Supporting a Friend Who’s Been Sexually Assaulted

It can be incredibly difficult to know how to respond to learning that a friend has been assaulted. These are just a few general tips on how to be a supportive friend or partner.  

Start by Believing: One of the primary reasons survivors* often hesitate to talk about what happened is that they are afraid they won’t be believed or that they’ll be blamed for what happened. Remember that revealing this experience takes a great deal of strength and courage. Help your friend understand that they did not deserve what happened to them and that it was not their fault. Thank them for telling you. 

Respect the survivor’s privacy: The survivor made a choice of trust when they came to confide in you. It’s important not to share their story with anyone else unless you have their permission. It is ok if you need to talk about what happened to them in a confidential setting with your own counselor, but their story should never be shared with other friends without their consent.

Help them understand their options: As a friend, you can help a survivor process all of their choices. There are many things a survivor may want to think about: seeking counseling, obtaining medical attention, preserving evidence, or reporting to the police and/or the university. See the Student Resource Guide for explanations of all the resources available. Those resources are also available to you to talk to as well.

Respect their decisions: You can provide information and options for the survivor, but always let the survivor make their own decisions. Sexual assault often makes a survivor feel disempowered, and out of control. It’s important to help a survivor restore their sense of control over what happens to them. Ask how you can help, offer to go with them to whatever resources they want to seek out. Support the decisions the survivor makes, even if you might not agree with them.

Be an active and supportive listener: Recovering from a sexual assault can take a long time. Let the survivor choose when they want to talk and how much they want to share. Focus on how they feel and validating their choices. Don’t ask for more details than they want to share or as them “why” they did things a certain way—questions can come across as blaming. Sometimes the survivor may not want to talk at all. When the survivor does choose to talk to you, let them direct the conversation. Silences are ok. You do not have

Remind the survivor that you care: A survivor may feel like their friends will see them differently or get tired of dealing with them as they are trying to process the assault. Remind the survivor know you care and that you are here to support them. 

Give the survivor space and multiple opportunities to talk: Be sensitive to the fact that the survivor might want to spend some time alone. Don’t touch or hug the survivor unless you are sure they are comfortable with physical contact.  

Take Care of yourself: It is normal to feel a wide range of reactions when someone you care about has been assaulted. It is sometimes referred to as second-hand trauma. You may feel angry, or depressed, or anxious, or wish you could get revenge on the assailant. While it’s important to be a good support system to your friend by respecting their feelings and choices, it’s important to care for yourself and seek help processing your own emotions.

Recognize the difference between what you want and what the survivor wants: Remember that there will be differences between how you want to process and how you think the survivor should handle the healing process.

Know your limits: Every individual has a limit to how much they can give.  This does not make you a failure as a friend or as a supporter. It is important to care for yourself and make your limits known to the survivor, so that when you can be there, you are your best self. Provide the survivor with other support options too.

For more resources and information, you can look at the following resources:

Rape and Incest National Network
Sexual Assault Resource Agency (Charlottesville)
National Sexual Violence Resource Center
Not Alone
Department of Justice

*We know that there are differing opinions about when it is appropriate to use the terms “survivor” or “victim.” On this page we use the term “survivor” to refer to people who have experienced sexual violence to denote the healing process and redefining of one’s identity that takes place after an assault. When the term “victim” is used, it will refer to someone actively experiencing abuse, or when sexual violence is described in the context of the criminal justice system.