What to say — and what not to say — when someone tells you they have been sexually assaulted

“It was my co-worker…”

“I was in college…”

“He came into my room at night…”

Since Carol Blasey Ford told her story, my Facebook feed has been full of friends and family coming out as survivors.

So what do you say when someone tells you they’ve survived sexual violence? Most of us want to be supportive, but sometimes we can’t find the right words. Here’s a guide to the simple – but not easy – things to say.

Say to your friend, family member, co-worker, or whoever is sharing their experience with you:

  • Thank you for telling me.
  • I’m so sorry that happened to you.
  • I believe you.
  • You didn’t deserve it.
  • You’re not alone.
  • How can I support you?

What do these six sentences do? They let the survivor know that you support them, that you don’t judge them, and that they’re safe with you. Breaking the silence and the shame around sexual assault is a key part of healing. And research shows that how people respond, especially the first people a survivor tells, can make a big difference in their mental health and healing – in whether or not they get PTSD.

Of course when someone shares what happened to them, you might have big feelings: Anger, fear, sadness, horror. You might judge them or wish you could make it different. But this conversation is not about you. It’s about the survivor, and your job is to listen. It’s okay to cry with them, or affirm their anger, but keep it about them. Process your feelings with someone else.

It’s natural to want to try to make things better. This can show up as telling your friend or family member what will happen (“We’ll find you a good therapist,” “First you need to file a report.”). This is a big no. The essence of what happened to the survivor is that they had their power taken away. It’s important to let your friend be in charge of how they go through their experience.

There’s a good chance that you, the one supporting your friend, are also a survivor. That can be a plus (empathy) and a minus (bringing up feelings about your own assault). Feel free to tell your friend that you, too, have survived sexual violence. If they want to hear what happened to you, you can share it, but without much detail. Keep the focus on them, and be sure to get support for any feelings that come up for you.

Harassment, abuse, and assault are isolating; they rupture trust and connection. Feeling heard, seen, and supported – “you are not alone” -- are the best gifts you can give.

~~~

If you’re a survivor or are supporting someone who is, you can get support at the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or at online.rainn.org

Lauren R. Taylor is director of Defend Yourself and Safe Bars and a DCAVP volunteer. This piece first appeared here.