How to Respond When a Survivor Tells You About Their Sexual Assault

Your response can affect how they heal.
July 17, 2017
9 mins read


It’s not your fault. Four words that are easy to say to victims of sexual assault, but to make them believe it? Well, that may not happen quite as quickly.

Victims of sexual assault usually keep quiet about their suffering. Many won’t even talk openly about it with friends and family. Would you even know if one of your friends was raped or sexually assaulted? You probably would like the answer to be yes, but no, they wouldn’t necessarily tell you.

Odds are you know someone who is a survivor of sexual assault–especially if you are a college student. This is because among undergraduate students, 23.1 percent of females and 5.4 percent of males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation.

Clearly, this is a widespread problem. It’s so widespread, in fact, that millions of American women have been sexually assaulted. But, for some inexplicable reason, there is a stigma that victims of sexual assault and rape face. Victims fear speaking out about their struggle because of society’s tendency to victim-blame. And because this victim-blaming mentality is so ingrained in people, sometimes victims fear their loved ones will blame them, too, and ultimately don’t tell them what happened.

When a victim of sexual assault does build up the courage to confide in you, however, it is important that you react appropriately. It’s not a common situation to find yourself in, and it can be difficult, since the news that your friend was taken advantage of in this way will obviously be upsetting to you, and you may not know how to respond or what to say to comfort them. In order to best help your friend, here are five things you can do if someone confides in you about their sexual assault or rape.

1. Believe Them

While it may seem obvious, many victims fear that when they finally are able to share what happened to them with someone, that person will doubt their story. Saying things like, “I just can’t believe Jake would do that,” or “Wow, that seems so out of character for John, he’s always been so nice to me,” may seem harmless to you–in fact, they may be the thoughts that run through your mind initially–but it’s important not to give voice to them. You’re not there to give your thoughts on how the attacker could do something like that; you’re there to support your friend or family member. When you use phrases such as “I just can’t believe,” even though it is a figure of speech, it can be misinterpreted by the survivor as I don’t believe you. Make it clear to the victim that you are there for them and that yes, of course you believe them. Besides, it is extremely rare for someone to lie about being a victim of sexual assault.

2. Listen and Give Them Your Full Attention

While I’m sure you will have many thoughts running through your head on the matter, it’s important to hold off on sharing them and to let the survivor speak. This may be the first time they are disclosing the information to anyone, and it may not be easy for them to tell you their story.

Image via Christian Mingle

Reliving the moment and recounting it is hard enough without constant interruptions and pressing questions scattered throughout. Don’t ask them for details they do not feel comfortable sharing. And by just listening and being empathetic, you will be helping the survivor more than you know.

3. Avoid Judgment Completely

Remember, the assailant is to blame, not the victim. Do not make comments like, “You shouldn’t have been drinking that much,” or “Your outfit was so skimpy, you were basically asking for it.” Not only are comments like this blatantly naive–asking for it implies there was consent, which there clearly was not in the case of an assault–but they also may make the survivor blame him or herself even more than he or she already does. Plus, there is no way to go back and change the past, so it is better not to question the actions that the survivor took leading up to the assault and instead focus on what you can do in the present.

4. Refer the Survivor to the Right Places

There are many steps that the survivor can choose to take following the assault. Should the victim decide to file a police report and take legal action, you should support their decision. If they decide not to file a police report, that does not mean they want you to go behind their back and do it for them. Taking legal action in a sexual assault case is a daunting, multi-step task that many survivors opt not to do. Also, you can always advise your friend to have the necessary data collected in case at a future date, he or she decides to take legal action. However, if the victim is a minor and is a victim of sexual abuse, you may be required by law to report what they told you. But, since this piece is more of a guide for college-aged students, you should let the victim control the decision-making regarding action taken; it may also give them a sense of control over the situation that they lacked when they were assaulted.

If the survivor has not yet received medical attention, this is something you can help bring to their attention. If they were raped, they should be screened for STIs and pregnancy, if that is a concern. If enough time has passed that the medical repercussions are no longer a concern, you can still direct your friend to resources such as the National Sexual Assault Hotline.

5. Remind Them That They are Not Alone

It is easy for a victim of sexual assault or rape to feel alone, as if they are the only one going through this, and that no one else could possibly understand what it’s like. Help your friend realize that this is not the case. Not only are there millions of other women in the country that this has happened to, but there are service providers who specialize in speaking to people about their experience and help them recover. It is also important to remind your friend that you are there for them. Reinforce the idea that you are available and willing to talk to them, keep them company and help them get through this. Remind them that there are plenty of people in their life who care and want to listen and help them.

Lexi Lieberman, University of Pennsylvania

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Lexi Lieberman

University of Pennsylvania

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