If there are serious physical or mental injuries, encourage them to seek a medical evaluation so that they can receive treatment for any bodily harm and can receive medications to prevent sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy, and other sexual violence-related complications.
Most of all, affirm their courage and strength. Ask “how can I be helpful?” Respect the decisions the survivor makes even if you do not agree with them. This person has had their power and control taken away from them so it is important that they have control over this conversation with you.
Remember, there are a variety of local and national organizations devoted to comprehensive crisis intervention, advocacy, and support. You are not expected to be an expert in this topic, but directing survivors to people who are will help them get continued care and allow them to receive tailored information for their needs.
Finally, be gentle with yourself. You may feel anger towards the situation or towards the perpetrator. You may feel helpless that you can't relieve the survivor of their suffering. You may feel guilt that you didn’t notice the situation sooner. You may even worry that you did not say the right things. Know your feelings are valid and if you need to seek help for these feelings too that is also okay. Just by listening and being there, you are doing enough.