How to give support
It’s not always easy to know what to do or say when someone discloses to you, but you don’t need to be an expert to provide helpful, appropriate support. Your response can empower the survivor and promote healing.
Allow the individuals who confide in you to talk about their experiences in their own way and at their own pace. Sexual violence is traumatic and it may take time for the story to unfold. Avoid interrupting or sentence-finishing. You don't need to fill silences. By being present and listening attentively, you open up a space for the individuals you’re supporting to reclaim their voice.
Ask, but don't pry
While it’s okay to ask questions, especially open-ended ones that encourage the person to talk, avoid prying for details or asking specific questions about what happened. A helpful guideline before asking a question is to ask yourself whether you actually need that information to support the person in the moment.
Avoid "why" questions
When you ask people who have experienced sexual violence why they behaved in a certain way, your words can come across as blaming, even if that's not your intent. Many people who experience sexual violence struggle with feelings of self-blame. Steering clear of "why" questions can help create a safe, non-judgmental space for a person to talk about the incident.
Some survivors of sexual violence choose not to talk about their experiences because they are afraid that they won’t be believed. Sometimes, the person who discloses to you has already tried to tell someone else and not been believed. People rarely lie about experiencing sexual violence, but there is a great deal of cultural mythology around the notion of false reporting.
When survivors disclose, you can use affirming phrases to communicate that you believe them and that they did the right thing by telling you. Your belief in survivors is essential to their healing.
These affirming phrases will let survivors know you believe them:
"I believe you."
"I'm so sorry this happened.”
"Thank you for telling me. I believe you and I’m here to support you.”
"Thank you for trusting me enough to share this with me. How can I support you?”
Everyone responds to sexual violence differently and has a unique path to healing and recovery. Some individuals display intense feelings, others show very little feeling at all, and others fall somewhere in between. All types of responses need to be honoured and supported. When you validate emotions and experiences, the survivor feels seen, heard and accepted, which can be a powerful part of healing.
Try using phrases like these:
"Your feelings are valid and important.”
"You deserve to heal in whatever way feels right to you.”
"It's okay not to feel okay."
Many people who experience sexual violence feel responsible for what happened. This reaction is partly because our culture’s conventional understanding of sexual violence is rooted in myths and misconceptions that blame survivors and excuse perpetrators.
Sexual violence is never the responsibility of the survivor. It can be powerful to communicate this and challenge victim blaming through gentle, supportive statements.
Try using supportive statements like these:
“I hope you know that it wasn’t your fault.”
“Nothing you did caused this to happen.”
“No one asks to be sexually assaulted.”
If someone chooses to tell you about an incident of sexual violence, you know that person trusts you. It is important to honour this trust by not sharing the survivor's story unless you've been given explicit consent.Requirements for confidentiality
When sexual violence occurs, a survivor’s power and choice are taken away by the perpetrator. To support healing in survivors' lives, you must allow them to make choices for themselves.
While you may not agree with all of the choices the survivor makes at the time, it is important to trust that the survivor knows what is best on a personal level. Do not pressure a survivor to do what you think is best.
Help a survivor of sexual violence by providing information about support services. Do not make assumptions about what they should do; instead focus on empowering them to make their own choices.
People who have experienced sexual violence might consider:
Seeking medical attention
Reaching out to friends or family
Reporting to the police
Seeking academic or work modifications
Realize that it is okay to make mistakes as you try to support a survivor of sexual violence. Learning to support someone else is a life-long process.
Understand your own limitations. You are only one person, and you are not solely responsible for another person’s healing.
Take time to nourish and replenish yourself. Caring for yourself allows you to support the people in your life more fully. You might consider seeking support or counselling yourself, especially if you are supporting someone on an ongoing basis.
Parts of this section are adapted from the zine Supporting a Survivor of Sexual Assault, published by UBUNTU and Men Against Rape Culture.
Know where to turn
When you support a person who has experienced sexual violence, you are not alone. Many community organizations and campus services have trained professionals who know how to support a survivor at different stages of the healing process. Help the person you are supporting to understand the available options.