Many individuals who have been impacted by sexualized violence seek support from people they trust – friends, teammates, family members, life partners, teachers, coaches. If someone you know tells you about an incident of sexualized violence, your supportive response can help the person move toward healing.
It can be difficult to know what to do or say when someone discloses an incident of sexualized violence, but you don’t need to be an expert to provide helpful, appropriate support. Your response can empower the survivor and promote healing.
Allow the person who confides in you to talk about their experiences in their own way and at their own pace. Sexualized violence may be traumatic, and it may take time for the story to unfold. Avoid interrupting or finishing the speaker’s sentences. You don't need to fill silences. By being present and listening attentively, you open up a space for the individual you’re supporting so they can reclaim their voice.
While it’s okay to ask questions, especially open-ended ones that encourage the person to talk, avoid prying for details or asking specific questions about what happened. A helpful guideline before asking a question is to ask yourself whether you actually need that information to support the person in the moment.
Asking the survivor who has experienced sexualized violence why they behaved in a certain way can seem to them like blaming, even if that is not your intent. Many people who experience sexualized violence struggle with feelings of self-blame. Steering clear of "why" questions can help create a safe, non-judgmental space for a person to talk about the incident.
Some survivors who have been impacted by sexualized violence choose not to talk about their experiences because they are afraid that they won’t be believed. Sometimes, the person who discloses to you has already tried to tell someone else and not been believed. People rarely lie about experiencing sexualized violence, but there is a lot of cultural misconception about the notion of false reporting.
When a survivor discloses to you, use affirming phrases to communicate that you believe them and that they did the right thing by telling you. Your belief in the survivor’s disclosure is essential to their healing.
These affirming phrases will let a survivor know you believe them:
Everyone responds to sexualized violence differently and has a unique path to healing and recovery. Some individuals display intense feelings, others show very little feeling at all, and others fall somewhere in between. All responses need to be honoured and supported. When you validate emotions and experiences, the survivor feels seen, heard and accepted, which can be a powerful part of healing.
Try using phrases like these:
Challenge victim blaming
Many people who experience sexualized violence feel responsible for what happened. This reaction is partly because our culture’s conventional understanding of sexualized violence is rooted in myths and misconceptions that blame survivors and excuse offenders.
Sexualized violence is never the responsibility of the survivor. It can be powerful to communicate this message. Challenge victim blaming by using gentle, supportive language.
Try using supportive statements like these:
If someone chooses to tell you about an incident of sexualized violence, you know that person trusts you. It is important to honour this trust by not sharing the survivor's story unless the person gives you explicit consent to do so.
To support healing in survivors' lives, you must allow them to make their own choices.
While you may not agree with all of the choices the survivor makes at the time, it is important to trust that the survivor knows what is best on a personal level. Do not pressure a survivor to do what you think is best.
Help a survivor of sexualized violence by providing information about support services. Do not make assumptions about what they should do; instead focus on empowering them to make their own choices.
People who have experienced sexualized violence might consider:
You can let the survivor know that they can take time to consider their options. You can remind them that these options will continue to be available to them and they can access them whenever they’re ready.
It’s okay to make mistakes as you try to support a survivor of sexualized violence. Learning to support someone else is a life-long process.
Understand your own limitations. You are only one person, and you are not solely responsible for another person’s healing.
Take time to nourish and replenish yourself. Caring for yourself allows you to support the people in your life more fully. You might consider seeking support or counselling yourself, especially if you are supporting someone on an ongoing basis.
If you are supporting a person who has experienced sexualized violence, you are not alone. Many community organizations and campus services have trained professionals who know how to support a survivor at different stages of the healing process. Help the person you are supporting to understand the available options.
Parts of this section are adapted from the University of Lethbridge, Sexual Violence Prevention, Education, & Response Office and the zine Supporting a Survivor or Sexual Assault.