How to support a survivor of sexual assault
“I felt so ashamed.”
“I felt that it was my fault.”
“I didn’t feel like I could tell anyone, so I just pretended it didn’t happen.”
These are just some things a person may express after experiencing sexual assault.
There are numerous barriers to disclosing an experience of sexual violence, including fear of disbelief, blame and shame.
“That’s why it can be very frightening for survivors to talk about what they have experienced,” says Jennifer Drummond, coordinator for Concordia’s Sexual Assault Resource Centre. “And it makes getting help more difficult.”
For that reason, she adds, “when someone confides in you that they’ve been sexually assaulted, it’s important to provide the person with support.”
Here, Drummond shares seven ways you can help.
1. Practise active listening
Active listening is expressing concern and support for another person by being attentive to what they are telling you.
Central to active listening is a non-judgmental attitude and the realization that everyone has different experiences, perspectives and needs.
Key aspects of active listening include being genuine, accepting, empathetic, respectful, engaging and focused on feelings rather than on the details of an expressed situation.
2. Believe what the survivor tells you
The survivor is the one who has been through it. So, just focus on what they are saying and experiencing.
3. Encourage strength
Help a survivor to feel good about expressing their feelings, and point out their courage and strength.
4. Reduce guilt
Support a survivor in understanding that the sexual assault is not their fault. The perpetrator is the only one responsible.
5. Normalize reactions
You can help a survivor to express what they may be feeling by recognizing that their reactions, emotions and feelings (for example, anger, shame, guilt, fear and low self-esteem) are normal.
6. Encourage autonomy
Being there for the survivor and helping them re-establish power in their own life is important. Support a survivor by giving the person room to breathe and get back to their previous level of functioning.
7. Respect choices
It is up to the survivor to decide how they want to move forward and what kind of support they need.
You can support a survivor by being available to talk through the different options for help or to accompany them to a resource they feel comfortable with.
Concordia’s Sexual Assault Resource Centre has resources to help you support survivors of sexual assault.