Tips For Talking To Sexual Assault Survivors

“Making someone feel obligated, pressured or forced into doing something of a sexual nature that they don't want to is sexual coercion. This includes persistent attempts at sexual contact when the person has already refused you. Nobody owes you sex, ever; and no means no, always.”

Here are some specific phrases we recommend to be supportive through a survivor’s healing process:

“I believe you. / It took a lot of courage to tell me about this.” It can be extremely difficult for survivors to come forward and share their story. They may feel ashamed, concerned that they won’t be believed, or worried they’ll be blamed. Leave any “why” questions or investigations to the experts—your job is to support this person. Be careful not to interpret calmness as a sign that the event did not occur—everyone responds to traumatic events differently. The best thing you can do is to believe them.

“It’s not your fault. / You didn’t do anything to deserve this.” Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind the survivor, maybe even more than once, that they are not to blame.

“You are not alone. / I care about you and am here to listen or help in any way I can.” Let the survivor know that you are there for them and willing to listen to their story if they are comfortable sharing it. Assess if there are people in their life they feel comfortable going to, and remind them that there are service providers who will be able to support them as they heal from the experience.

“I’m sorry this happened. / This shouldn’t have happened to you.” Acknowledge that the experience has affected their life. Phrases like “This must be really tough for you,” and, “I’m so glad you are sharing this with me,” help to communicate empathy.

Continued Support

There’s no timetable when it comes to recovering from sexual violence. If someone trusted you enough to disclose the event to you, consider the following ways to show your continued support.

  • Avoid judgment. It can be difficult to watch a survivor struggle with the effects of sexual assault for an extended period of time. Avoid phrases that suggest they’re taking too long to recover such as, “You’ve been acting like this for a while now,” or “How much longer will you feel this way?”

  • Check in periodically. The event may have happened a long time ago, but that doesn’t mean the pain is gone. Check in with the survivor to remind them you still care about their well-being and believe their story.

  • Know your resources. You’re a strong supporter, but that doesn’t mean you’re equipped to manage someone else’s health. Become familiar with resources you can recommend to a survivor, such as the Sexual Assault Hotline 0247243393 and

    • It’s often helpful to contact your local sexual assault service provider for advice on medical care and laws surrounding sexual assault. If the survivor seeks medical attention or plans to report, offer to be there. Your presence can offer the support they need.

    • If someone you care about is considering suicide, learn the warning signs, and offer help and support. For more information about suicide prevention please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 0207373222 any time, day or night.

    • Encourage them to practice good self-care during this difficult time.

Self-Care for Friends and Family

It’s important to know that there is no normal or one way to react when you find out someone you care about has survived an act of sexual violence. Regardless of what you’re feeling, these emotions can be intense and difficult to deal with. Learning how to manage these feelings can help you support the survivor in your life and can help you feel less overwhelmed.

How am I supposed to react?

There is no “right” reaction to hearing that someone you care about has survived an act of sexual violence. You may experience some of the following emotions:

  • Anger. You might feel anger for a number of reasons: towards yourself for not being able to protect the survivor; towards the survivor for telling you about something that is hard to hear, or because they waited a period of time before telling you; or towards the perpetrator for carrying out the assault and hurting the survivor. It can be difficult to keep anger from affecting the way you communicate. Let yourself acknowledge this emotion and find another outlet to express it.

  • Anxiety. You might feel anxious about responding the “right” way or worried about how this event will impact your relationship with the survivor. Reassure the survivor that the assault was not their fault and that you believe them. These can be the most powerful and helpful words for a survivor to hear.

  • Confusion. You might feel confused by what you’re hearing. You might not understand how it could happen or why it has happened. Sadly, sexual assaults are more common that we’d like to think. Although you may be struggling with feelings of confusion, especially if you know the perpetrator, you should always try to believe the survivor. They are never to blame for the assault.

  • Disbelief. When you first hear about the assault you might be surprised or shocked, and you might have trouble believing the assault happened. After a traumatic experience, it’s common for survivors and those around them to experience denial. It’s important to focus on believing the survivor and acknowledging their story.

  • Guilt. You may feel guilty that you could not prevent the assault from happening or that the survivor didn’t feel comfortable telling you about the assault right way. You may feel guilty that something so terrible happened to someone else and not to you. It can be helpful to refocus your energy on making the survivor feel supported as they move forward.

  • Sadness. When you learn that a trauma like sexual assault happened to someone you care about, it’s normal to feel sad, hopeless, worried, or powerless. You might feel sad for the survivor or mourn how this has changed their life. If you know the perpetrator, you might feel sad for how this has changed your life as well. Self-care strategies and coping skills can help you move through these feelings.