Opening up about an assault can be very scary. Therefore, how a friend or family member reacts can have a large impact on how survivors process their experience. Here are a couple of tips to keep in mind if a friend discloses an assault to you:
Let’s start with the three most important phrases:
1. “I believe you.”
In a world in which the media and government continue to blame and doubt victims, this phrase is key. To start with believing shows you are trustworthy and respect that a friend is coming to you regarding a traumatic experience. By believing, you are helping a friend or family member take one step in the direction of healing.
2. “It’s not your fault.”
When someone shares that they were assaulted, avoid questions that would imply you think that person might share blame such as: “What were you doing?”, “What were you wearing?”, or “What were you drinking?” These questions cause survivors to blame themselves. Instead, emphasize that it is not their fault, and that it is always the fault of the perpetrator who caused violence and trauma.
3. “You have options.”
After an assault, a survivor can feel powerless and out of control. However, by offering up a couple different resources and allowing the survivor to play an active role in choosing the next step, you are demonstrating that they still hold autonomy over their own decisions and actions, despite what an assault might make them feel.
Other Best Practices:
Other key things to keep in mind if someone discloses an experience of assault to you:
**Listen, don’t investigate. Let the survivor tell you as much or as little as they want. It’s not your job to find out all the details of exactly what took place, but instead that you are there to support your friend.
**Validate their feelings and reactions. People respond in all different ways including crying, anger, laughing, and all reactions are valid. The only exception is when the victim is blaming themself. Gently push back, asserting again that it is not their fault.
**Don’t try to take control. Survivors have had their autonomy and control taken away from them during the assault. Don’t contribute to the out-of-control feeling, and instead look to the survivor for direction and decisions.
**Be mindful of your reaction. Stay calm and don’t appear shocked, as this can cause a survivor to doubt themself or edit themself.
**Mirror their language. Not every survivor will feel comfortable using language like “rape” or “sexual assault” when they are sharing their experience. Therefore, it is important that you don’t label their experience and instead use their language.
**Ask consent for touch. You may want to comfort the survivor physically with a hug or a touch, but that may be the last thing the survivor wants. The survivor’s physical boundaries have already been violated – don’t contribute to that.