People close to survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence often feel that they need to be strong and take care of
their friend or loved one. It is normal to want to help and that support is crucial to the survivor, but it is important
to remember to take care of yourself as well. You may have to cope with your own feelings of violation, vulnerability,
and helplessness, as well as with the issue of how to treat the survivor in a helpful way. You may feel sad, helpless,
frightened, angry, or confused; your responses, which may be very strong, are normal and legitimate. You may feel that
you were at fault for the assault, and dwell on a long list of "If only I had..." Sexual violence is only the fault
of the perpetrator.
Campus and city resources are available for supporters to have their own place to turn for support and conversation so
that they may remain a positive influence for their friend, partner, or family member. You may call the Chicago Rape
Crisis Hotline at 888-293-2080, 24 hours a day to ask questions, and get referrals. The Office of Sexual Health & Violence Prevention and the Dean of Students
Office are also available to answer these questions and address concerns.
If someone has disclosed to you their experience of sexual violence, the most important thing to remember is to believe them.
Hearing phrases like "I believe you," or "You did not deserve this," or "It was not your fault," can be invaluable to
someone who is questioning why this has happened to them. Additionally, it is important to remember the following:
- Listen to what the person is saying. Believe them when they say that they have experienced something awful.
- Express sincere empathy. Expressing empathy can be a powerful validation of a survivor's experience.
- Provide referrals to on- and off-campus support services.
- Validate feelings. It's not uncommon for people to feel angry when something like this happens.
- Don't make assumptions about the gender of the people involved. Sexual assault occurs among all genders and sexual orientations.
- Don't tell the person what to do. It's important to empower survivors to make decisions for themselves and to have those decisions respected.
- Don't tell the person how to feel. Survivors may feel numb or experience shame, anger, depression, and/or many other feelings.
- Remember, everyone reacts differently to trauma.
- Educate yourself about the myths of rape. Remember-rape is never the fault of the survivor, but the fault of the rapist. While this may seem simple and obvious, much of the misinformation that exists points to the victim as being responsible for the rape. To truly be supportive, one must believe the survivor while disbelieving and challenging the myths that surround rape.
- Relax. Try not to worry much about "saying the right thing." Being available to listen is far more important. Let the survivor know that you care.
- Your friend may or may not also be experiencing Rape Trauma Syndrome. The symptoms of Rape Trauma Syndrome can last long after the assault. More information on Rape Trauma Syndrome can be found at the website of Rape Victim Advocates.
Eleven Things NOT to Say to Survivors of Sexual Assault
"Only crazy people need therapy"
(and what to say instead)
Like many of the statements on this page, this is JUST PLAIN WRONG. Some experiences are traumatic for virtually anyone, regardless of how "normal" the person is. Often psychotherapy and rape crisis counseling can be very helpful for survivors with mild, moderate, or severe problems due to sexual assault.
"I'll kill the guy who did this to you"
Anger is an understandable reaction on your part, but frequently harmful for a survivor because s/he has just faced one person whose anger was out of control. They will then have the burden of calming you down so there will not be any more violence.
"It's better not to talk about it"
Instead, tell your friend that you are willing to listen when he or she is ready to talk. Many sexual assault survivors find that talking about stressful events speeds up recovery if the survivor is allowed to talk at his or her own pace. If you do not feel you can be a supportive listener, offer to help direct the survivor to another friend or counselor.
"Why are you afraid of me? I didn't do it."
Rape and incest often affect the interactions of the survivor with other people and cause confusion about and fear toward sex and intimacy. For instance, a woman who was sexually assaulted by a man may fear men. Survivors often need to exert and feel more in control of a relationship than they might have before an assault.
"It's my fault" or "It's not my fault"
Sexual assault is ONLY THE PERPETRATOR'S FAULT. It is not the fault of the survivor. It is not the fault of the survivor's family and friends. Statements like "It's not my fault" may suggest to the survivor that the assault is his/her fault. If you want to talk about fault at all, tell the survivor, "It's not your fault."
"If you don't go to the police, they could do this again!"
Regardless of whether the perpetrator continues to sexually assault people, it has nothing to do with the survivor or their response. The fault of each sexual assault is always with the person committing the assault, not those who have been unable to stop them.
"Going to the police (or testifying in court) will just make things worse."
Different people make different choices about going to the police and pressing charges. Some studies show that reporting to the police, though painful, sometimes helps with recovery from sexual assault. These actions also help get rapists off the street and emphasize that such violence will not be condoned.
"Why can't you just forget about it?"
The reminders of a sexual assault are constant and everywhere: some examples are sex, interactions with men (or women), street harassment, and any position of vulnerability. In the face of this, forgetting may be impossible.
"When you fall off a horse, you have to jump right back on"
This DOES NOT apply to resuming sex after sexual assault. Let the survivor decide when s/he is ready to have sex or to do other things of which s/he is afraid as a result of the assault. Be aware of subtle pressures to have sex that you may impose on her/him. It may help to seek couple's counseling.
"What's the big deal?"
SEXUAL ASSAULT IS A BIG DEAL for many reasons. An assault can destroy a person's belief that the world is a safe place, that s/he knows who to trust, that s/he has control over her/his own body and sexual activity. Rape is a life-threatening act. Rape is NOT just sex.
"Why didn't you fight?"
There are numerous natural responses to being attacked including freezing, submitting, and fighting. Your friend has survived; don't demand more of her/him than that.
"Nothing I can say (or do) will help."
Yes it can! Tell your friend you are ready to listen whenever s/he wants to talk about it and express her/his feelings. If she can't talk about it with you, help her/him find someone else with whom s/he can talk about it. Listen and do not criticize, judge, or condemn. Patience and love can help.