Most victims face people doubting their experience. The default in our society is to assume that victims are lying. But statistics have shown that the number of false accusations tend to be extremely minor, and this belief discourages sexual assault survivors from speaking up or reporting. Having doubt cast on your experience ontop of already having been through such a traumatic experience can be incredibly painful for survivors. Please don’t assume that someone who discloses they’ve been sexually assaulted is lying or cast doubts on the credibility of what they’re saying, as that can be extremely re-traumatizing.
A basic guide to supporting
survivors of sexual assault
Why is this guide necessary?
This guide is necessary because not only is sexual assault very common in our society, the ways that we respond to survivors of sexual assault are almost always not okay. We often blame them, are insensitive towards them, and say and do many other things that cause even more pain to people who have already been through something traumatic and difficult.
How we respond to survivors is extremely important. It makes a huge difference to their recovery, to their ability to rebuild a sense of safety after the traumatic event. A good support network is helpful as they work to find healing.
If we continue to keep saying and doing things to survivors of sexual assault that are not okay, we are going to continue to harm survivors, and to create a world in which survivors will never come forward. When we respond in ways that are not okay, it may increase the chances of a survivor turning to unhealthy ways of coping.
For the mental and emotional wellbeing of survivors, it is important that we stop responding in ways that are not okay. This guide is for adult survivors of sexual assault only.
What is sexual assault?
Sexual assault is any sexual behaviour, or action that takes place without an individual's consent. Sexual assault can include rape, attempted rape, unwanted sexual contact, and other behaviours of a sexual nature that take place without the victim's consent.
Do not ever blame a survivor or tell them what they should have done differently to “avoid” being sexually assaulted. Despite your intentions, this can lead to guilt, shame and self-blame for what took place. It can make the survivor feel they had a role to play in being assaulted, and this can be very painful. This includes telling them they shouldn’t have been out so late or walking alone, or in someone else’s room alone, or dressed a certain way, or drinking, or absolutely anything else that implies they had a part to play in their assault. Sexual assault is never the victim’s fault and we need to be careful that we don’t put any blame on the survivor. It is always solely the fault of the perpetrator.
This is not the time to play devil’s advocate. Don’t try to give the perpetrator the benefit of the doubt of trying to “understand” it from their point-of-view: this includes “maybe they thought you consented”, “maybe they didn’t hear you”, “maybe they didn’t really mean to do it”, etc. It is insensitive and not okay to make it about what the person who harmed them was thinking. Whatever their perpetrator was thinking does not lessen the impact of what happened to them.
Counselling and therapy can be beneficial for many survivors, but we should not force someone into either. It needs to be their decision. Remember that survivors of sexual assault have already had their autonomy stripped from them: you can support them, share resources with them, describe why you think it would be helpful for them to go, but ultimately they need to be the ones to retain autonomy in their decision.
Support their decision if they choose not to report it. Reporting can be a very re-traumatizing process. Officers can be very insensitive, and can blame victims, or doubt they’re telling the truth, and the justice system is often on the side of the perpetrators. For many survivors, reporting can be almost as traumatic as the incident itself– or even just as traumatic. If they choose not to report, respect their decision.
Don’t ask for extra details and information, don’t probe for further information. Let them decide what they’re comfortable with telling you.
Sexual assault, no matter what form or type, is always serious. We should always take it seriously. If someone discloses that they were the victim of sexual assault, we should not treat it as something small that they can just get over. This does not mean that we should overreact and panic, but that we recognize and treat it as something very significant. Shrugging it off, ignoring it or treating it as unimportant can be very hurtful to the victim.
There is no set timeline for recovering from trauma, and different people recover at different rates. Don’t expect them to be recovered by a certain time or force them to do things that they’re not comfortable with yet. Do not blame them for not getting better by a certain date.
Hearing someone has been sexually assaulted can be a very difficult thing to hear, but don’t make their telling you what happened be about you or your feelings. Don’t centre yourself in the conversation and expect them to support you while you process it.
Never compare what they’ve been through to another situation to show it could have been “worse”, even if it’s an attempt to make them feel better. It invalidates what they’ve been through and makes it seem as though it’s not that serious. What they’ve been through is serious enough.
A hug or any other kind of physical touch may be your way of showing support, but make sure you have their consent to touch them first.
What you can do
Do show compassion and kindness.
Do make sure they know that you care.
Do remind them that it isn’t their fault.
Do ask them how you can help or support them.
Do remind them that you’re here for them.
Do actively listen without judgment.
If you’re able to, if it’s something that you can offer, do offer to go with them to get help or to report it if they want to.
Do respect their triggers. What are triggers?
Do consider if they have any immediate medical needs.
Do share resources that you find that can help. Here are a few.
Do check in on them from time to time, so that they know you still care.
Specific things you can say
“I’m so sorry that that happened”.
“I’m here for you”.
“I think it was really brave of you to tell me”.
“You are not alone in this. We can get through this together.”.
“You didn’t do anything at all to deserve what happened”.
“I really appreciate the courage it took to tell me”.
Specific things that are not okay to say
“That happened a long time-- that still bothering you?”
“It happened because you were drinking / dressed like that”.
“You sure you didn’t do anything to make them think you wanted it?”
“You sure that’s what really happened?”
"At least it wasn’t that bad”.
“If you report it, you will ruin their life”.
Remember that not every survivor of trauma reacts to trauma in the same way.
Two people who have experienced similar traumatic events may respond in very different ways. Neither person is weaker than the other. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (which is a condition that can result from going through trauma) can affect people differently, and not everyone who goes through sexual violence develops PTSD.
Here is an article from the NY Times on how to support a survivor.
Here is a guide from RAINN on how to support a survivor.
Here is a guide from RAINN for understanding some of the common trauma responses survivors may have.
Here is a guide to understanding some of the other ways they may change after the trauma.
Here is a guide from RAINN on how to look after yourself as well.