Supporting Survivors

Question

What should I do if someone tells me they have been sexually assaulted?

Answer

When a survivor discloses a sexual assault experience to you, it can often be difficult to know how to respond appropriately. While every situation is different, the following are suggestions from survivors and their advocates. First, listen. 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 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. Affirm their courage and strength. Ensure that they are safe and ask “how can I be helpful?” Validate their feelings. Most importantly, respect the decisions the survivor makes even if you do not agree with them. Remember, 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. Next, refer and connect the survivor to resources. 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.

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