Most survivors of sexual assault disclose their assault to at least one other person. On average, there are 433,648 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States. It may have happened to someone you know. Here’s what you can do if a friend or family member were to disclose a sexual assault to you.
Understand the Common Reactions to Trauma
Nevertheless, there is a range of common reactions to trauma that you may observe if someone tells you about their sexual assault. Understanding these responses can help you normalize and validate their experience, so that you can be of help to them.
- Confusion, shock, disbelief, and intense emotional reactions (e.g., horror, anger, guilt, shame) are all common responses to a sexual assault. Some individuals may also appear numb, disoriented, or incoherent, especially immediately following a sexual assault.
- Survivors commonly have memories of the trauma that are fragmented, incomplete, and disorganized. This can contribute to confusion and difficulty making sense of the experience.
- They may describe experiences such as fear, anxiety, depression, self-blame, social withdrawal, emotional numbness, sleep difficulties, nightmares, anger/irritability, and difficulty trusting others or feeling safe.
- They may report unwanted and distressing memories of the assault that can pop into their head out of the blue or when something unexpectedly reminds them of the assault.
- They may share that they have tried to cope with these difficulties by using drugs, alcohol, or engaging in self-harm.
Listen and Provide Support
It is common to feel uncertain about what to say or do when a friend or family member tells you about a sexual assault. Your reaction can have a significant impact on how they make sense of what has happened to them and could affect what they do or do not do next. Here are some do’s and don’ts when faced with this situation.
- Disbelieve or question their account of what happened (e.g., “Did you flirt with them?” “Could they have misinterpreted you?”)
- Dismiss or minimize their experience (e.g., “Well, at least you were not…”)
- Ask for unnecessary details regarding their behavior or appearance at the time of the assault (e.g., “What were you wearing?” or “How much were you drinking?”)
- Question or blame them for the actions they did or did not take during the sexual assault (e.g., “Why didn’t you try and fight them off?” “Why didn’t you tell anyone?”)
- Focus on your emotional reaction or compare your experience to their situation.
- Believe their account. People rarely lie or exaggerate about sexual assault.
- Listen and validate their feelings. Assure them that these are normal reactions to trauma.
- Withhold judgment. Remind them that it is not their fault and that the responsibility for sexual assault lies solely with the perpetrator.
- Be patient. Don’t press for details – let them decide what and when they feel comfortable sharing.
- Respect their privacy. Allow them to decide who they will tell.
Be Respectful in Guiding Them Toward Available Resources
Sexual assault can lead many survivors to feel a profound sense of loss of power and control. Help them regain a sense of control over their life by trusting them to make their own choices about what is best for them. You can be supportive by helping them identify all the available options and supporting them through the decision-making process.
- Ensure their immediate safety. Offer shelter or companionship so they do not have to be alone.
- Ask them about their other supports (e.g., friends, family, professionals) and help connect them with these supports if requested.
- Offer to accompany them or help them seek medical attention, report the assault, or attend counseling. Remember to focus on helping them explore these options, rather than giving advice or telling them what to do.
- Consider contacting RAINN’S National Sexual Assault Hotline, which provides information on resources in your area.
- Take into account the time that has elapsed since the assault. Most sexual assault survivors will experience natural recovery within 6-12 months following a trauma. Individuals with trauma reactions persisting beyond this period of time may benefit from more encouragement to seek help and/or explore options for trauma-informed treatment.
Ultimately, it is important to remember that you are a key person in helping the survivor on their road to recovery. This is a valuable opportunity to communicate to the survivor that they are safe, they are believed, and they are not to blame.
If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual assault, you are not alone. Please read our blog for more information on sexual assault and trauma.
Shannon Murphy, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Anxiety and Behavior Therapy where she specializes in cognitive-behavioral treatments for PTSD, OCD, and anxiety disorders.