How to Offer Support After a Sexual Assault DisclosureBy Dr. Jess Relationships
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and according to the Department of Justice, one American is sexually assaulted every 68 seconds. The prevalence of sexual assault means that we all know someone who has been assaulted and the effects of sexual assault are far-reaching. Learning how to support someone who discloses their experience of sexual assault is of paramount importance.
Of course, each person’s responses and needs will differ, so if someone you know shares that they’ve been assaulted, start by asking them what they need and listen. You can also find some general guidelines below.
Be clear that you believe them.
Say the words if you can. I believe you.
And don’t ask prying questions that could invalidate their experience (e.g., why did you go there alone?).
Many survivors are hesitant to come forward and share their experience due to shame, stigma, and the fear that they won’t be believed. When they do decide to share, there is no blueprint with regard to how they will do so. They may be tense and frantic, or they might be cool, calm, and collected; they might also be somewhere in-between — don’t assume that they ought to display one specific demeanor in response to sexual assault or trauma.
Listen and validate
Let them know that it’s not their fault. They may be inclined to blame themselves, but you can help to reassure them that as a survivor, they’re never to blame. Don’t pressure them or pepper them with questions, but instead give them space to share if they want to.
Try using some of this language: It takes a lot to share this. I’m glad you were able to tell me. I’m here for you. You’re not alone.
Validate what they’re feeling — whether it’s fear, rage, hopelessness, numbness, or any other range of emotions. They may want to cry, scream, lie on the floor, pace, clean, exercise, or curl up under the covers – and this list, of course, is not exhaustive, so be supportive and available regardless of their needs.
Let them share at whatever pace or volume works for them. Don’t pry into the details, as they may not be ready to share. Instead, let them know that you’re available whenever (if ever) they feel ready to talk.
Make space for them to respond in a way that works for them
Your first response may be to suggest that they go to the police or the hospital. Present these as options as opposed to demanding that there is one way to respond.
Some people will be hesitant to call authorities. Others may have had negative interactions with the healthcare system and may be distrustful of medical staff.
After an assault, when consent has been violated, you want to create opportunities for them to make their own informed decisions — without coercion or pressure.
Encourage them to seek medical attention if needed and offer to stay by their side or advocate on their behalf if that’s what they want. If they require medical attention and don’t want to go to the hospital, consider community health centers that may be more in line with their needs (e.g., a health station where the staff speaks their language).
If they choose to report, you can do so by calling 911, visiting a local police station, or asking to report via your local health station or hospital. There is no time limit for reporting a crime, but there may be time limits on when charges can be filed and prosecuted.
Research resources in case they’re interested in seeking additional support.
You can find local sexual assault support resources on RAINN’s website where you can search by location, services, and populations served. Look up options to share with the survivor you are supporting.
Be specific about the support you can offer
Check in on them and be clear about what types of support you can offer. Rather than simply stating let me know if you need anything, specify what you can (and cannot) offer. For example:
- You’re welcome to stay at my house tonight/this week if you’d like.
- I’d like to bring you breakfast tomorrow if that works for you.
- I would like to come with you to the police station/hospital if you’re open to it.
- I can take you to the doctor on Wednesday.
- I can take your kids if you need some time alone/with your partner.
- I will call you after work to check in this week.
- You can call me anytime. I turn my phone off after 10pm, but I’ll set an exception for your number.
- Text me during the day, as I’ll be at work, but I’ll slip out as soon as I can if you want to talk.
- If you need some time off of work, I can help with some rent/food money.
If you commit to something, follow through. If something changes and you need to adjust your commitment, let them know.
Respect their privacy
They shared their experience with you. Don’t share it with others unless they specifically ask you to do so.
If they’re stepping away from family, work, or social circles and you’ll be fielding questions about their absence, ask them how they’d like you to respond. (They may not want to deal with these details right away, so use your best judgment to give them time to address these types of inquiries.)
Check back in and be patient
Healing after assault is a highly personal journey. Some people will dive into therapy right away while others will opt for other therapeutic approaches and take their time. Some will go right back to work and socializing, and others will desire more physical space and time to heal. There is no universal path for survivors (nor is any route linear), so be patient and understand that the pain and healing are likely to last for some time.
Take care of yourself
Hearing someone’s disclosure or story of sexual assault can be very difficult and emotionally draining, so take care of yourself too. You cannot pour from an empty cup. You can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-HOPE) for support and resources.