How to Support a Sexual Assault Survivor
How to Support a Sexual Assault Survivor
Editor’s Note: This story is the second part of our Sexual Assault Series, a place where victims, friends and families can learn more about the topic.
When someone you love has been sexually assaulted, it’s easy to feel absolutely helpless. Although it is difficult to understand what they are going through if you are not a survivor yourself, there are a few things you can do to let them know that you are there to support them.
Be ready to listen
The most important thing you can do is listen. Don’t pressure them into talking, but let your loved one know you are available to listen to their story if and when they’re ready to tell it. Allow them to express anger, sadness, anxiety and any other emotion they may be feeling.
Keep in mind that this is not the time to express your own feelings. Expressing your feelings could make them shy away from talking at all. Your friend is hurting – recovery is their time for expression.
Your job is only to listen. In fact, you may not know what to say. And that is okay. It is much more important that you’re there [maybe even silence], and ready to listen when your friend wants to talk.
Here are some phrases Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) staff recommend:
“I believe you. / It took a lot of courage for you to tell me this.”
“It’s not your fault. / You did nothing to deserve this.”
“You are not alone. / I care about you and am here to listen or help in any way I can.”
“I’m sorry this happened. / This shouldn’t have happened to you.”
Bonny Shade, professional public speaker and sexual assault prevention educator, said to Avant-Youth, “It is normal for us to want clarification, but that is not what we should be doing. Instead, focus, listen and believe. Focus on that person in front of you. Focus on their story and the way they are feeling. Listen to them wholeheartedly and do not place your emotions on them. Allow them to tell you exactly how they are feeling.”
Validate their feelings
The next important step is to make sure they know their feelings are valid. Let them know you believe them. Don’t ask questions or pry; this can be both painful and triggering. It took a lot of courage for them to vocalize their experience.
Telling sexual assault victims you believe them reassures them that you are on their side. Your loved one should know that you believe they did not deserve this and that you are there to support them all the way.
“Believe them. And simply stating that fact, ‘I believe you,’ can allow them to feel seen for the first time,” said Shade.
According to a report derived from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1-in-5 women and 1-in-71 men will be survivors of sexual assault. It imperative that you educate yourself prior to being a supporter of a sexual assault victim. It is not the responsibility of the survivor to educate you. Educating yourself can not only be beneficial for the survivor, but for your peace of mind as well.
Being a supporter does not mean you are an expert on someone else’s health. Because a lot of anxiety stems from a victim’s sense that they lack control, it is so important that they decide what comes next. While the decision is not yours to make, being familiar with resources like the National Sexual Assault Hotline, 800-656-HOPE (4673) and RAINN, can help with making suggestions to a survivor.
It is natural to want to give advice, but make sure the power is in their hands. Give advice when it is asked for. Giving advice is okay, but the way it is framed is crucial. Don’t make it seem as if you are giving them orders. Instead, offer suggestions for what they could do next.
Remember that you are human too
“When a close friend, family member or loved one tells you that they are a survivor of sexual violence, that can often feel like a weight on your shoulders. Oftentimes, we feel guilty for feeling overwhelmed or anxious around the topic. This is referred to as being a secondary trauma survivor and it means you, too, may be feeling the weight of this story,” said Shade.
When a plane is crashing, passengers are reminded to secure their masks before helping others. The same mindset can be applied when supporting the people you care about. In order to be an ongoing source of support for your loved one, you must take care of yourself as well. Find people you can talk to or go to counselling.
According to Shade, time to process emotions is essential for both the survivor and you. You can help your loved one, and yourself, by finding an outlet that is therapeutic. This can be done by journaling, group art, reading, or any outlet you find is beneficial for your mental health. This is also a good time for you to do your own research, as it can be a vital way to support your loved one.
Be an ongoing source of support
Support doesn’t end after the survivor has told their story. In fact, it’s just beginning. Recovery looks different for every survivor, but it is important to check in periodically. Even if the assault happened a long time ago, it is important to still be there on the bad days.
Sexual assault is too common in our society. While we may not fully control that just yet, we are in control of our reaction to someone who has been impacted by sexual assault. Recovery is exhausting, and it has no set timeline.
Be patient with them, and honor the work they have put into recovery, or the work they are about to achieve. Their progress, no matter how small, should be encouraged, praised and recognized.