When supporting a survivor of sexual violence, it is important to refrain from making judgments and from taking control away from the survivor. If you ask questions about the survivor’s behavior and try to analyze what happened, you may unintentionally cause them to blame themselves or shut down. On the other hand, if you can communicate the following three ideas, it will greatly assist the survivor’s healing:
- "I’m sorry this happened."
- "It’s not your fault."
- "You handled a terrible situation the best way you could."
Guidelines for Talking to Someone Who Has been Sexually Assaulted
Validate and Believe
If the survivor feels ashamed or guilty, reassure them that the incident was not their fault and that their feelings are understandable. Often survivors feel that others will question or minimize what happened to them. Let them know that you believe them. Limit the number of questions that you ask as this can make a person feel you doubt them or that they need to prove what happened.
Avoid questions that could imply blame or question the survivor’s actions, such as, “Why did you go back to their room?” or “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” or “Why didn’t you fight back?” You can be supportive without knowing the details of the assault. Use open-ended questions such as “How are you feeling?” or “What can I do to help?” Give them time and space to share with you as they are ready to do so and understand that they may never choose to share detailed information with you.
Be A Good Listener
One of the most helpful things you can do is listen. Let them know you are available to listen when and if they want to talk with you. Avoid judgment, giving advice, and sharing your opinions. Just listen. Allow the survivor to make their own decisions. If they ask for your advice, offer several options and let them choose.
Allow the Survivor to Make Choices Whenever Possible
Even the smallest choices can begin to restore their sense of power, which was taken away from them during the assault. For example, offer the choice of where they would like to talk with you, whether or not they would like to call a crisis line, etc.
Do NOT Ttouch the Survivor Without Asking Permission First
While hugging someone or holding their hand may be a natural inclination, it is important to ask them if they want that type of support. Physical intimacy that may have been fine before the assault may not be fine for awhile after the assault. The right for the survivor to choose the type and timing of physical intimacy is integral to their feeling of safety.
Try to Minimize the Number of Times the Survivor Must Tell What Happened
You do not need to hear any details of the assault, unless the survivor wants to tell you.
Do Not Confront an Alleged Offender
While it is normal to be angry at the person accused of assaulting someone, confronting this person could result in their escalating their behavior against the survivor (e.g. harassment, stalking) and may also lead to involving other people that the survivor did not choose to involve in the situation (e.g. other students who may witness the confrontation).
Protect the Survivor’s Privacy
Regis is a small campus, and when someone is sexually assaulted, they may feel like everyone knows what happened to them. It’s important that you share information only with those that you are required to share this information with (e.g. if you are an R.A. and must report information to your supervisor). The survivor has confided in you because they trust you. If you talk to others, the survivor may feel betrayed.
Take Care of Yourself
When someone you know is hurt, it is understandable to feel a myriad of emotions (angry, sad, powerless). If the survivor is someone close to you, it is also common to experience many of the same reactions as they do. Talking about your feelings with the person who has been assaulted can be overwhelming to them and exacerbate how they are feeling.
Consider getting your own support. Counselors in the Office of Counseling and Personal Development (303.458.3507) are here to help and can provide a confidential place for you to talk about your own experience. The Blue Bench, Denver’s community resource for those affected by sexual assault, also provides a confidential 24-hour hotline staffed by advocates who are there to help (303.322.7273).
Believe in the Possibility of Healing
Let them know that you believe that they have the strength and the capacity to heal. People are resilient; they can and do recover from the trauma of sexual assault.
The information above was adapted from Brown University’s "How to Help a Friend" publication (Brown University, Health Education, 2013), Tulane University’s "Sexual Aggression Peer Hotline and Education manual" (Violence Prevention and Support Services, 2012), and the University of Denver’s "Helping A Friend Who Has Been Sexually Assaulted" web page (Center for Advocacy and Prevention, 2013).