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How to Support Survivors of Sexual Assault

Content Warning: This blog covers topics relating to sexual assault and violence, including definitions of sexual assault and rape. 


An estimated 1 in every 5 women in the United States is a survivor of sexual assault (National Sexual Violence Resource Center). When looking at other genders, estimates of men who have experienced sexual violence range from 1 to 11% depending on definitions, and the limited research we have on sexual violence against transgender and nonbinary folks shows almost half experience sexual assault (NSVRC’s Sexual Violence and Transgender/Nonbinary Communities). While these rates can vary in different communities and identity groups, one thing is for certain: with the high rate of people who experience sexual violence, chances are many of the people you know – and some of your loved ones – are survivors of sexual violence. 

Despite the fact that many people around us have experienced sexual assault, few of us are taught how to support survivors. In this article, we will explore some of the ways that you can show up for the people in your life if and when they disclose to you that they have experienced sexual assault. 

A Note on Language:

You may notice throughout this blog that I use the word “survivor” almost exclusively to refer to a person who has experienced sexual assault. In other contexts, you may hear people talk about “victims” of sexual assault. Many advocates against sexual violence use survivor rather than victim because the term has a more empowering connotation and focuses on the process of recovery. However, there are many legal and personal circumstances in which the term victim might be more applicable. You can learn more about the nuance of these terms at this resource from the National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative

It is also worth noting that throughout this article I am using terms such as “sexual assault” and “sexual violence”. It is important to note the difference between sexual assault and rape, as often times these words get used interchangeably. Rape is often used to refer to nonconsensual intercourse specifically, where sexual assault is often inclusive of other forms of violence, including other forms of nonconsensual touching or sexual acts not including intercourse. Legal definitions can vary state by state. For the sake of this article, I will be referring more broadly to sexual assault as survivors may experience different forms of sexual violence. What’s important is not how the violence happened but rather how the survivor is impacted. 

How do I Know if Someone’s a Survivor?

You can only know if someone is a survivor if they disclose to you that they experienced sexual assault. This should ideally be something they themselves share with you on their own accord – meaning, you should never try and pry out information around someone’s experiences if you suspect they may be a survivor. That’s not to say you shouldn’t make space for that person, but that you may want to keep your questions more “general” – i.e. asking a friend “You seem like you’ve been really sad lately. How are you doing?” as opposed to “You seem like you’ve been really sad since you spent the night at your partner’s house. Did something bad happen that night?” By not trying to make a person disclose, you’re leaving the power in the survivor’s hands regarding whether they even want to disclose. 

When supporting survivors of sexual assault, one of the most important things we can do is honor the person’s power. Sexual assault is a crime of power, not sex – the perpetrator takes power away from the survivor when they act without consent. By finding ways that we can empower survivors, we support them in their healing. 

Supporting Survivors: What to do

  • Do show the survivor that you believe them. One of the first things you should express is that you believe this person. Oftentimes, survivors are first met with doubt or suspicion – that they have to prove themselves to be taken seriously. This can be both distressing for the survivor who is put on the defensive and show that you are not a safe person for the survivor to talk to. To show a survivor you believe them, you can either say that directly (“I believe you”), say it indirectly by validating their experience (“That situation sounds really difficult”), or by avoiding “interrogating” questions (more on that below).
  • Do tell the survivor that it’s not their fault. Similar to the previous point, many survivors are met first with blame for what has happened to them. Tell your loved one that what happened to them was not their fault, and gently remind them when necessary that there is nothing they have done to deserve the assault. 
  • Do ask how you may be able to support them. Some people may feel stuck when trying to figure out how to help a survivor. Some people may jump into problem-solving mode without even consulting the person they’re trying to help. In any case, what you need to do first before acting is to ask the person directly what they need from you. Not only does this give you a clear direction, but it also aids in empowering the survivor by giving them control even in the support they receive – or don’t. 
  • Do offer up resources - while respecting the survivor’s autonomy. One thing you can always do to support a survivor is make them aware of resources. You may bring up local organizations that provide support or offer to help connect them with services like counseling. Of course, you must always be prepared that a survivor may decline these resources or this help, and that you shouldn’t press them if they do decline. 
  • Do understand that every survivor responds differently. Knowing one survivor’s reaction does not teach you about all survivors. There are many ways that people react to trauma, especially sexual trauma, differently. Some people may avoid relationships and stop attending work, some people may suddenly start seeing multiple partners and double the amount of hours spent working in their week. Some people may become tearful when telling their stories while others may not react at all. Be flexible and understand that there’s no one “correct” way for the survivor to act. 
  • Do listen. While it can be such a simple intervention, oftentimes one of the best ways we can support survivors is just by providing them space. You don’t always have to focus on what the right thing to say or do is – sometimes, what the survivor might need most of all is just a space to open up and share what they are feeling. Practice active listening and allow silence when it’s necessary. 
  • Do take care of yourself, also. It’s hard to be present for others if you’re not present for yourself, and seeing people we care about in distress can be incredibly taxing. Self-care for yourself should be prioritized. It’s okay for you also to look into resources – many organizations also provide support for families and loved ones of survivors. 

Supporting Survivors: What not to do 

  • Do not victim-blame. Victim-blaming is when a person either overtly or indirectly communicates that the survivor (either partially or completely) caused the assault to happen to them. Sexual violence is always the fault of the perpetrator, not the survivor. Asking overly specific questions about the events (such as “How much did you have to drink?” or “What were you wearing at the time?”) may also serve in making a survivor feel that they are to blame for what happened to them. 
  • Do not approach the perpetrator. Sometimes, you may know the perpetrator. Chances are pretty high you may meet them at some point – especially given the fact that most sexual assault is committed by someone known to the survivor. You may feel tempted to “verify” the story of what happened for yourself, but it’s important to note what this communicates to a survivor if you do. If you’re asking the accused perpetrator for their side of the story, that communicates to the survivor that you don’t fully believe them. Additionally, you should never confront the perpetrator on behalf of the survivor, either; this, once again, takes autonomy away from the survivor and may cause safety concerns. 
  • Do not try to force the survivor to report. This goes along with what we talked about earlier with autonomy. Never try to make a survivor report. This can be understandably hard to sit with – when we know someone we love has been harmed, we desire justice. Noticing this instinct inside you speaks to how much you care for the person, but reminder: Sexual assault is a crime of power, and the best way to support a survivor is by empowering them. There are many reasons a person may choose not to report – it’s not your job to dictate to them what is right or wrong but rather to support them in their decision-making.

It’s important to note that in some cases, you may be a
mandated reporter. While you should always consult your legal and ethical codes regarding mandated reporting, a critical way to empower survivors you work with is to always disclose your mandated reporter status before any sensitive information is shared, so the person is fully aware that you will have to report on their behalf. 

Support Beyond the Individual

Supporting survivors of sexual assault is bigger than individual moments. By showing up for all survivors, we show up for the survivors in our lives. Consider the way you engage with the conversation around sexual violence. How do you talk about survivors that you don’t know personally – such as “friend of a friend” type situations or survivors in the media? We may be supportive directly to survivors in our lives, but if we’re repeating the same victim-blaming comments about survivors we don’t know personally, we are showing that our support for survivors of sexual violence is conditional. This can cause the survivors in our lives to feel unsafe around, not to mention contribute to larger societal attitudes that survivors are to be heavily scrutinized and fit expectations on what a “real” survivor needs to look like. 

You may also consider the ways that you educate yourself and contribute to the fight against sexual violence. Local and national organizations can be great wells of knowledge on how to get involved and stay in the know. A few of them are listed below so that you can keep reading past this article!