A sexual assault victim/survivor could be your student, friend, family member, partner, classmate, roommate, or student employee. Whether their experience is recent or happened before they entered college, all victims/survivors need support from others. It can be confusing to know where to start in best supporting them; take a look at the tips below to see how you can support a survivor/victim.
Signs That Someone May Have Been Sexually Assaulted
Sexual assault is a traumatic event that affects every survivor/victim differently. A big change in personality can be a red flag. Your friend or loved one may…
- Fear being alone, or going anywhere without a “safe” person. Alternatively, they may isolate themselves from other people and become more closed-off.
- Try to avoid certain people, places, or environments because they remind the person of their assault.
- Experience flashbacks, panic attacks, or other intrusive thoughts about their experience.
- Skip classes or club events or struggle to meet class requirements.
- Show signs of heightened anxiety (I can’t sleep without checking the door is locked at least four times), sadness (crying constantly), or depression (there’s nothing to look forward to in life).
- Startle easily when touched unexpectedly, whether in sexual or non-sexual situations.
What Does An Unhelpful Response Look Like?
- “How much did you drink/what were you wearing?” These questions can make the survivor/victim feel as though they are to blame for the assault. Do not suggest that the survivor/victim was in any way responsible for what happened to them.
- “But they’re so nice/I don’t think they meant to do that.” Don’t minimize what has happened because of what you think about the perpetrator. Doing so will break your trust with the survivor/victim.
- “Are you sure it really happened? You seem confused.” Don’t assume that if the survivor/victim can’t remember something, or tells their story in a confusing way, that they are lying to you. Trauma can affect the way the brain processes and stores memories.
- “Come on, tell me what else happened.” Some details may be very painful or embarrassing to share, even with those they trust. Don’t press the survivor/victim to share their story before they’re ready.
- “You should go to the police/why didn’t you report it?” Not every survivor/victim wants to press charges, or go through an accountability process; do not pressure someone into doing so if they aren’t comfortable or ready. Survivors/victims know best what it is that they need, in order to heal.
- “You’ll get over it/You should be over it.” Continue checking in with your friend or loved one, and let them know that you’re ready to listen.
What Does A Helpful Response Look Like?
- “I believe you.” If someone tells you that they have been sexually assaulted, please believe them. Your friend may be embarrassed, ashamed, or afraid that they will not be believed if they tell anyone about their experience. Let them know that you believe, support, and do not judge them.
- “What happened wasn’t your fault.” Many survivors/victims blame themselves, or minimize the seriousness of their experience. Be there to reassure them that no matter what, no one deserves to be sexually assaulted.
- “I’m here to listen.” The aftermath of an assault can be a confusing, painful time. The most important thing you can do to help is to listen to the survivor/victim without judgment. It is not your job to “fix” a survivor/victim, but you can make it clear that you support their right to heal.
- “How can I support you/would it help if I…?” Different survivors/victims will need different things to heal. This may include:
- Safe Space – some survivors/victims may struggle to be alone following an assault, or need a safe place to stay temporarily.
- Disclosure – Someone who they can talk honestly with about their feelings or experience.
- Companionship – Someone to go with them to check out an on/off-campus resource, or to do research on their behalf.
- Physical contact – some survivors/victims welcome safe and consensual physical touch, especially when they’re stressed, panicking, or having a flashback.
- Space – Some survivors/victims may need time alone from a friendship or relationship in order to process their experience and make sense of their feelings.
- “Do you know about the resources on and off campus?” Take a look at our “You Are Not Alone” comprehensive resource guide/webpage to share with the survivor/victim.
- “There’s no time-line for healing.” No matter how long it’s been since the assault, your loved one may still struggle. Remember to check in time to time, whether it’s been a week or a year, to see if there are ways they still need your support.
Suggestions and Support for Partners, Families, and UMW Employees
Reminder: Seek out support for yourself. You may feel hurt, angry, sad, etc. after hearing that someone you care about has experienced sexual violence. Hearing someone else’s story may also bring up memories of an experience that you have had. It is important to find support through which to process your own feelings and reactions.
Suggestions For Partners
- Recognize that healing from a sexual assault takes time. Be sensitive to your partner’s potential need for ongoing support, regardless of how long ago the assault happened.
- Recognize that your partner may struggle with physical or sexual contact, or being emotionally vulnerable following a sexual assault. If they are ready, try talking to your partner about what their current boundaries are. Never pressure your partner to resume physical, emotional, or sexual activity before they are ready.
- Understand that everyone responds differently to trauma. Some people want to process it with their partners, while others prefer to share with a therapist, support group, or a hotline. It is oftentimes not a personal reflection of the relationship.
Suggestions For Families/Parents/Guardians
- Listen non-judgmentally to your child’s experience, and assure them that you believe them. Don’t question why your child did or did not do something.
- Recognize that some time may have passed between the assault and your child’s disclosure to you. Don’t blame your child for not informing you sooner; coming to terms with being a survivor/victim is a difficult process. Concentrate on the fact that they are telling you now and asking for support.
- As a family member, it is natural to want to help your child in difficult times. You can suggest that your child seek support through counseling or other resources, but allow them to control these next steps.
- Learn about the resources available on your campus and in your child’s community.
- Review the “You Are Not Alone” comprehensive resource guide/webpage as a starting place.
- Don’t assume that you already know what you child needs after sexual assault. Ask them what you can do to provide support.
Suggestions For Faculty and Staff
- Clarify whether or not you are a Responsible Employee to the student, and ask whether they are interested in confidential resources.
- Examples of confidential resources (on and off campus) are listed “You Are Not Alone” comprehensive resource guide/webpage.
- It is important to share your role (Responsible Employee) with the student because you are mandated to report to the Title IX Coordinator.
- Recognize that the student may struggle with deadlines, following directions, or meeting assignment requirements because they are experiencing trauma, and not because they do not care about the class/coursework.
- Understand that resources are available to the student, often referred to as supportive measures, through the Office of Title IX. Once reported, the Title IX Coordinator or designee will reach out to the student regarding the option to meet or discuss supportive measures and/or policy in greater detail.
- These are available without filing a formal complaint or going through the formal process.
- Examples: extensions or deadlines or other course-related adjustments, modifications of work or class schedules, campus escort services, mutual restrictions on contact between parties, changes in work or housing locations, leave of absences, parking accommodations, and other similar measures.
- Consider what content may be triggering to survivors/victims in the classroom, and provide appropriate warnings.