Supporting Survivors of Sexual Assault
Sexual Assault Victim Specialist
Cynthia A., BSW
1 in 3 women, and 1 in 4 men have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetime. It is a community wide issue and can happen to anyone. Survivors may choose to not report their assault for fear of not being believed or blamed. It’s important to remember that obtaining a sexual assault exam and reporting to law enforcement is the best way to catch a perpetrator and stop them from assaulting again, but it is ultimately up to the survivor how they choose to address their assault.
At a societal level, shame and guilt can make survivors feel as though the blame is on them and not the perpetrator. For a survivor, disclosing to someone they care about can be very difficult, so we encourage you to be as supportive and non-judgmental as possible.
Where to Start: Supporting a survivor of sexual violence begins with knowing the difference between empathy and sympathy. We must walk alongside survivors and hear their voice to know how we can be helpful. We often want to jump into problem solving, but often listening is the best way to support someone.
Active Listening: Listen to what a survivor wants to tell you, and don’t force them to share more than they’re comfortable with. Avoid judgement and listen with empathy. As the survivor discloses, here are some helpful statements to show your support:
“I believe you. It took a lot of courage to tell me this.”
“This is not your fault. You didn’t do anything to deserve this.”
“You are not alone. I care about you and I’m here to help you however I can.”
“I’m sorry this happened to you, thank you for trusting me with this.”
What is most important is that they know they are heard and not alone.
Explore Options: It’s often helpful to contact your local sexual assault service provider for advice on medical care and laws surrounding sexual assault. If the survivor seeks medical attention or plans to report, offer to be there. Your presence can offer the support they need. For prosecution, it is important that sexual assault exams be administered within 120 hours following the assault for best evidence collection. Agencies such as Resilience often have nurses trained to perform trauma-informed exams, so as to minimize re-victimization. Oftentimes, aftercare services, such as therapy, are offered by local agencies.
Validate and reassure the survivor that what happened to them is not their fault. Everyone’s needs differ after a traumatic event, and each person is capable of deciding what is best for them. Listen to what the survivor wants and follow their lead.
Safety Planning: A safe zone, or safety planning can look like relocating when the situation allows, adding safety measures to the home, and establishing a list of people to call or go if need be. It’s important to get through these big barriers before continuing to validate and empower someone on this journey to healing because you want to establish a sense of trust with the survivor.
Healing from Sexual Assault: Remind the survivor that healing is not linear – there is no set time in which someone “should” heal from a sexual assault. The range of emotion can vary from one moment to the next. Urge survivors to lean on healthy coping mechanisms in time of need. Encourage them to practice good self-care during this difficult time. If talking about their experience seems to overwhelm them, you can suggest deep breathing exercises, grounding techniques, and establishing a safe zone.
Healing from sexual assault is a process, and will look different for each and every individual. Take the time to educate yourself on how to support survivors, it makes a difference in their lives and in the world altogether.
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, it’s not your fault. You are not alone and we are here to help. Support is available 24/7 by calling Resilience’s Help Line: 1-800-848-5991.