How to Support a Survivor: a guide for partners, families, and friends
– What is Sexual Assault?
Who experiences sexual assault? Why does sexual assault happen?
What is trauma?
What is secondary trauma?
What should and shouldn’t I say to support the survivor?
Resource Guide

How to Support a Survivor:
a guide for partners, families, and friends

Dear Partner, Family Member, or Friend,
I am sorry that you are reading this letter and sorry that your loved one has experienced sexual violence. Many people who love and care for survivors of sexual violence find themselves having questions and concerns that we hope to address in this letter. You may be wondering what to do next, how to support your loved one, and how to process your own feelings. You might even be experiencing your own feelings of trauma. That is all normal and natural. This letter is meant to provide you with guidance, support, and resources as you prepare to support the survivor in your life. 

What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault is a form of violence between people that can be uniquely traumatizing. Any form of sexual touch or behavior that happens without the consent of every person involved is sexual assault. In sexual situations, consent is a person’s ability to say yes or no to sexual contact at any time, for any reason, and have their decision respected by others. Consent can be violated in many ways; in some cases there has been physical violence or threats of physical violence while in other cases there has been emotional pressure and manipulation. Whether or not there was physical violence, if a person says that their consent has been violated, then we believe them. There is no particular kind of touch or contact a person needs to have experienced to “count” as a survivor of sexual violence. Sexual assault can happen to any person, no matter their age or gender, and can be committed by any person; most survivors know the person who harmed them. 

Who experiences sexual assault? Why does sexual assault happen?

Unfortunately, sexual violence can happen to any person, any age, any gender, any sexual orientation, any religion, etc.. No statistics are perfect, but the best estimates we have show that that 1 in 3 female-identified people, 1 in 6 male-identified people, and 1 in 2 trans-identified people will experience sexual assault at some point in their life. These statistics likely miss a lot of people, especially male-identified people, who are less likely to disclose after experiencing sexual violence. 

Likewise, people who commit sexual violence can be any age, gender, sexual orientation, etc. The research indicates that perpetrators are more likely to be male-identified, but this does not mean that people who identify as other genders can’t commit sexual violence. Though many people were raised hearing about “stranger danger” and told to avoid dark alleys, the truth is that most people are harmed by someone they know, like a friend, romantic or sexual partner, family member, etc.

There’s no good answer to why sexual assault happens other than that the perpetrator made the decision to violate consent. While there are things that may make it easier for a perpetrator to harm someone — like drugs and alcohol — there is nothing a person can do to “ask for it.” The survivor is never to blame, no matter what they were wearing, where they were, or how they acted. 

What is trauma?

Trauma is a natural, rational response to an extraordinary, irrational experience; it is our brain’s way of responding to disturbing and distressing experiences. When a person experiences something that makes them fear for their life or safety, their brain will respond to protect them; if you were attacked by a bear, your brain would decide whether to fight the bear, run away from the bear, or freeze like a deer in the headlights, and you probably wouldn’t even be aware that you were making that decision. The same is true whether the attacker is a bear or a person, whether the threat is to a person’s physical safety or emotional safety. 

Even after the traumatic experience is over, most people still feel scared, overwhelmed, and upset. They probably need some time to heal, emotionally and physically, before they can get “back to normal” — and not everyone returns to what was normal before their trauma. This is also a really logical response: if you were attacked by a bear, you would probably feel a little nervous about going hiking in the woods for a while, and you might change where you hike in the future. For people who experience trauma due to sexual violence, healing may require a lot of understanding, compassion, and space to process their feelings — and that’s where you as a support person can really make a difference in their healing process.

What is secondary trauma?

Sexual assault is a traumatic experience that affects friends, family, and partners as well as the survivor. Family members and close friends often experience symptoms of posttraumatic stress, including fear, nightmares, depression, and panic. This is called secondary (or vicarious) trauma, which means trauma caused by witnessing the suffering of another person.

You may be surprised to find yourself experiencing these feelings, since you are not the one who was assaulted. But secondary trauma is a natural reaction to hearing about the trauma experienced by another person. We want you to know that your feelings are important, too, and you also deserve to get help. Getting your own support ensures not only that you will feel better but also that you will be able to continue to be there for the primary survivor. You can access SASS advocates 24/7 via our Crisis & Support Line and in-person during drop-in hours or by appointment.

What should and shouldn’t I say to support the survivor?

First of all, we want to commend you for your commitment to supporting your loved one. They may need to talk about what has happened or they may not. They may express strong feelings or they may seem numb. They might seem to have all of those responses at once. There is no one right or normal way to respond to trauma, so don’t expect them to look or act in any particular way. The most important thing you can do to be there for them is to listen to what they need, be open to learning about their unique experience, and respect their boundaries.

As you deal with your own feelings, we recommend thinking carefully about what and when to share with the survivor. While you may want to tell them everything you’re feeling, that may not be helpful for the survivor. For example, it is common for family and friends to feel rage towards the offender. Rage is a powerful and appropriate response. However, expressing this rage to the survivor may make them feel threatened, or guilty, or like they have to take care of your feelings. It is okay to feel what you are feeling, even if you don’t share it with the survivor yet. You may be feeling anger, pain, shame and confusion. You may be carrying feelings of guilt for not being able to protect your loved one. Remember that it is always the offender’s fault, not the survivor’s and not yours. You can reach out to SASS to process those feelings.

Another common reaction from friends and family of survivors is to blame survivors. This often happens when a support person questions, doubts, or gets frustrated with them for the choices they made. These are understandable responses, but they aren’t supportive of the survivor. When we have these types of reactions, it often means that we are trying to control the situation. We are trying to think about what could have prevented the assault and what could keep the survivor safe in the future. But it will add to the survivor’s pain and trauma if you question their experience, deny their pain, get impatient if they don’t “get over it,” or blame them for the assault. 

Here are some suggestions we have for dealing with your own feelings as you support your loved one:

Instead of saying this…

… try saying this.

“I need to know exactly what happened.”

“If you want to share, I’m here to listen, but you don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.”

“I need to tell you how I’m feeling.”

“When you’re ready, we can talk about how I’m feeling but for now, the focus should be on you. I’ll reach out to other support systems to talk through my feelings.”

“I don’t know what to do for you.”

“What do you think would help?”

“Why would you go to that house? Why did you trust that person? Why were you wearing that outfit? Why did you have a drink?”

“No one has the right to do that to you, no matter what. You didn’t deserve what happened to you.”

“Just get over it.”

“I see you’re in a lot of pain.”

“What you need to do is….”

“What do you want to see happen? Would you like to explore some options?” 

Resource Guide

For a general Resource Directory, click here