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No one wants to think that our friends or acquaintances might have been sexually assaulted or abused. Yet statistics suggest that we all know survivors, whether or not we’re aware of it.
But sexual assault and abuse survivors who receive positive social support are less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or substance abuse issues, research shows. “When a survivor of sexual violence chooses to disclose to a friend, this friend can help set the tone for the recovery process,” says Kelly Addington, founder of One Student, an advocacy organization addressing sexual assault in student communities. “Focusing on the survivor and how you can support them is much better than focusing on the attack.”
“People who have experienced sexual assault are looking to be heard and not judged. They want, need, and deserve to feel accepted and believed,” says Carla Bertsch, a sexual violence support advocate at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. “These responses open up doors for further acts of self-care that might otherwise remain closed if the first person blames, shames, or pressures them into reacting in ways that don’t feel safe or correct for them.”
Here are just a few things you can say that might help if your friend discloses to you that he or she has been sexually assaulted.
I believe you
It means a lot that you trusted me with this
You did not cause this
How do you want me to act when I see [the perpetrator]?
May I look for some resources that might help?
Tell me as much or as little as you want
If you need someone to come with you, I will
I'm here for you
I'm sorry this happened to you
I won't share this unless you ask me to (or if you're a mandated reporter, discuss up front the implications for confidentiality)
It wasn't your fault
Want to hang out or do something fun?
The decision about what to do next is yours
What would help you feel empowered and safe?
How are you doing?
I'll support whatever you choose to do
What can I do to support you?
Get help or find out more
On campus: Consider discussing the situation with a counselor, Title IX coordinator, trusted dean, or RA. Before disclosing assault or abuse to campus faculty or staff, ask about the implications for confidentiality.
Kelly Addington, founder of One Student, an advocacy organization addressing sexual assault in student communities.
Carla Bertsch, sexual violence support advocate, University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.