Supporting Someone After Sexual Assault

How to Support Someone Who Was Sexually Assaulted 

When I launched Body Politics, many of you asked me to discuss how to support friends who were sexually assaulted. It’s a really important topic, and thank you for engaging in it. 

The Weinstein trial just had a verdict. (Guilty on two counts.) This is an important time to check in on those you love who have been sexually assaulted. 

 In this column, I will address first how to give support when they first tell you about the assault. Then, how to continue support. It’s crucial to understand the difference here. Both require remembering that this is about doing what it takes to support them. 

Please note I am not a therapist. I’m a survivor of sexual assault. I’m speaking from my own experiences, combined with extensive research. 


Part I: When They Tell You What Happened 


Listen to their story if they want to talk about it.
If someone opens up to you, listen. Don’t pressure them into talking. Let them know you’re there for them. 

“I believe you” should always be the first thing you say. The way you respond could shape their future recovery. Even if you think your friend knows you believe them, say it anyway. It could make all the difference. Our culture ingrains rape myths into our psyche. We are taught to exonerate perpetrators at all costs. We look for ways we may have “deserved” it; or ways that the assailant may have “misunderstood.” We take blame and try and make it stick to the victim. 

When I was assaulted, I called a friend of mine to come over. I told him what happened. He said: “I believe you.” And he said “I’m so sorry.” And he said “This wasn’t your fault.” To this day I am so fucking grateful to to this person. (If you’re reading this, thank you, thank you forever.) I can’t say for certain how I would have handled the rest of the day if that conversation went differently. His support, his belief, gave me the extra push I needed to get to a hospital that day, when all I wanted to do was stay in bed forever. 

Say “I’m sorry”. And if they say “it’s okay,” which is the response tattooed on our brains, you need to say “no, it’s not okay.” By saying ‘it’s okay,’ they’re waving away the severity of what happened. 

This leads me to a heartfelt recommendation for those of you who have also been assaulted. Never say “it’s okay.” When someone says “I’m sorry,” say “thank you.” One of the doctors I saw that day corrected me on this. She said she was so sorry this happened to me, and I said, ‘it’s okay,’ to which she said, ‘never, ever say that it’s okay, because it’s not okay.’ It blew my mind. By saying ‘it’s okay,’ I was waving away what happened as something trivial. None of this is ‘okay.’ 

For those who are being supportive. Don’t ask “Are you okay?” I’ll answer it bluntly: They are not okay. I’m still not okay; and I’ll never be ‘okay’ about this. 

Thank them for sharing with you and for trusting you. It’s hard to share something so awful, so vulnerable, so fucking horrifying. Give praise to their courage to talk about it. Recognize how painful it is to share this, and assure them that you are there for them. 

Say “It’s not your fault” or “You didn’t do anything to deserve this”. We are taught to blame ourselves. Don’t ask “why.” They are already asking that in their own minds. You are there to provide support and comfort, not to bring their worst thoughts into action. 

Whatever you do, DON’T look for a “reason” for why this happened to them. Do not ask things like “were you drinking?” “what were you wearing?” “did he think you liked him?” “what happened before that?” “did you fight back?” These questions uphold rape myths that look to exonerate the perpetrator by blaming the victim for their own assault. One of these questions could end up being the reason they never seek help. 

Don’t try to make ‘sense’ of it. You may want to ask questions because you’re trying to understand it, but it’s not the time. It comes across as an accusation. It may make them think you’re doubting them. Even if you cannot follow the story, it’s not their responsibility to give you a full-fledged movie plot. Listen, and provide support, exclusively. 

Ask if they want contact while they’re telling their story. Ask to hold their hand or hug them or keep your arm around them. Sexual assault is violating in so many ways, including physically. They may not want any contact. 

Don’t make it about you. I’ve had people get so upset or angry that I had to comfort them or calm them down. That was not remotely what I should have been doing. Getting upset about a loved one’s assault is of course natural; it comes from a place of love. But when the person shares their story with you, this isn’t the time to express your emotions. A room can only hold so many emotions, and the survivor of assault deserves every inch of it. 

Don’t tell them how they feel. Don’t tell them to not cry, or pat them on the back and say “there there, it’s okay.” Allow them to feel everything they need to. 

Don’t tell them what to do. Support them, don’t order them, and don’t lecture them. You cannot decide what is best for them. This includes telling them what their next steps to be, or how to act or what they should or shouldn’t be doing on the weekend, shit like that. 

A supportive way of letting them know you will go through next steps is to say, “I’m here for you for every step of the way, however I can help.” 


If someone asks you what you should do, research it, and go through the options WITH them. Do not say in a definitive manner what they should do. Help them navigate the choices. It’s not yours to decide, it’s yours to support. Tell them you will support them in every decision they make. Offer resources; offer to come with them if they report; offer to come to the hospital; offer to research it with them. 

Don’t preach things like, ‘everything happens for a reason.’ Or, ‘you’re strong and can overcome this.’ They are not sharing their story because they think you have a magic answer; they are sharing because they want and need support. So don’t try to make this a lesson that could be read off of an inspirational magnet. 

Don’t trivialize it. For example, don’t say things like “it could have been worse,” or “I know someone who went through something worse.” This is not a trauma contest. 


Part II: Ongoing Support 

There isn’t a magical day that suddenly people are healed. Some days and weeks will be worse than others. Sometimes your friend may reach out; other times they may not. So here are some suggestions: 

Keep listening. The story may come out in pieces. They may slowly open up to talk about it. Listen when they want to share more, and return to the suggested ways of support discussed above. 

Check in periodically. Simply reach out to your friend. Sometimes, receiving a message from someone is enough to open the door to talking about how they’re feeling. Say things like, “thinking of you.” It may seem like a lot of time has gone by for you, but it won’t feel the same way to them. 

Check in when you see something that could be triggering. When sexual assault is in the news especially, it can be incredibly triggering. Check in. Say, “I saw the news, I’m here for you.” Or “How are you? I’m here for you always.” They will likely already be thinking about it; you don’t have to explicitly bring up the topic. 

Try to say something that leaves the door open for them, and allows them to share and talk if they want to, but doesn’t pressure them or make them feel guilty if they don’t want to. I recommend, “I saw the news and am thinking of you.” Or, “I’m here if you want to talk.” If you ask them a question, include saying they don’t need to answer, so something like, “How are you doing? I saw the news. I’m here if you want to talk, about this or anything else.” 

Don’t ghost them. This should go without saying, but it’s important to point out how actions could be read as ghosting. You may think you’re giving them space, but they may think you simply don’t want to be a part of it. So check in in the recommended ways above. This is an awful subject to navigate. Just remember: It’s all about being there for them. If you would like any additional information, please feel free to reach out.


Resources 

RAINN is absolutely fantastic. They have a section online with post-abuse recovery

If you want to speak to a professional, RAINN has a locator on their site. 

Here is a good New York Times article about supporting survivors of sexual assault. 

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