Partners, Friends, and Family of Survivors of Sexual Assault
As a friend or support person for a survivor of sexual assault or sexual violence, your response can have tremendous impact- either positive or negative- on the survivor’s experience with healing from an assault.
Unfortunately, continued victimization and trauma can occur as the result of an individual’s response when a survivor goes to them for help or support. This can come from parents, other relatives, partners, lovers, siblings, friends and caseworkers. When a survivor’s pain is invalidated ("it's not like he had a weapon or anything"); ignored ("this happened seven months ago, why are you still dwelling on it?"); blamed, ("why didn't you have your door locked?") or shamed ("you must have done something to cause this, or there must be something about you that attracted this rapist."), this can cause additional, and unwarranted pain to the survivor.
How to support survivors of sexual assault:
You will add to survivor's pain and trauma if you:
- Believe what they tell you, and let them know that you believe them.
- Never blame the survivor for the assault.
- Listen when they talk and make them feel comfortable when expressing feelings.
- Validate their feelings. Reassure them that what they did to survive was right for them.
- Let them know the importance of getting medical attention. Support them in this.
- Do not be judgmental. Counteract self-blaming statements.
- Don't interrogate them—you are not investigators.
- Validate their experience and their feelings.
- Let them talk about it when they want to, and not when they don't.
- Support the decisions they make around reporting or not reporting.
- Recognize their right to talk about the sexual assault whenever needed.
- Get support for yourself when you need it from a sexual assault or rape crisis hotline.
- Don't do it all yourself. Help the survivor build a strong support network.
How Are You Feeling?
- make statements that question their experience
- invalidate their pain and suffering
- get impatient if they don't immediately "recover"
- hold them responsible for both their actions and the actions of the rapist/molester
- blame/shame them for having been targeted for sexual abuse or assault in the first place
- make decisions for them and/or don’t support the decisions they make after an assault.
It is important to understand and cope with your own emotions while supporting a survivor of sexual assault. This traumatic experience will not only affect the survivor, but is also likely to cause a wide range of emotional experiences for family members, close friends, and individuals. It is okay to share the feelings of trauma, guilt, and powerlessness with the survivor.
You must recognize and accept your feelings before you can be of support to the survivor. You may be feeling anger, pain, shame, guilt and confusion. It may be a common reaction to feel the need to smother the survivor with affection, to be over protective, or to want to do everything for them. Be sure that you are conscious that you are not taking away the survivor’s power to make their own decisions. After the assault the survivor may not want to be touched or held. Respect the survivor’s boundaries and realize that they may need time by themselves. Remember that you can not always protect the survivor. They need to know that you are there to support them in any way they need, not to overwhelm the survivor with too much guidance in making decisions.
It is common to feel rage towards the offender; You may even want revenge. You may also be carrying feelings of guilt for not being able to protect the survivor. It is important to find support for yourself without burdening the survivor. If all of your energy is spent plotting revenge, or pacing in anger, there will be nothing left to give to the survivor.
And remember, No One Deserves to Be Sexually Assaulted.
Survivors may make decisions that leave them vulnerable, but they are never responsible for the actions of another person. A rapist makes a conscious decision to sexually assault and they must be held responsible for their actions.
Tips when supporting survivors:
What to say:
- Use open body language
- If you sit or stand facing the survivor, regularly look at her/him in the eyes while talking, and keep your arms and legs relaxed and uncrossed. You are expressing, through body language, your desire to hear whatever the survivor says to you.
- It is safest to assume that if the survivor doesn’t ask you a question directly, they don’t yet want your input, especially in uncomfortable, personal areas.
- When in doubt as to the right thing to say, DON’T SAY ANYTHING; JUST LISTEN. This can feel very uncomfortable, but the survivor is just looking for someone to listen in a nonjudgmental way.
- Ask the survivor to clarify what you don’t understand.
- Try to understand not just the words spoken, but also what the survivor is attempting to convey to you.
- Be a mirror.
- Another way to clarify what you heard your friend say is to reflect her or his statements by rephrasing them: “What I hear you saying is…” or “You said you’re feeling frustrated?” This gives the survivor a chance to feel you are really listening and to control the conversation. It gives her/him a chance to clarify misunderstandings during the conversation. Be careful to not use this technique as a means to manipulate the survivor into saying what you want her or him to say.
- Speak only for yourself.
- Speak about feelings expressing yourself using “I”. For example, “I feel afraid when you tell me how this person follows you around.” By beginning your statements with “I”, you are owning your feelings and thoughts and taking yourself out of the control position.
- Ask open-ended questions.
- Open-ended questions tend to open up the conversation rather than close it down because they ask for broader opinions or general input, feelings, or beliefs rather than only a yes or no. When asked an open-ended question, a survivor is not limited in their response and can better direct the conversation to talk about what they want.
- You do not have to know the answers, you just have to be there.
- Most survivors do not come to their friends wanting to know all the answers to their problems. Instead, they often just want someone to listen. You will probably be surprised at how much the survivor feels better by just talking and steering the conversation. Your job is to provide a safe space and to be a safe person with whom the survivor can talk.
- I'm sorry this happened to you. Acknowledge you have heard what has been said and that you are listening. Acknowledge the courage it takes to disclose a trauma and the strength it takes to survive. This is your opportunity to empathize.
- No one deserves to be assaulted/abused/stalked/harassed.This statement validates what happened to the survivor by showing them that you believe what happened and also believe it was wrong.
- It’s not your fault. Don’t minimize the violence or blame the victim. The perpetrator is accountable and responsible for their choices and behaviors.
- You are not alone.We can counteract the paralyzing isolation so often at the heart of the abuse. By generalizing we help the survivor understand the abuse or assault is not about who they are or what they did, but about the perpetrator’s attempt to gain and/or maintain power and control.
- There is help. Empower the survivor by offering information, choices, safe space, and support. Sometimes, this can include recognizing when the help the survivor needs is more specialized than you can offer due to knowledge and/or experience. In these cases, the survivor might let you accompany them to talk with an advocate. In this way, you are still offering support, but you are not expected to have the answers to specialized questions and concerns.
*Information provided by Sexual Assault Support Services in Eugene, the Sexual Wellness Advocacy Team at the University of Oregon, Womenspace in Eugene, and the Sexual Assault Resource Center.*