What should I say to a friend, family member and/or loved one if they open up to me they’ve been sexually assaulted?
Sexual violence at its root is about one person feeling entitled to another person’s body and using their power to control that person. Therefore, as a friend, family member, and/or loved one of someone who has experienced sexual assault, one of the key things you can do is work to give them their power and control back.
What this looks like is:
- Let them know you believe them (an example of a phrase you could say is, “I believe you and I am sorry this happened to you”) and take their disclosure seriously. Disclosing sexual assault is often one of the hardest things survivors have to do. Providing loving, kind, and non-questioning support can be very empowering and can assist the survivor in seeking additional support. Remember, it is not your responsibility to investigate and determine if a crime occurred. Often survivors feel guilty and shame for what happened to them and as a supporter they will need someone to be there for them throughout the process.
- Don’t make decisions for your friend and/or loved one. It can be helpful to provide information about next steps and resources, but it is important you leave the decision-making to your friend and/or loved one. This is a simple way for survivors to feel like they are gaining some control and power back as they navigate their healing. Support the decisions they make even if you don’t agree with them.
- Let your friend and/or loved one know you are there for them in any way they need. They are in the driver’s seat and let them know you will do what you can to provide whatever support them in their time of need.
- Validate their feelings and continue to validate their feelings as they change. It is possible a survivor will go through a roller-coaster of different emotions that may include anger, shame, laughter, sadness, ambivalence, etc. It is all very normal and let them know this.
- Try NOT to share what you think you would do in the same situation. Although it may seem helpful it is important to remember that everyone is different and we really don’t know how we would respond until faced with a similar situation. It is complicated and hard and we each have our own set of concerns and questions to consider when making decisions. Talk through the options with your friend and/or loved one, and then support whatever they decide.
- Sometimes because of the trauma’s effects on the brain, the survivor may have difficulty remembering elements of their experience, or mis-remember things that happened. This is perfectly normal and is actually the brain’s way of protecting someone during a traumatic experience. Over time, and with support, they may be able to better share what happened. Remember: Don’t rush them; Don’t ask them intrusive questions about their experience; Don’t assume because they can’t tell you, they are not telling the truth. They will share when and if they are ready to do so.
- Do NOT share the survivor’s experience with anyone else. it is crucial to remember that it is a difficult experience for survivors to open up. It may be tempting to intervene and tell other parties about the situation but it is not your place to do so. Therefore, it is imperative that you protect their privacy and respect their wishes to not speak on their behalf unless asked specifically to do so.
For more tips on how to support a friend or loved one, visit:
Denver’s The Blue Bench has some great resources
You can read the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape’s A Guide for Friends and Family of Sexual Violence Survivors.