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Helping Survivors of Sexual Assault

Every survivor's experience of sexual assault is different and each survivor may react in many different ways.

These reactions may include confusion, anxiety, fear, shock, numbness, self-blame, guilt, shame, sense of loss of control/ powerless, life disruptions (physical, psychological, social), anger, isolation, low self-esteem, increased substance use, depression, suicidal ideation, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Whatever the reaction, it may be helpful for the survivor to call a friend, relative, partner, counselor, the police, public safety, a rape hotline, and/or an advocate specifically trained in assisting survivors of sexual assault. During this time a survivor also has a perplexing number of decisions to make that can be confusing and overwhelming. Whatever decision he or she chooses to make is always the right one. It is important for the survivor to be in control of the choices he or she makes. It is also important to inform survivors that they have options.

What You Can Do:

  • Establish safety and security.
  • Believe the survivor. Many people who have experienced a sexual assault fear that no one will believe them or that their experience will be trivialized.
  • Allow the person be in control of the situation (i.e., deciding who is informed of the incident). Understand that trust and control over the person's life has been disturbed. He or she needs to regain control and needs to be able to trust you.
  • Respect the survivor's confidentiality.
  • Reassure the survivor that he or she is not to blame.
  • Let the survivor know you care. This may be the first time the survivor has talked about his or her experience.
  • Acknowledge the courage and strength the survivor has exhibited in seeking help. Start by reassuring the survivor that he or she did the right thing by telling someone about the incident.
  • Inform the survivor of all of his or her resources and options listed in You Are Not Alone (PDF)

Helpful Phrases:

  • Are you all right?
  • How can I help?
  • I'm here to listen.
  • Survivors also have resources on- and off-campus to help them make their decisions and have needs met. These options include:
  • Assistance with obtaining medical care
  • Referrals to appropriate services and resources and assistance with filing a police report
  • Assistance with filing a University complaint o Assistance with housing relocation
  • Academic assistance
  • Assistance with academic accommodations
  • Assistance with applying for a health related leave of absence
  • It is important to help survivors get connected to these appropriate resources, if they choose to do so.

Recommend that they speak to a trained counselor or advocate. On campus, counselors at the Center for Counseling and Consultation, as well as campus ministers are available to provide support to survivors in need. There are also several off-campus resources that are available. In addition, there are trained advocates available to the survivor during different stages of the process. For support during a hospital visit, advocates are available through programs such as SAVI. In addition, SAVI offers advocates to help them with any legal questions and/or concerns. Advocates (advisors who are members of the University Advisor Panel) are also available to a survivor if their case goes through the University's Conduct Board hearing. See the Resource List section of this guide for a comprehensive listing.

Get help for yourself. Learning of traumatic news can be difficult to process. You may feel the need to talk with someone about your own feelings and concerns.

What Not to Do:

It is important to avoid questioning a survivor about how he or she tried to resist the assault or his or her actions prior to the assault. This line of inquiry can come across as blaming even when you are just trying to get the facts.
Examples of what not to say:

  • Did you fight back?
  • Did you call for help?
  • Did you say no?
  • What were you wearing?
  • Had you been drinking?
  • Did you invite him/her back to your room?
  • Everything will be okay

You Should . . .

  • Avoid making guarantees or promises (i.e., "Everything will be okay"), which is something that we cannot control and may minimize the survivor's current experience.
  • Refrain from giving advice. Instead, be an active listener.
  • Try to minimize the number of times the survivor must tell what has happened, as this may be retraumatizing for the survivor.