What to do when someone tells you they were sexually assaulted

Talking about sexual assault isn’t easy for most victims to do – but it’s usually a necessary part of the healing process. It’s also required if the victim hopes to hold their abuser or rapist accountable.

Nearly one out of every five women in the United States will be raped during their lifetime, and at least one of these survivors may turn to you for support. Unfortunately, most people simply don’t know how to respond when a co-worker, friend or family member says that they’ve been sexually assaulted. If you want to help, here’s what you should do:

Choose your words carefully

It’s only natural to have a strong emotional reaction to what you’re hearing, but the victim of a sexual assault could misinterpret your feelings and think that your shock or anger is directed at them. In that particular moment, you need to stay calm.

The very first thing you should do is reassure them that you believe what they are saying since many sexual assault survivors are terrified of being regarded with skepticism.

To continue being supportive, say things like:

  • “I’m so sorry.” That helps establish your empathy for their situation.
  • “I hope you know this isn’t your fault.” This helps remind them that they are never to blame for another person’s actions.
  • “I care about you.” This reaffirms that you are there to help them and that they are worth your time and energy.

What do you do next? It can be very important for sexual assault survivors to regain a sense of control over their own lives, so don’t be aggressive about this, but encourage them to contact the authorities. If you’re able, offer to go with them when they make their report.

Every survivor of a sexual assault should also be encouraged to seek legal guidance. Recovery is often easier when there’s a sense that the perpetrator has been brought to justice.

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