How to Show up for Survivors of Sexual Assault

Editor’s note: If you’ve experienced sexual assault, you might find this post triggering.

Last year, we heard from so many women, including those in our Preemptive Love community, who bravely shared their experience with sexual assault. This may seem like a far cry from our work helping families rebuild after war. But the reality is, many of those we serve are also survivors of sexual violence. If our work is about unmaking violence, then it has to include the violence of sexual assault. If we ignore this, nothing else matters.

What do you say to someone who has experienced sexual violence? How do you show up with love and compassion instead of shocked silence?

It’s hard to know what to say when tragedy arrives on the doorstep of a friend, coworker, or family member. We’re often so worried that we’ll say the wrong thing, that we say nothing at all. But silence leaves those survivors feeling ignored, isolated, and often judged.

Love is not silent, and you don’t have to be either.

I spent several years as a forensic sexual assault nurse, working directly with survivors of violence, testifying in court cases, and communicating with survivors, prosecutors, and police. I currently volunteer training nurses to become sexual assault nurses. And from this experience, I’d like to suggest four ways you support someone who has come forward.

“This took so much courage to say out loud. You are really brave.”

First, acknowledge, the risk they took in telling you. Sexual assault can steal a person’s sense of safety, power, and control. They are living in an unfamiliar post-assault reality that broke their belief in the goodness of the world.

Acknowledging their bravery not only restores the power that was taken; it reminds them that they matter. That they are still an important person in their own story. One sentence can start rebuilding their sense of self, safety—and their ability to direct what happens in their own life. It shows they are writing the next page of their story.

They didn’t have a choice about the violence happening to them—the only choice violence leaves a victim is if or who they decide to tell. Honor that. Be part of restoring what violence took by affirming how brave they are.

Victims of assault need people around them to remind them how much strength it takes to survive. How feeling weak isn’t the same as being weak. There is nothing stronger than who they are today.

“I believe you.”

Hard stop. No questions. If someone tells you they just survived a traumatic car accident, you wouldn’t ask them to prove it was a near-death experience. You wouldn’t ask them to go over the details with you so you can clearly understand how the accident occurred or decide if they were at fault or the other driver.

You are not Judge Judy. You don’t need to know or decide these things. Leave that for the police report, and for the justice system to do its work. Take yourself out of the equation, and center the person who is hurting.

“I believe you” is as far as you need to go. If they choose to share more, that is their choice. Clamp down your own curiosity. This is not your story to tell, and it’s not yours to tell them what to do with it. (If it’s a child under 18 or a vulnerable person, then by law, you do have a legal obligation to report it to the police.)

“I am so sorry. This should never have happened to you.”

Remind the person that they are normal, that what happened to them is not.

Rape and sexual violence are never OK. It’s hard for survivors to accept that it’s not their fault when the majority of sexual assault cases are perpetrated by someone is in the survivor’s network of trusted people—such as a family member, partner, pastor, teacher, coach, or neighbor.

The fact that it’s a crime makes it even harder to tell someone about it. In addition to the trauma of the violence done against them, survivors can carry an immense amount of fear, as well as an impulse to protect the very person who assaulted them.

“Is your body okay? Have you taken care of yourself?”

Before you leave the conversation, ask about their physical health. When someone is assaulted, they usually have to continue with everyday life: show up to work, take care of their children, go to class.

They may want to act like everything is OK  to protect the people they love from the burden of knowing what happened to them. Getting their body checked for injuries or life-altering diseases they were exposed to during assault may not be something they feel they can do or can make time for.

Additionally, 94% of women experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during the two weeks following the assault, and 33% of sexual violence victims contemplate suicide.

It can be a matter of life and death for survivors to be connected to healthcare, to supportive resources. If a victim doesn’t know how they will tell their partner or their parents, they won’t risk having it show up on the insurance bill by going to the emergency room to be seen.

Gently, ask them if they’ve seen a doctor, or offer to go with them. After assault, an exam can feel like they are reliving the attack. Reassure them that getting medical care isn’t the same as reporting the assault, and that the choice to make a police report will not be taken from their hands if they see a doctor to have their body taken care of.

When someone has experienced sexual violence, whether now or in the past, it can be difficult to know how to respond, what to say, how to help. But it’s important that we show up for those who have been wounded, who are hurting. It may not be easy, but violence can be unmade when we move toward those who are hurting.

Choosing to love first means listening first. Not fixing, not explaining what we would do, or dismissing. When we make space for someone to be heard we participate in their healing by witnessing their bravery in sharing. We believe in the healing that happens when pain and violence intersect with love and friendship.

As we trust each other with our stories, our relationships restore what violence takes away. Love is not silent. For every survivor of sexual violence who tells their story, there are others who have not yet spoken, watching how you respond. They are looking for a safe person, for someone with whom they can share their story, share their pain. Will it be you?