Whether it be our friend or significant other, we always want to be able to support them through any adversity they are faced with. But when that adversity takes the form of sexual violence, it’s not uncommon to be unaware of how to handle it. When faced with this type of situation it is completely acceptable and understandable to ask for help with how to support them.
The first time someone disclosed to me their experience, I did not react properly. I cared about that person, and I felt bad for not handling the situation properly. Since then, I have done research and received training on handling conversations where someone comes out as a survivor. The most important thing I learned throughout that process is that words have an impact on the person. With that in mind, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), the largest non-profit anti-sexual assault organization, offers specific phrases people can use to show support when someone is coming out as a survivor. Here are steps that you can follow to show support during and after the conversation with them.
Affirm it is not their fault and believe them
“It’s not your fault. / You didn’t do anything to deserve this./ This shouldn’t have happened to you.”
“I believe you. / It took a lot of courage to tell me about this.”
The first step in supporting a survivor is believing in them and making them aware that they are not to blame for what happened. Concerns survivors have include that they won’t be believed or will be blamed for what happened. By starting with phrases like these, you can show that you care about and support them.
Sit and listen
Oftentimes, we worry so much about what to say next in a conversation that we end up ignoring what the other person wants to say. In this case, do not focus a lot on having something to say right after they are done talking. It is important to watch out for the language we use, but it is more important to let them know you are listening to them and understand their feelings and emotions. Use your active listening skills. It is OK for natural silences in the conversation to occur. Let them tell you as much as they want to disclose, and don’t ask them to share more than they are comfortable with. This includes not asking “why” questions or for specific details about the assault.
Using reassuring phrases like, “It is going to be okay,” can make them feel that you are not listening to what they are sharing with you.
After the conversation, it is important to know that the decision to seek legal help is up to them. You are not there to give advice, simply let them know that you will support them regardless of their decision.
Be supportive and patient
“You are not alone. / I care about you and am here to listen or help in any way I can.”
Healing takes time, and it is important to check in with them often and ask about their feelings and healing process. Regularly asking, “How are you doing?” can help show that you care about them and their journey.
Communication is key when supporting them. Whether it is a friend or significant other, taking the time to ask “Is it helpful when I offer this kind of support?” can let you know their opinion and their needs. Whether it is a friend or a significant other, practicing consent is important to show that you respect them and value their comfort, such as asking for permission to hug them or permission to touch them.
At any point throughout this process, do not divulge their experiences or names without their permission. The decision to seek legal help is up to them, and the decision of who they wish to share their experience with is up to them as well.
Even though you can support them by listening, remember that you are not a trained mental health professional and are not meant to replace one. If you fear they are displaying suicidal signs, there are resources available, such as calling the the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800.273.TALK (8255). Providing support can be an emotional and strenuous experience, so remember to also practice self-care.
It is okay to ask for help on how to support the person. RAINN offers resources for survivors and their allies. There are also on-campus offices that can support and help people learn how to support survivors, such as the Women’s Resource Center. The CARE office offers support to survivors and creates programming to prevent sexual violence.