Chances are good that you know someone who identifies as a survivor of sexual assault. Recent statistics indicate that in the US, 1 in 3 women, 1 in 6 men, and up to 66 percent of transgender people experience sexual abuse, assault, or unwanted sexual contact at some point in their lives.
As a clinical social worker who specializes in supporting people in the aftermath of trauma, I’ve had the great privilege of sitting with — and learning from — many survivors of sexual assault over the years.
Often, the people with whom I work have shared with me that their loved ones — while perhaps well-intentioned — have fallen short in their attempts to comfort or respond to them after a disclosure. Based on the wisdom of the clients I’ve been privileged to work with, here are a few suggestions about how you might best support a friend or loved one in the aftermath of sexual violence.
1. Honor survivor voice and choice.
The experience of sexual assault is inherently an experience in which someone’s sense of control, choice, and personal agency has been taken from them. Part of the work of healing, then, is walking with a survivor in their journey to regain their power. We can do this by offering options, respecting choices, listening deeply to survivors, and avoiding imposing our own ideas about what healing should look like or what steps should be taken next.
In my clinical work, honoring survivor voice and choice can happen in ways both big and small. It might mean inviting a person to choose their preferred seat in my office, asking permission to proceed before asking a personal question, or respecting a person’s choices around medical care, a forensic exam, or police reporting.
As a friend, you can respect survivor voice and choice by following your friend’s lead, offering information and options, and trusting that your friend is the person best equipped to make decisions for him- or herself. For example, in the immediate aftermath of an assault you could — if it would be welcome — help your friend understand their options for medical care, evidence collection, and reporting, and then trust the decisions they make around those options, even if they’re different than what you might think is best.
2. Show up — over and over again.
Over and over again, I hear my clients talk about the loneliness that can ensue after trauma. They describe well-intentioned friends who don’t ever revisit the topic of an assault after a disclosure, and how isolating and vulnerable this experience can feel.
We’ve all been there. We feel awkward as we search for words to express our support to a friend going through a difficult time — or we’re worried that if we say something, we may remind our friend of their grief and pain. In my experience, though, saying something is almost always better than saying nothing. Chances are good that your friend who is suffering hasn’t forgotten their pain, so you aren’t “reminding” them of it. If nothing else, you’re reminding them that they aren’t alone.
You might not know exactly what to say, and that’s okay (there’s even a greeting card for that!). But say something. Send a text or an email acknowledging that you’re thinking of your friend, haven’t forgotten them, and want to be there for them in whatever way is most helpful. Drop coffee, a meal, a note, or something special at their front door. Offer to talk, if they want — or to just be together, binge-watching a show, going for a walk, or spending time doing something else your friend enjoys.
You know your friend, and you know how they might most appreciate your support. Trauma can be deeply isolating, but it need not be. As Catherine Woodiwiss writes so well, “If someone says they need space, respect that.” [Survivor voice and choice, right?] “Otherwise, err on the side of presence.”
3. Avoid clichés, assigning “meaning,” or asking questions or making statements that might infer blame.
Again, my clients have taught me that, while their friends likely mean well, statements like “everything happens for a reason,” or “God won’t give you more than you can handle” are rarely helpful. The same goes for “You’ll get over it,” or “I know exactly how you feel.” Even if you’ve been in a similar situation yourself, no two people respond in the exact same way.
And don’t minimize. A guideline I’ve read and liked suggests avoiding any sentences that start with the phrase “at least” (i.e., “At least you weren’t physically harmed,” or “At least it wasn’t worse,” etc.).
A particular note on sexual assault: survivors can have a heightened sensitivity for any comments or questions that could infer they’re to blame for what happened. Asking pointed questions about the assault — i.e., what the person was wearing, if they were drinking, etc. — is rarely helpful and can lead to a survivor feeling that they somehow “deserved” what occurred. When asking questions, follow your friend’s lead, and avoid digging for specifics.
4. Comfort in; dump out.
It can be difficult to witness a friend going through a hard time, and you may find that you need your own support. But your friend shouldn’t need to take on that role for you. The “ring theory” developed by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman is a tool that can help us avoid saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. The idea is simple: you comfort the person closest to the crisis (in this case, your friend who was assaulted.) And you seek support from people who are more distant from the crisis than you are. Comfort IN; dump OUT.
Again, a note on sexual assault: it’s crucial to respect your friend’s privacy around who they want to know — or don’t want to know — about their experience. (Remember, survivor voice and choice.) If you choose to seek your own support, ensure you’re doing so in a confidential space, or in another way that your friend is onboard with.
5. Know when you’re in over your head.
Supporting a friend who has survived trauma can feel heavy, especially if you carry your own history of surviving violence. It’s important to make sure that you, too, are connected to supports, whether formal or informal. Don’t hesitate to look into counseling for yourself if you find that you’re struggling with the impact of your friend’s disclosure.
And remember, you don’t need to be your friend’s therapist, lawyer, or advocate. You just need to be their friend. Resources like the National Sexual Assault Hotline are available for both you and your friend to talk about your experiences and get connected to the support you need.
Finally, if you’re ever truly worried that your friend might be in crisis, or might even try to end their own life, you should call 911 or your local crisis number or bring your friend to your local emergency room.
Life after trauma can be isolating, but it need not be. Being connected to a network of caring, supportive friends and family can be an important part of a person’s healing. I hold hope for the day when sexual violence is no longer part of our lives. But until then, let’s show up with care, thoughtfulness, empathy, and compassion for those who experience it.
The views here are Erin’s own and do not necessarily express the views of Grotto or the medical center where she works.