When a friend, partner, family member, or even a casual acquaintance shares with you that they are a survivor of sexual violence or relationship abuse, it can be difficult to know how to respond. Here are some basic tips and resources you can use to support survivors and take care of yourself in the process:
1. The two most important things you can do are simply to listen and believe the survivor without judgment. Resist the urge to ask for details about what happened; the survivor will share with you what they are comfortable sharing. Try not to put a label on their experience. Avoid using terms like “assault,” “rape,” “abuse,” “victim,” or “survivor,” unless the individual you’re supporting uses them first. Follow their lead when it comes to the language you use.
2. Empathize with the survivor and reassure them that what happened to them is not their fault. This might sound something like, “I am so sorry that this happened to you. It’s not your fault, and no one deserves to have to go through this.”
3. Stay calm and be patient. Try to help the survivor feel as comfortable and at ease as possible.
4. Be an active listener. Show that you care by paying attention to what the survivor is telling you, particularly when it comes to their feelings, concerns, and needs in that moment and moving forward.
5. Empower the survivor to decide what course of action to take. When a person experiences sexual violence or relationship abuse, their power to decide what happens to their body is taken away by the perpetrator. It is critical that they get to make their own decisions about what to do moving forward. Present the survivor with a range of possible options and resources, and then allow them the space to choose the one that feels most comfortable to them.
6. Do not touch the survivor without asking for permission first. It may feel natural to want to comfort the survivor by giving them a hug or patting them on the arm, but physical contact may not be comforting to the survivor in that moment. Check in first before engaging in physical contact of any kind.
7. Be sure to engage in self-care. Learning that a friend or loved one has experienced sexual violence or relationship abuse and supporting them through their healing process can be difficult and taxing for you as well. Make sure that you are finding space and time to take care of yourself. If you need to talk to someone about what’s going on and how you’re feeling, consider speaking with a confidential campus resource like the staff at your Health and Counseling Center, or call your local sexual violence support hotline. Check out our resources page to learn more about support options specific to your school and local community. For more great self-care tips, click here.
This list only covers the basics of supporting a survivor, and is not all-inclusive. The best course of action will vary based on the circumstances and your personal relationship with the survivor. Use your best judgment, act in good faith, and above all remember to always listen and believe what the survivor is telling you.