Melissa Shaub

Sexual Violence Awareness: How You Can Support a Survivor

I believe you. I’m sorry this happened to you. You are not alone. This does not change the way I feel about you.

Sexual violence is a crime that strips victims of their dignity and control. Estimates across North America suggest that 80% (that’s four out of five) assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. Trust and personal safety will likely never be concepts that are the same ever again for a survivor. Recently, a survivor described her experience of recovering from rape as “a life sentence.”

Survivor support is typically impacted by the many myths surrounding rape and sexual violence (we will talk more about that next week). It is important to know there is not a “right” or “wrong” way for a survivor to respond to assault. If a friend discloses that she has been assaulted, research tells us to respond without blaming the victim. Generally speaking, victim blaming occurs when anyone makes comments implying the victim is responsible for the crime(s) committed against them. Examples of such responses regarding sexual violence could include, “What were you wearing?” “Were you drinking?” or “It was probably a misunderstanding.”

So, what can and should you do? At the start of this blog, phrases were mentioned that are good examples of things you might say if a survivor discloses an assault. While there are many resources describing responses and ways to be supportive, it is important to remember two things:

  • Listen and believe. If a friend is telling you about an experience, it is important to suspend judgement. Listen to that story without interruption, and offer supportive comments (see above), such as “I believe you” and “I’m sorry this happened to you.”
  • Provide options and not advice. Hearing your friend has been hurt in such a violent way is disturbing and scary. Most of us are not professional counselors, and we don’t need to be in order to provide support. Keep in mind it is important for survivors to have the autonomy to make their own decisions. As a friend, you can present available options and offer support if and when (if) your friend choses to access those options.

Providing a supportive reaction is not easy, but it can make a huge difference for the survivor. To learn more about what you could say and options to provide, visit these resources:

Given the nature of this crime, we recognize that survivors of sexual violence can be triggered by awareness campaigns. We want survivors (and friends supporting survivors) to know that many resources exist if you need to talk to someone. Visiting your campus counseling center can not only connect you to a campus counselor but also other campus resources that are available to you, including support groups and hotlines. Theta also offers a free hotline number (Talk One-2-One) that will connect you to a licensed counselor. Visit our Sisters Supporting Sisters page for more resources. There is no time table when recovering from sexual violence, and support is available.