How to Support Sexual Assault Survivors
By Caitlyn Mason
So your friend is telling you about their experience with sexual assault. The situation may be blindsiding and emotional, and you may not know how to process the information you hear at that moment. Depending on the situation, the perpetrator could be someone you know personally, or it could be someone you don’t know at all, but either way, here are some tips to guide you through supporting a survivor of sexual assault.
1. Listen to them
For a survivor, their story is likely to be a very personal and emotional one. If they choose to share it with you (which is a decision that should be made without persuasion), listen closely and show them that you hear them.
2. Validate their feelings
Depending on the situation, you may be one of the only people they’ve chosen to tell about their assault, and make sure to validate the way they feel. If they say they are feeling sad or angry, let them know that those emotions are normal, and that you will support them. If they are feeling some form of guilt or assigning self-blame, let them know that what happened to them will never be their fault. In general, be there to validate their emotions, but also to help combat self-deprecating thought processes.
3. Let them know that you are there
Let them know that you will be there for them, not just in that particular conversation, but in every step in their journey to healing. Let them know that if they decide to report their assault or not, you will be there for them. If they choose to seek help, you will be there for them. Understand that you cannot control what the survivor does, but you can support them as a friend during a particularly taxing time.
4. Avoid falling into victim blaming traps
In a society where victim blaming and slut shaming is so normalized, it could be a subconscious reaction to ask something like “were you drunk?” But in this situation, it’s important to think carefully about your choice of words, making sure they are coming off as nothing but supportive. Even though you may not mean any harm, to a survivor, questions like these sound like an attempt to shift the blame or put them at fault.
5. In this moment, do not make it about you
You are allowed to feel anger and sadness for your friend, and even towards the perpetrator. If the perpetrator is someone you know or are close to, it may be harder for you to process their wrongdoings, and that’s understandable. But in this moment, expressing the trouble you’re having with processing the event or sadness you feel in association to the survivor’s trauma is not the right thing to do. This could be a conversation for the future, but in this moment, it is important that you focus on the survivor.
6. There is no neutrality in sexual assault
I know it may be hard to hear, but by not siding with a survivor, you are siding with the perpetrator. It may be incredibly hard to cut off someone you once loved or respected, but keeping them in your life or claiming to “stay neutral” is likely to hurt the survivor even more. It shows them that their story is not convincing enough for you to remove the perpetrator from your life, or that the maintenance of your friendship with the perpetrator takes precedence over their traumatic experience.
7. Establish your own boundaries
While it is important to be there for your friend, if you are not in the emotional place to do that at the moment or in the future, let them know of that. The ability to be there for someone is dependent on maintaining your own mental health as well, and if that is something you cannot do, tell your friend. You can encourage them to speak to someone else, such as a therapist, if that is something they could have access to.