Supporting a Survivor of Sexual Violence

Here are some of the things you can do to offer support or to respond to a disclosure of sexual violence. You can get more information on how to support a survivor by calling Women in Crisis.

Listen to the survivor

  • Be patient and approachable. They’ll express their feelings as they feel safe, comfortable, and ready.
  • Let them talk.
  • Don’t pressure them to tell you details or specifics; they’ll tell you if and when they are ready.
  • Show empathy to help them to feel safe enough to share their experience with you.
  • Become aware of the parts of their experience that seem to come up repeatedly. They may represent areas that need special attention and understanding.

Believe them

  • It’s important that they understand that you believe them and their description of the events and that the feelings they have about the assault are valid.
  • Tell the survivor that they are not responsible for the crime that was committed against them.
  • Avoid asking them “why” questions like “why didn’t you fight back?” They might feel judged by such questions. The survivor needs to know that you do not blame them for the assault.

Suggested supportive responses

  • It is very important that you convey the message that you do not see the survivor as damaged or any less moral than before the assault.
  • Let the survivor know that they have your unconditional love and support. Tell them you will be there when they need you.
  • Encourage them to make their own decisions about further proceedings regarding the incident, such as telling others or reporting.
  • Do not give advice. Instead provide them with options, and support the choices they make. This will allow the survivor to take back some of the power they lost during the assault, and it can help them feel more in control. You will communicate your commitment by supporting the decisions they make.

Working with feelings

  • Recognize and accept their feelings as well as your own.
  • Do not contact or threaten the perpetrator. It is normal for your initial reactions to be anger towards the perpetrator. Threats may result in a legal action by the perpetrator against you at a time when the survivor needs your strength and support. Keep in mind that your anger can shift attention away from the survivor and towards yourself. They may feel guilty for burdening you, frightened of your rage or reluctant to upset you further at a time when they need your support.
  • You may feel it is your job to “fix” the survivor or “make right” what has happened to her/him in the past, and you may get frustrated when the survivor does not heal as quickly as you would have hoped. Remember that only the survivor can “fix” themselves, and your role is to support the survivor through this process.

Other ways you can help

  • Spend some time helping others involved with the survivor to learn ways to support them. Understand that the survivor needs a safe, accepting environment where their feelings and the event will not be judged.
  • Know what to expect from a survivor after the assault. Learn about sexual violence and its after-effects.
  • Be aware of the specific issues you may face as the supporter of a survivor who was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance. In addition to the trauma experienced in stranger assaults, self-doubt, self-blame, betrayal of trust, lack of confidence in one's own ability to make judgments and good decisions may complicate the recovery process.
  • Refrain from criticizing the survivor for their symptoms, and don’t blame all the problems in your relationship on their trauma or their symptoms.
  • Try not to take it personally if the survivor needs to withdraw or be alone.

Credit: Impact on Supporters sheet from University of Alberta Sexual Assault Centre