Healing from Sexual Violence: How Friends and Family Can Help
By Keeli Sorensen, Vice President of Victim Services at RAINN
Every 73 seconds, someone is sexually assaulted in the U.S., which means it’s likely that you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence.
Talking about sexual assault is hard. For many survivors, the reaction of the first person they disclose to, often a friend or family member, can have a huge effect on their healing process.
That’s why during this Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, here at RAINN, we’re focusing on the critical role that loved ones play in supporting survivors and their healing.
The free and confidential National Sexual Assault Hotline, which RAINN runs in partnership with more than 1,000 local sexual assault service providers, provides support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Over the past 25 years, our victim service programs, including the hotline, have helped more than 3.2 million people, including many family and friends who are looking for guidance on how to help someone they care about.
“It was scary to tell him, because it made it feel more real. But it was also a huge weight lifted off my shoulders and the true start to my healing. If he hadn’t opened the conversation and made me feel like I could talk about it, my healing would have taken even longer to get started.”
About one-third of visitors to the hotline have never disclosed before. As a result, many conversations become about disclosure — when it goes well, when it doesn’t, and when someone is thinking about disclosing and is worried about how someone in their life will react.
Despite a loved one’s best intentions, sometimes survivors feel blamed or questioned after telling someone they love, and this can make it hard to continue talking about what happened and to start healing.
Most of the time, loved ones of survivors want to do anything they can to help, but just aren’t sure what to do. Whether someone you love has disclosed to you already, or you just want to make sure you’re prepared if the moment ever arises, take the time to proactively learn how to support a survivor as they disclose. It can make all the difference. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.
Don’t Play Detective — Just Listen
Many people are shocked and upset when they learn that someone they love has experienced sexual violence. They’re so worried about saying the wrong thing and so badly want to help that they start asking a lot of questions.
“We were attempting to be intimate, and I just broke down crying and told her I couldn’t. I told her what happened to me, and she held me as I cried and didn’t ask any details.”
Even if you have good intentions, unfortunately, this isn’t helpful. Asking questions can make a survivor feel blamed or pressured into sharing more of their story than they’re comfortable with. It’s important to keep in mind that, if someone discloses an assault to you, they’re not looking for you to gather facts — they’re looking for your love and support.
Even if your instinct is to ask for more details, it’s best to avoid doing so. Simply listen to however much or little someone is comfortable sharing with you.
Recognize the Importance of Managing Your Own Emotions
It’s normal to feel angry or upset that something has happened to someone you love — and you might even think that showing your feelings is a way of expressing that you care about them. However, this can be counterproductive.
If you become very upset when someone discloses to you, it can make them feel that they are responsible for your feelings.
Show you care by using supportive phrases, such as:
- I believe you.
- It’s not your fault.
- You are not alone.
- You didn’t do anything to deserve this.
- Thank you for telling me this.
- I am always here for you.
“The best way to support someone is to just listen. Don’t interrupt. Don’t try to justify or relate. Don’t tell us you know how we’re feeling. Don’t give advice on how we should cope with it. And don’t be angry — I’m already angry enough.”
By managing your emotions, you can help remove this burden from the person who is disclosing so that they can focus on their own healing process.
Don’t Tell a Survivor What is Right for Their Healing
Every survivor’s healing journey is different. It can be helpful to let someone know what resources are available to them, but you should avoid telling them what to do. Even if you feel that they should report to police, get medical attention, or tell someone else in their life, the best thing for you to do is to listen, provide resources if asked, and support whatever decision they make. Remember, you don’t have to be the expert, but you can offer to help connect them with one if they’re interested.
“Everyone was trying to make me do what they thought would help me. People were trying to force me to act in a certain way, but my sister didn’t. Because of that, she truly gave me my voice back.”
To Sum it Up
It’s not always easy to know what to say when someone tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted, especially when they are a friend or family member. For a survivor, disclosing can be very difficult, so being supportive and non-judgmental is crucial. Listen patiently, validate their feelings, and don’t ask too many questions. Remember, there is no timetable for healing from trauma, and having the continued support of friends and family is key to the process. Avoid putting pressure on the survivor to engage in activities they aren’t ready to do yet, and encourage them to be kind to themselves during this difficult time.
Here’s a helpful way to think about how to support a survivor in your life. Remember to TALK:
- Thank them for trusting you
- Ask how you can help
- Listen without judgement
- Keep supporting
For additional resources, please visit www.rainn.org.
Note: Quotes from survivors throughout this piece are from members of the RAINN Speakers Bureau who have chosen to share their stories publicly.
Keeli Sorensen is the vice president of victim services at RAINN, where she provides strategic and operational leadership to the National Sexual Assault Hotline, the Department of Defense’s Safe Helpline, and more than 20 other hotlines that RAINN operates for public and private sector clients.
Before joining RAINN, Sorensen was the Director of Programs for Polaris where she guided the organization’s efforts to eradicate human trafficking. She has also served as the Director of Training and Advocacy for Safe Horizon’s Anti-Trafficking Program in New York City. She has worked internationally with Amnesty International and Save the Children, UK to create a pilot project to reintegrate girls associated with armed forces, and conducted leading research on the sexual exploitation of children in post-conflict settings.