[Content warning: This story contains details about violence and sexual assault.]
Devastating national news about sexual assault is constant, and that’s because unfortunately, the crime is too.
Research shows that while less than half of survivors get medical care or a forensic exam, the majority do turn to friends and family for help. “When it comes to sexual assault, that first instance of telling your story to someone else will make or break how easy recovery is going to be for you,” explains Brittany Piper, a survivor, sexual violence expert, and healing coach.
Sadly, many people don’t know what to say or do when someone tells them they’ve been sexually assaulted. Blame a lack of substantial sex ed: There’s a focus on the acts and facts of sex (the reproductive system, birth control, STIs, etc.), but no one really learns about “the feelings, emotions, and relationships that go into sex,” Piper says.
Whether a survivor discloses their sexual assault to you right after it happens or years later, it’s important to know what is and isn’t an appropriate response. Here’s what experts and survivors advise.
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO
Let your friend take the lead.
Put away your opinion and just listen to what they have to say. “A survivor’s story could come back in pieces,” says Megan Thomas, communications specialist for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “For someone who’s disclosing for the first time, this incident might have impacted the way they’re recalling it.”
Even if you can’t follow the chronological order of the story, now is not the time and place to question what they’re saying.
Say you believe them.
“I think what would have been the most helpful for me to hear at the time is: ‘You are believed. You are telling the truth. I believe that this happened to you. And it’s not your fault,’” says Ashley-Michelle Papon, survivor and media liaison for After Silence, an online support group for survivors of rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse.
Survivors are already questioning themselves and their experience internally, Piper says. “After my assault happened, I immediately blamed myself without anyone else even blaming me,” she says. “For someone to come to us, shake us of those thoughts, remind us that our experience is valid, and say that no matter what, we didn’t deserve that can really help us in our recoveries.”
For real: It’s an honor that your friend or family member confided in you, so tell them so. “Say something that recognizes the tremendous pain and fear that can come at the very idea of sharing this,” says Miriam Joelson, survivor and organizer for survivor civil rights nonprofit Rise. She suggests trying something like: “Thank you so much for trusting me with your story” or “I’m honored that you would share this with me, and I really want to be there for you.”
Give your friend the power to take action (or not).
Start your response with empathy. Ask questions like: “How can I support you? What do you need? What would help you to feel safe, feel comforted?” suggests Brooke Axtell, survivor, human rights activist, and founder of healing community She Is Rising.
Then transition from empathy to action. Say: “There are resources available for you for recovery and for responding to this. Are you ready to talk about that?” suggests Axtell. If they are, refer your friend to a sexual abuse expert (Axtell says that RAINN is a strong resource for finding sexual assault service providers near you).
If they’re not ready to talk with a pro, simply say: “We don’t have to explore or talk about this right now, but would it be okay for me to send you a brief text or email so you have a few options if, at any point in time, you want to look into it?” advises Axtell.
Remember that every survivor is different.
Maybe you know someone who reported their assault and sought treatment immediately; maybe you know someone else who didn’t disclose what happened until years later. The truth is, what helped one person isn’t necessarily going to be the same thing that helps another.
“Everyone heals differently,” says Piper. “As an ally of a survivor, I would remind people that the road to survivorship is not one size fits all.”
WHAT YOU SHOULDN'T DO
Don’t try to make sense of it.
It’s human nature to want to comprehend the hows and whys of every situation, but your questions will probably just come across as victim blaming (and real talk: this isn’t about you).
“I think the natural instinct when a good friend tells you about this terrible thing that’s happened is to ask a lot of questions because you’re trying to understand it,” says Scott Berkowitz, president of RAINN. “The problem is that, more often than not, your friend is hearing those questions as accusations. It may come across as if you’re questioning their actions or suggesting that they were somehow responsible.”
Don’t tell them what you would do in their situation.
Because you literally aren’t in their situation. It’s easy to offer advice and tell them how you would act given the circumstances, but it’s not helpful for the survivor.
“People always think that they’re going to Superman out of the experience. Maybe you would, but you didn’t experience it, so there’s no way of knowing that,” says Jennifer Li, survivor and activism coach for Rise.
It can be heart-wrenching to hear that someone hurt a person you care about, but try to keep your emotions in check. Think about it from your friend’s perspective: “I can’t be the strong one in this moment, and you’re kind of making me be the strong one and have to take care of you while I’m telling my narrative,” says Flannery Houston, a survivor and activism coach for Rise.
Don’t preach wisdom.
Those “we’re never given more than we can handle” memes may be fine on your aunt’s Facebook page, but they’re not cool in this conversation. “People may attempt to encourage a survivor by telling them that everything in life has a purpose and meaning and they’re so strong, they’re going to overcome this,” explains Axtell, who is also the author of Beautiful Justice: Reclaiming My Worth After Human Trafficking and Sexual Abuse. But these “assurances” really just convey that you aren’t comfortable with their suffering.
More times than not, this person doesn’t need space. So check in tomorrow. And again. And again. “While trying to give them space, you might be sending the message that you don’t want to be part of this—that you don’t want to be there on an ongoing basis for them,” Berkowitz says. But remember, you don’t need to bring up the assault. You just need to be there for them.
Some days are going to be harder than others, Piper admits. “Sexual assault is the most pervasive trauma that someone can have in their life. It affects everything: your relationships and your sense of safety in your body and in the world. It’s an imprint that lives with you forever.”
To help, get behind your friend as they take back their power in whichever way they choose, suggests Axtell. “I think the role of an ally or loved one is to support us in creating our own justice—however we define that.”
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.