How to Support Someone who Discloses Sexual Assault Using a Survivor-Centered and Trauma-informed Response
Friday, April 9th, 2021
What would you do if someone told you they had experienced sexual assault? Would you know how to respond in a positive, informed, and sensitive way?
In particular, Latinas disclose sexual assault, intimate partner, or dating violence through social networks. When someone tells you they’ve experienced sexual assault, they are trusting that it is safe to confide in you. It is important to remind them that the abuse is not their fault, recognize their strength of survival, and inform them they have options.
So how might you respond? The most important thing to do is to listen! We recommend using a survivor-centered and trauma-informed response. Here are some ideas:
- Listen Actively and Empathetically: Ask open-ended questions, express empathy, and show that you are aware of trauma affects the mind and body. Remember empathy doesn’t require a “me too” or “I know someone else this happened to” – keep the focus on them and their experience. One way to be an active and empathetic listener is to say things like “I’m sorry this happened to you” and “It’s not your fault” or “You’re not crazy.” Many survivors of intimate violence share that they just want to be validated and hear someone believe them.
- Be Present: Don’t avoid the hard conversation by suggesting that you are not the right person to talk to or sharing outside resources too soon. Instead, try to show that you’re not overwhelmed, that their disclosure is not a burden. After all, they are taking a leap of faith by confiding in you.
- Be Flexible: Keep in mind that support looks different for everyone. Allow them to share as much or as little information as they would like. It’s possible this person just wants to talk about their experience, but they may also want advice, an outside perspective, a distraction from their reality, or additional resources. When in doubt, just listen and pay attention to their body language. If you are unsure what to say, try “How can I best support you?”, and always ask before you offer advice.
- They Have Rights (But Aren’t Required to Use Them): When appropriate, ask the survivor about their immediate and long-term well-being. If the assault recently occurred, are they in pain and do they need medical attention? While they are not required to have a forensic exam, it is their right to do so if they want. Either way, it should be up to them to decide. Sexual assault is a crime and they have the right to press charges and/or receive protective orders. Many Latinas may be fearful of the justice system and it is important not to press them to act and risk traumatizing them further. If they are unsure, consider offering to connect them with a sexual assault counselor/advocate.
- Watch for Warning Signs: Listen for any indications that the person may be suicidal or engaging in self harm. Trauma can trigger this type of response and so it’s important to talk about depression and potential ideas how to address it in a health way – especially among Latinas who may have a stigmatized view of mental health topics. If you think your friend may be suicidal, get help. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800.273.8255) or the RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network – 800.656.4673).
- Think About Documenting On-Going Abuse: If the abuse is ongoing, DocuSAFE is a helpful resource to document and store evidence of the abuse. This information can be shared with law enforcement, an attorney, or a judge during a legal proceeding later on. Remember, it is the survivor’s choice if they want to use these resources or not, and your role is to inform them of their options if you think it’d be helpful.
- Validate, Don’t Blame: Remember, it is not your job to judge, but to validate. Perpetrators are masters at using isolation and manipulation to keep survivors caught in a web of abuse. Refrain from using victim-blaming statements like “Why don’t you just leave?” or “Why didn’t you fight back?” or “Why didn’t you seek help sooner?” These kinds of statements reinforce the abuser’s behaviors and are re-traumatizing for the individual. Their personal choices do not mean that they are weak or that they don’t want to be free from their situation. On the contrary, their disclosure is a way of seeking help. Rather than express judgement, affirm their resilience. In this moment, you are the help. You are an important step in their healing.
As a compassionate listener, you may experience an array of emotions such as sadness, anger, fear, and guilt. While you may be feeling these things, it is important not to dwell on them during the conversation. Make a mental note of how you’re feeling, take a deep breath, and calmly support the person in front of you. Your own mental health is critical too and after the conversation, you might want to carve out some time for self-care and seeking out more resources. Here are a few ideas on where to start:
- You can find more information in Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape’s Guide for Friends and Family of Sexual Violence Survivors.
- This guide on the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website has a wealth of information on how to support survivors of sexual assault.
- Coordinadora Paz para las Mujeres – Puerto Rico Dual Coalition on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault published a guide in Spanish for family and friends supporting survivors of domestic violence.
- Loved ones can also receive support from rape-crisis hotlines. Local rape crisis centers usually have educational resources that relate to your state laws. When talking to someone, it is very important to respect the survivor’s confidentiality by not disclosing any identifying facts.
We hope you will consider using a survivor-centered and trauma-informed response the next time someone makes a sexual assault disclosure to you. To learn more about trauma-informed response we offer trainings, technical assistance, and consultations. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.