What to do to help a victim of sexual assault. And a few things not to.
✨Listen. Listen. And Listen.
Remain silent and still as you can. Give them time and space to speak. Be ready to sit through their uncomfortable news or equally uncomfortable silence. Don’t press for details or specifics about the incident. Let them tell you what they’re ready to talk about.
When you feel they need you to speak. Say things like “I’m sorry this happened to you. I can’t make this better, but I am here for you. I can’t imagine what you’ve been through.” Because you can’t. And when you really don’t know what to say. Say that. “I don’t know what to say.” And just be there.
❌No If Only.
Do not present hypothetical scenarios that might have been different if only something were different. If only you didn’t go to that party…if only you didn’t wear that dress…if only I had been there with you…if only you didn’t work with him alone at night.
❌At Least Nothing.
Do not even whisper a statement that begins with “At least…” Do not try find a light at the end of their tunnel. There isn’t one, and any that you manufacture will blind you to the pain they’re experiencing. There is no bright side to sexual assault.
❌Don’t try to solve or fix anything.
For some people the urge to fix a problem is the first and strongest natural response. That approach has no place here. Actions that appear to be moving things forward often make only you, the helper, feel better and put added pressure on the survivor to return to normal. They have a new normal and it’s not one they want. They’re fragile and traumatized. Let the survivor dictate the pace of forward motion. It’s possible that they will remain physically and emotionally stalled, spinning in place, for some time. Go with that.
❌Don’t judge or blame.
Asking questions like “What were you doing there so late?” “How much did you have to drink?” or comments like “That dress is pretty provocative,” can cause survivors to blame themselves. Inadvertently insinuating, even in the smallest way, that they somehow brought this upon themselves absolves the perpetrator. Nothing a person does or wears—really NO THING—makes them deserve to be raped.
✨Manage Your Own Anger or Denial.
If you know the assaulter you may find it difficult or even impossible to believe that they’re capable of such hideous behavior. Expressing disbelief makes the survivor think you don’t believe them. Again, it turns the blame onto them. It’s equally important to suppress comments like “I’m going to kill them.” Seeing your anger can make the survivor feel as though they’ve burdened you with undue anguish and it does nothing to help ease their trauma. Confronting the assaulter can put the survivor in additional danger.
✨Ask them what they need.
Don’t try to guess. Everyone who experiences violent trauma will need something different. Let them tell you what that is by asking them “What do you need right now? How can I help you?” If they can’t tell you just assure them that you will stay right there with them and that they don’t need to talk. Be with them for as long as they need you to be. Even if the person is not someone you are close to, they chose to tell you. Don’t abandon them.
✨Honor Their Trust.
Whatever information they share with you should be considered sacred. Keep it to yourself and do not share it with anyone else without expressed permission. You can do that.
Have you found yourself in the position of being there for someone who was sexually assaulted? What did you experience? We’d love if you would share in the comments below what you thought was the hardest and/or the most rewarding part for you.
The pronoun “she” was intentionally not used to describe the survivor. While the large majority of sexual assaults are against women, men also experience this horrible trauma which comes with its own set of complex reactions and symptoms.