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ARISE Assault and Rape Information, Support and Education

Supporting Sexual Assault Survivors

 
 

How to Help a Friend/Family Member Who Has Survived a Sexual Assault?

People who have experienced sexual assault have experienced a profound violation. Their sense of safety and predictability has been shattered. Survivors’ reactions may vary profoundly depending on their life circumstances and amount of social support. Before you start talking, try to understand what your friend is going through:

  • Remember that your friend has been through an emotionally painful, traumatic experience. Your friend may act differently after the assault. Some of your friend’s reactions may be hard to watch, but “being there” for your friend can help a lot.
  • Be patient and understanding. The trauma of a sexual assault does not go away quickly. It may take a while for your friend to recover. Sometimes friends and family members expect sexual assault survivors to be “over it” in a few weeks. Understand that the pain the survivor feels, and the symptoms, may last for a long time.

Here are some important tips for helping a friend if they have recently experienced a rape or sexual assault:

Be Supportive. Try to provide a safe and non-threatening environment, emotional comfort and support for the survivor to express feelings. Take your time with the survivor – let them know that you are not in a rush, and have time to spend with them in order to hear their story and any concerns they have. In addition, don’t take their emotional reactions personally. For example, your friend may experience anger that is globalized and [usually temporarily] directed at the university and/or its representatives, for not protecting him/her. Try not to react personally to this expression of feelings. Tell your friend you are sorry this traumatic event occurred, and that you want to understand and assist them. [Then get your own support – e.g., from other friends, or from the Counseling Center – in order to vent and talk about your own reactions.]

Be aware of your own feelings about sexual abuse. If you are uncomfortable talking about this issue, it is okay. Helping the survivor identify who would be able to talk with them about the issue can also show support.

Try to respond calmly, openly, and with understanding. Hearing about sexual abuse can be difficult. It can be very helpful to a survivor if you remain calm and non-judgmental.  The survivor needs to hear that fears, anxieties, guilt, anger, and even periods of feeling numb are normal, understandable, and acceptable. In addition, your friend may be feeling primarily just one of these emotions, or a complex combination. It is important to remember, and communicate to him or her, that there is no “wrong” way to react to this kind of traumatic event.

Be Reassuring. Sexual assault is NEVER the survivors fault! No one asks to be sexually assaulted by what they wear, say, or do. Let your friend/family member know that only the perpetrator is to blame. The survivor may not be ready to think this, or see the events in this way – in which case, do not push too hard. Keep in mind that most often, about 85% of the time, individuals who are sexually assaulted/abused are assaulted by someone they know. As a result they may have mixed feelings about the person. Simply express your lack of blame for the student, without needing him/her to see it your way immediately.

Do not interrogate. Let the individual tell you about the abuse on his/her terms. Do not pressure the person, but let him/her talk when they are comfortable.

Let the individual know that you believe him/her. Fear of not being believed is a concern expressed by many survivors. Being believed is important for people of all ages and helps eliminate feelings of guilt or shame.

Commend the survivor for talking and reaching out for help. Talking about the abuse is often a big step. Acknowledge this.

Respect the privacy of the survivor. Do not share what was told in confidence. If you think another person would be better able to help, give the survivor that person’s name.

Encourage Action. Encourage the survivor to report the assault, see a doctor, and contact a counselor. The survivor must ultimately make the decision as to what to do. Don't push. Although of course we all hope that every person in this situation will do all of those things, as soon as possible, it is very important not to rush them into making decisions before they are ready. Remember, your friend has just experienced a traumatic event in which his/her wishes were ignored and overridden completely. Survivors of sexual assault need to regain a sense of control over their lives. Instead, help your friend locate the correct information and, if appropriate, offer to accompany him/her.  

 

Helpful Response

  • Encourage your friend to take whatever time is necessary to share his or her experience with you.
  • Respect the language your friend uses to identify what has happened (your friend may use words like rape, assault, the incident, let them choose what its called).
  • Understand that individuals from different backgrounds may express or experience reactions to an assault in different ways.
  • Validate your friend’s experiences or reactions.
  • Remind your friend that he or she is not at fault, even if he or she has made some unwise decisions.
  • Help your friend identify other safe people in his or her existing support system.
  • Encourage, but do NOT force your friend to seek medical attention and counseling. Provide resources.
  • Allow your friend to make his or her own decisions.

 

Unhelpful Response

  • Asking questions that might imply blame. (i.e. “What were you doing there?”)
  • Blaming or judging. (i.e. “You shouldn’t have had so much to drink.”)
  • Dismissing feelings or minimizing the experience. (i.e. “You should just forget about it.”)
  • Trying to “fix” the problem. (i.e. pressuring to make a report or take certain actions)