Tips for Responding to a Disclosure of Rape and Sexual Assault

I was inspired to write this article by the brave women who participated in a 10 week sexual assault survivor support group. I was humbled to share a sacred space with these courageous, strong, smart, and compassionate women as they came together each week to support each other in their healing. It is true that the antidote to shame is connection and I witnessed this phenomenon each and every week. Too often the topic of “telling their story” or naming their trauma in the presence of someone new devolved into a montage of stories of people who responded with the best of intentions, but who ended up being unhelpful and, at worst, hurtful. 

I began thinking about the people who meant well but didn’t know what to say. Maybe if they had some guidance ahead of time they could have been more like the helpful and loving support they were trying to be. I won’t pretend like there are magical words to say that will take away their pain or that everyone needs the same response. But I thought it might be useful to share some common themes that I’ve learned from talking with many survivors. 

1 in 3 females and 1 in 6 males will be sexually abused by the time they are 18  (National Crime Victimization Survey). Take a moment and think about some of your friends, your family members, your co-workers. Many people want to live in denial and believe that those statistics don’t apply to their loved ones or their acquaintances. However, sexual assault does not discriminate based on age, gender, sexuality, race, economic status, or neighborhood. It often exists in the silence of secrecy, shame, threat, and fear. Given the fact that most survivors of sexual assault know their perpetrator, many rape survivors are not believed, and our current rape culture is quick to blame survivors, many are afraid to speak about the trauma they have experienced. They may feel destined to suffer in silence. Despite not wanting to think about it, you probably interact with survivors of sexual assault very regularly, and if it hasn’t happened already, you may have the chance to play a huge role in their healing process – that of a supporter, an ally, and friend.  

It is often terrifying for someone to disclose that they were sexually assaulted. They may be afraid that they may be viewed differently or seen as broken, that they may be blamed or judged, or that they may be told to not talk about it and just move on. Be grateful that they shared their truth with you. Tell them that you are so glad they told you so that you can be there for them and understand them. Let them know that this can’t scare you away. 

Listen. Don’t focus on the sexual aspect of the crime or jump into problem solving. This is a very common response from people who want to find some sense of control to lessen the hurt. But it often skips over giving the survivor choice or glosses over their feelings. Besides, chances are they have already spent a lot of time looking for ways to “fix it”. What they need from you is to sit with them, with their feelings, and support them wherever they are. Validate their feelings. If you feel overwhelmed and don’t know what to say, don’t revert to those old cliches like “everything happens for a reason” or “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. It is okay to say “I am so sorry that this happened to you. I can’t know exactly what you’re going through but I’m willing to sit with you so I can understand.” 

The following list of how to help someone who has been hurt can be found on the Rape Trauma Services website

• Believe them.
• Be aware of your tendencies for denial.
• Validate the survivors’ experience by quietly listening and conveying your understanding of the difficulty of the experience.
• Refrain from minimizing or “explaining away” anything a survivor of assault experiences as hurtful.
• Don’t blame.
• Don’t judge.
• Avoid trying to “fix” anything. If you can simply hear and let the survivor know you care, you will have been profoundly helpful.
• Give information not advice.
• Encourage a survivor to get medical care.
• Don’t press a survivor to report the crime. This decision should be made by the survivor alone. The survivor has had enough control taken away from them.
• Respect their right to privacy.
• Encourage survivors to seek help from people with expertise in sexual assault and who are comfortable with the issue. Not all counselors or therapists have these qualifications.
• Let the survivor know that they can call or text with a confidential 24-hour hotline such as RAINN 1-800-656-HOPE 

Your reaction can profoundly affect the course of your loved one’s healing, especially if you are among the first they tell. Your ongoing support, empathy, and genuine connection has the power to help heal the pain that they did not ask to carry as a result of someone else’s criminal actions. It takes courage to heal and to reach out for support. Thank you for being an ally in healing. 

If you are interested in joining a support group like the one referenced above with Haven Counseling Services, please feel free to sign up for an upcoming group waitlist.