When someone you care about shares that they've been raped, abused, or assaulted, it can be challenging to know how to respond. There's no sure-fire formula, but there are some definite do's and don'ts.
A supportive and affirming reaction is key in order to reassure your loved one that you're there for them with no judgement attached. You may want to begin by thanking them for their openness and vulnerability in sharing with you, and then let them know that you hear them; that you're receptive to their story and you are ready to be there for theme emotionally. RAINN has a helpful list of phrases to keep in mind that'll help to reassure them of your care and concern for them:
- “I’m sorry this happened.” Acknowledge that the experience has affected their life. Phrases like “This must be really tough for you,” and, “I’m so glad you are sharing this with me,” help to communicate empathy.
- “It’s not your fault.” Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind the survivor, maybe even more than once, that they are not to blame.
- “I believe you.” It can be extremely difficult for survivors to come forward and share their story. They may feel ashamed, concerned that they won’t be believed, or worried they’ll be blamed. Leave any “why” questions or investigations to the experts—your job is to support this person. Be careful not to interpret calmness as a sign that the event did not occur—everyone responds differently. The best thing you can do is to believe them.
- “You are not alone.” Remind the survivor that you are there for them and willing to listen to their story. Remind them there are other people in their life who care and that there are service providers who will be able to support them as they recover from the experience.
- “Are you open to seeking medical attention?” The survivor might need medical attention, even if the event happened a while ago. You can support the survivor by offering to accompany them or find more information. It’s okay to ask directly, “Are you open to seeking medical care?”
- “You can trust me.” If a survivor opens up to you, it means they trust you. Reassure them that you can be trusted and will respect their privacy. Always ask the survivor before you share their story with others. If a minor discloses a situation of sexual abuse, you are required in most situations to report the crime. Let the minor know that you have to tell another adult, and ask them if they’d like to be involved.
- “This doesn’t change how I think of you.” Some survivors are concerned that sharing what happened will change the way other people see them, especially a partner. Reassure the survivor that surviving sexual violence doesn’t change the way you think or feel about them.
It's important to remember that your support can't end after this initial conversation. If your loved one is going through the healing process, they may experience undulating emotions, flashbacks, and anxiety on some days, and on others, they'll be okay. Understand that their bad days aren't setbacks, but simply a part of the process.
Try to understand their desire to feel safe. After an assault, survivors may have fears and anxieties that seem unrealistic, or take precautions that seem strange and unnecessary. Please understand that these fears are likely a result of their experiences, and the safeguards and wariness help to make them feel safer and more in control of their environment.
Additionally, it's good to know your limitations. You can't - and shouldn't - attempt to fix every bit of damage, propel their recovery, or bear all of their burdens on your own. If you feel that the survivor would benefit from speaking to a professional, you can gently encourage them to seek that out and offer to help them find a good fit.
One of the most harmful things you can do is to question the survivor's story. Not only is a false report statistically improbable, it's also incredibly offensive and damaging to suggest that they may be making things up or exaggerating their story. Doubts like these commonly occur when the offender is someone that you know. It can be hard to process that a friend or acquaintance is capable of rape or assault, but the reality is that offenders are, more often than not, ordinary people. They're not the villains hiding out in the shadows, they look just like the rest of us. Additionally, take care not to minimize the assault in any way. No matter who the perpetrator was, how the incident occurred, who may have been intoxicated - sexual violence cannot be trivialized.
Don't excuse or justify the actions of the offender. Asking questions about how much they had to drink, what the survivor was wearing, or if they'd been flirting is victim-blaming, which only validates the side of the perpetrator.
Don't push them to "get over it." There's no time frame that someone needs to heal within. Survivors can't simply parcel up their emotions and trauma and move on. Expecting someone to get over their grief and pain essentially silences them and tells them that you're tired of hearing about it and supporting them. It can take months, years, decades to find closure and healing for their experience, and they need to know that you'll be there alongside them no matter how long it takes.
It's worth noting that here at The Louder Coalition, we generally opt to use the term "survivor" rather than "victim." However, there are many who self-identify as victims because it's the term that they relate to most. And that's okay. It's okay for people to not feel better or empowered or ready to move on. Not everybody will feel like they're surviving or like they've reclaimed their life quite yet, so take care not to push the survivor mentality on anyone.
Support a Survivor // Know Your IX
How to Help a Friend Who Has Been Sexually Assaulted // Everyday Feminism
For Friends, Family, & Partners of Rape & Sexual Abuse Survivors // Pandora's Project
Resources for Parents of Survivors // Stop It Now
10 Things You Shouldn't Say to Survivors of Sexual Assault // Thought Catalog