Helping/Supporting a Survivor of Sexual Misconduct/Violence
It can be very challenging to know what to do when when someone discloses that they have experienced sexual misconduct, sexual violence or harassment; however, knowing how to be supportive can be crucial in a survivor’s healing process. There are two things you need to think about: how you can support the survivor, and how you can take care of yourself.
How You Can Support the Survivor
Believe the survivor: Know that revealing this experience takes a great deal of strength and courage. Remember that NO ONE DESERVES TO BE ASSAULTED. Remind the survivor that the assault was not their fault. Let the survivor know that you believe them.
Be respectful of privacy and confidentiality: Don’t tell anyone about the assault without the survivor’s permission. The survivor has chosen to tell you and it may be hurtful or dangerous to inform others.
Provide information: There are several things a survivor may want to think about: seeking counseling, obtaining medical attention, preserving evidence, or reporting to the police. It is important to provide information but to allow the survivor the agency to make their own choices. On and off-campus resources are available to you.
Let the survivor make their own decisions: You can provide information and options for the survivor, but always let the survivor make their own decisions. Many survivors feel a deep sense of disempowerment as a result of being violated. Therefore it is important to help the survivor feel empowered. Instead of taking charge, ask how you can help. Offer to accompany the survivor to seek medical attention or to the police if they so choose. Support the decisions the survivor makes, even if you might not agree with them.
Be aware of your desire to provide reassurance: Saying things like “everything is going to be all right” or “it could have been worse,” may seem supportive, however, the survivor may interpret these reassurances to mean that you don’t understand their feelings, or that you are trivializing the magnitude of what they have experienced. Instead you might say, "I'm sorry this happened,” or “How can I be helpful?”
Remind the survivor that you care: The survivor may worry that their friends and loved ones won’t think of them in the same way. Let the survivor know you don’t see them differently, and that you are here to support them.
Give the survivor space if they need it: Be sensitive to the fact that the survivor might want to spend some time alone. Don’t touch or hug the survivor unless you are sure they are comfortable with physical contact.
Be a good listener: Recovering from a sexual assault can take a long time. The survivor may need your support now and in the future. Let the survivor choose when they wants to talk and how much they wants to share. Sometimes the survivor may not want to talk at all. When the survivor does choose to talk to you, these are things to keep in mind:
- DO concentrate on understanding the survivor’s feelings.
- DO allow silences.
- DO let the survivor know you are glad they disclosed to you.
- DON’T interrogate or ask for specific details about the sexual assault.
- DON’T ask “why” questions such as “why did you go there?” or “why didn’t you scream?”
- DON’T tell them what you would have done or what they should have done.
How You Can Take Care of Yourself:
Learn as much as you can about sexual assault: Be as familiar as you can with community resources and common reactions to sexual assault. This will help you better understand the survivor’s experiences and the process of recovery. Haverford's Sexual Misconduct web site has information for you.
Be aware of your own reactions to sexual assault: You may feel a sense of violation when someone you care about has been assaulted. You may experience feelings of confusion, hurt or anger. You may wish you could make the survivor's pain go away. No matter how helpful you are, you can’t make the sexual assault disappear. The best you can do is help the survivor find ways to help themselves. Your support is much more helpful to the survivor than your anger and frustration.
Recognize the difference between what you want and what the survivor wants: Try to distinguish between what you are doing to make yourself feel better from what you are doing to help the survivor. You may be tempted to do things that make you feel better which are not helpful to the survivor, such as beating up the assailant or trying to get the survivor to just “forget about it.” Instead, ask the survivor what would be most helpful.
Know your limitations: Every individual has a limit to how much they can give. This does not make you a failure. It is important to know your own limitations of support and to share these clearly with the survivor. Provide the survivor with other support options. Let the survivor know you will not feel hurt if they choose to talk with someone else.
Seek support for yourself: Your support plays a critical role in the survivor’s recovery. Talking with someone who can help you work through your own feelings will better enable you to support the survivor. Remember to respect the survivor’s privacy when seeking support from others. Support is available for you at CAPS and the Center for Gender Resources and Sexual Education.
Source: Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, University of Michigan.