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supporting survivors of sexual assault

Your friend comes to you, angry and unsure. She tells you a story about being drunk at a party, waking up without her clothing, and remembering fragments of what happened the night before. You squirm in your seat, feeling uncomfortable as she breaks down. In this situation, you do not know what to do-how do you react?

The situation could be a male friend coming to you and telling you about a sexual assault that happened to him. He could share details with you that could make you uncomfortable. The details of sexual assault are often bizarre, and unfathomable. How do you react?

The reality of the above scenarios is that they happen, and survivors share their stories. They share them with others that they trust, giving up control of the story, and asking for someone to share the burden. How do you react to those situations, those confidences? For many individuals, it is difficult to know what to say, what to do, and the correct way to help a friend or loved one after a sexual assault.

How do I support my friend, without tackling the huge problem of sexual assault? Helping and supporting one survivor is a step in the right direction. If each survivor was supported, the problem of sexual violence would have the spotlight it needs to make changes.

Believe Their Story

By committing to believing a survivor, you are giving unconditional support. Sexual assault stories are horrific, and sometimes hard to believe. Make a promise to believe survivors. Disclosing sexual violence takes courage, and once someone speaks out, if rebuffed, the chances of speaking out again decrease. 

Stop Minimizing

Minimizing the incident the survivor endured serves no purpose except to prove that nothing will get done. When you tell a survivor that “it couldn’t have been that bad,” what you are conveying is that you don’t care. You do not think that the violation is worth speaking out for, and that is a dangerous message for survivors. Knowing someone is there, has their back, and will show them the compassion and care needed is the most important action.

Don’t Blame the Survivor

Our culture promotes and supports the idea of sexual violence because, in society’s opinion, it can only happen if the victim does something to encourage sexual contact, either consensual or non-consensual. Think about the questions and processes that survivors endure. “Were you drinking?” “What were you wearing?” “Why were you even walking there by yourself?” Victims of other crimes do not need to endure the same process. As a society, if we need to stop putting the survivor on trial. Their character, profession, and habits are not an invitation to be sexually assaulted. 

Don’t Make The Experience About You

Avoid talking about yourself and your experiences when a survivor is telling you about an assault. Control your facial expressions, non-verbal cues, and reactions. A survivor is not responsible for making you feel better. 

So, What’s My Role?

You are required to do only three things: listen, support, and love the survivor. A survivor does not expect you to solve their problems; they need someone to support them, believe them, and love them. With those three areas covered, you can encourage the survivor to reach out to advocacy agencies to find someone to help them navigate the rest of the process.