It is not always easy to know how to respond when someone discloses a sexual assault or harassment to you, especially when that person is a friend, family member, or loved one. It is important to be aware of your reactions to a disclosure and to recognise your own personal limitations as a support person.
The term "survivor" is used to describe anyone who has experienced any unwanted act of a sexual nature without one's consent. However, this site recognises that each individual has the right to self-identify with a term that best fits them or to not use any term at all. It is important when responding to a disclosure to adopt the language and terms used by the person disclosing.
How to Show Support
As a support person, it is important to note that there are many reasons why someone would choose not to talk about their experience of sexual assault or harassment. All too often, survivors are blamed for their experience (a phenomenon known as "victim blaming"), are not believed or are not taken seriously. They may also fear retaliation from their perpetrator or the people in their life. If someone has chosen to disclose to you, this may be a sign that they trust you and are ready to talk about what has happened.
Providing support to someone who has experienced a sexual assault or harassment can be an important part of their healing process.
Consider the following ways of showing support:
- Attend to safety: Ask if the person is in danger and/or if they want and/or need medical attention.
- Listen: Provide a space where the disclosing person is able to speak freely and at their own pace without interruption. Remember, there is no time-limit for recovering from trauma. Be patient and respect the person's boundaries. Be attentive to however much or little they want to share.
- Validate: Validate the disclosing person's account of their experience and its impact on them. Let them know that their feelings and reactions are valid. You may be the first person to acknowledge this, and it can have a significant influence on their healing process.
- Communicate without judgment: Using judging statements can reinforce misconceptions about sexual assault or harassment and can negatively impact the healing process of the disclosing person. Avoid using statements like “you should have known better,” asking “why” questions or telling the person what they should do next. Remember, you are there to provide support and not to conduct an investigation; you don’t need to know all of the details to provide support. Let the person know that:
- What happened to them was not their fault
- The offender made a choice to hurt them
- All of their feelings and reactions are valid
- Offer resources: If the disclosing person is seeking support resources or plans to report, offer to contact/research the service of their choice or accompany them to their appointment. Your presence can offer the support they need.
- Be non-directional: Ensure that you do not tell the survivor what to do. It is your job to support the disclosing person in whatever way(s) they need. By providing them with options, you can help them to make the right decision for themselves.
- Know the major misconceptions: Ensure that you've educated yourself on the misconceptions about sexual assault and harassment which tend to downplay the seriousness of these acts and confuse the definition of consent.
- Know about self-care and coping: Inquire about self-care practices and past coping skills that can help the person during this difficult time.
- If someone is considering suicide: Educate yourself about the warning signs and offer to help access supports.
Articles for Support Persons