Before becoming a therapist I worked with an organization dedicated to preventing sexual assault. We talked to men directly about how to help survivors of sexual assault. Our goal was also to help challenge rape myth acceptance and help men see themselves as helpers, and not just potential perpetrators.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and I think it’s as good a times as any to share with you some of the things I’ve learned about how to support a survivor of sexual assault.
If you ever find yourself in this situation you may feel a great deal of pressure to do the right thing, which is understandable. We should approach these moments with a lot of mindfulness and intention, but you don’t have to be mental health professional to support someone effectively Here are some tips from an everyday person’s perspective.
When it comes to supporting someone who was experienced a sexual assault it is imperative that you give the survivor space to speak their truth, and tell whatever story they feel ready to share. It’s not uncommon for hard conversations like this to include a fair amount of silence, and that’s OK. That silence can be a safe space for a survivor to find the courage to be vulnerable. If someone has the courage to open up to you about their experience of an assault, try to take your time with them. Resist the pressure to do everything just right…and “right now.” Listen. Be patient, and talk less even if it feels uncomfortable to do so. By creating this space you offer the survivor control and power over their story, which can be healing when they have already been made to feel powerless.
Do not investigate details
It’s not up to you to be a detective or investigator when someone shares their experience of an assault. As friend of loved one it is your job to be a source of support and safety. This is incredibly healing for a survivor.
Instead of asking questions about details to look for consistencies in their story, be present with the survivor and offer up words of encouragement and support in that moment. Thank them for sharing their truth with you. Remind them of their courage. Tell them that you love and support them and only want to help. These are the things that survivors will likely want, and need, to hear the most.
Empower and share resources
Sexual assault is a crime of power manifested through sex. It’s the willful act on the perpetrator’s part to ignore the needs, or wants, of their victim. This is not OK. As you might imagine, this could leave a survivor feeling powerless, among other things. Survivors often experience a range of mixed up and complicated emotions.
Part of your duty as a supporter and ally is to help them feel empowered again. You can achieve this by sharing resources that could be helpful to them while also promoting their right to follow-through with them, or not. When you share options or resources they could consider as next steps ask, “Would you feel open to talking with the police, or a professional about this? If so, I can get some options for you.”
Don’t tell them or shame them into doing anything in particular even if you think you know the right step to take. This can be re-traumatizing. Instead, offer suggestions without pressure or coercion. They may also need some time to consider what you’ve shared. Honor their wishes, and give them space so that they can make the right choice for them on their own timeline.
Following up is just as an important piece of the puzzle as anything else. Don’t let one conversation be the only time you offer support to a survivor. Call or text to check in a few days later. Visit them to check in. Invite them out for a fun day of distractions. Ask them later if they’re open to talking with a professional. These are all important ways in which you communicate care to your loved one. Don’t forget to follow-up as they are going to need your ongoing support to live a healthier life rooted in recovery and healing.
While no two survivors are the same, when you keep these principles in mind you will already be doing a lot to offer your support and express how much you care. Don’t be afraid to offer what you can and let these tips serve as a foundational guide for your process.
Your support will mean the world to them.
If you, or someone you know, has experienced sexual assault and want support to heal, please feel free to contact Viva and one of our providers will reach out to you to schedule a therapy session.