Sexual assault is a traumatic and life-changing experience and telling someone about it is frightening. A sexual assault survivor’s physical injuries may not always be substantial, but unseen psychological and emotional injuries may be severe. You do not need to be an expert in this area, but how you respond to disclosure is critical to a survivor’s well-being and recovery. When survivors disclose that they’ve been sexually assaulted, it’s important to know how to respond sensitively. Here’s how best to respond if someone you know tells you they’ve been the victim of sexual violence:
Believe them. Make it clear you believe the assault happened and that it was not their fault.
Listen without judging. Being told that someone has been assaulted can be an emotional, scary, confusing, and shocking experience. One of the best things you can do is to listen. But surprisingly, listening is not the easiest thing to do. Often, we want to ask questions, show outrage, or offer advice. Refrain from doing that and just offer an ear.
Let them know you support them. Use one of these three go-to statements if you don’t know what else to say: “I believe you,” “It’s not your fault,” and “You have options.”
Let them reveal at their own pace. Questions can feel invasive, and survivors should feel in control of what they share. If they allow you to ask questions, make sure they are not phrased in a way that insinuates victim blaming. Asking, “How did it happen?” feels a lot different than “Why did it happen?” or, “What were you doing when it happened?”
Honor their privacy and vulnerability. Let them decide who to tell about the assault. It can be tempting to talk to others about what happened or to get more insight, but these steps shouldn’t be taken without the survivor’s consent.
Provide nonverbal support. Nonverbal communication--nodding, engaging in eye contact with the other person, shifting your body to face them, leaning toward them—can be as effective as listening. You may be outraged someone you care about has been assaulted, but do not fold your arms or look angry; you don’t want it to seem your anger is directed at them. Though it may feel natural to offer a hug or rest your hand on their arm or shoulder, ask for consent before touching. Respecting the answer can re-establish their sense of security, safety, and control.
Reassure the person they are cared for and loved. This could include helping the person find access to resources such as the Domestic and Sexual Violence 24-Hour Hotline (703-360-7273), counseling, medical attention, or, if they want law enforcement involved, reporting.
Let them control what happens. During their assault, control was taken from them. You can support them in making their own decisions about what next steps to take, if any, and by not telling them what they should do.
Encourage the person to seek medical attention. Your friend or loved one’s safety is a primary concern. Whether they want to report the assault or not, they can (and should) receive a medical exam. This checks for physical injuries; sexually transmitted infections; provides emergency contraception and post-exposure prophylaxis (if they think they may have been exposed to HIV); and may include pelvic, anal, or oral exams, or a sexual assault forensic exam. Offer to go with them to the hospital.
If the assault just happened, help the person preserve evidence. They do not have to decide right away if they want to talk to the police or press charges against the person who assaulted them, but in case they do, they should take precautions to preserve any evidence that may have been left behind after the assault. This includes not showering or brushing their teeth. If possible, they should not go to the bathroom, eat, drink, smoke, or comb their hair. If they want to change their clothes, do not wash the clothes; place them in a brown paper bag and bring them with you when you see a nurse or doctor.