Navigating conversations surrounding sexual assault can, understandably, be emotionally draining and tense at times. When a survivor comes forward, even the most well-meaning family members and friends often struggle with knowing what is the
most helpful thing to say to support someone who's been sexually assaulted. However, creating a safe space and dialogue for the survivor to share their experiences can make a huge difference for their healing process in the long run.
According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), a
person in the U.S. is assaulted every 92 seconds. Statistically speaking, a majority of people — if not all — knows someone who is a survivor. So, being prepared with thoughtful ways to respond if someone comes forward as a survivor is invaluable. In fact, as the website for End Violence Against Women International’s Start By Believing campaign writes, “Knowing how to respond [to sexual assault] is critical, because a negative response can worsen the trauma, and foster an environment where perpetrators face no consequences for their crimes.”
A number of sexual assault organizations, such as
RAINN and End Rape On Campus, have resources for family members and friends of survivors. However, in addition to seeking out these professional tips, it’s important to directly listen to survivors themselves about their experiences. These eight survivors share the most helpful things loved ones did or said when they came forward about sexual assault. Ksenia Lucenko/Shutterstock
"The most helpful thing anyone did for me was just being there and present with me while coming forward [about my assault]," Cheryl tells Bustle. "Having that emotional support gave me the extra courage to say my truth."
Camille says it was important for them to hear loved ones say that the sexual assault that happened during their marriage was real and valid. "Hearing something simple validating me made feel heard and loved," they explain.
As the BBC reported, some survivors have a
difficult time acknowledging what they went through was sexual assault — mainly because our society's definition of it tends to be very narrow. That's why, for Lorcan, hearing friends call what she went through assault was invaluable.
"I knew what happened to me was wrong, but I couldn't really call it 'rape' or 'sexual assault' yet," she says. "Folks want to give people space to figure things out for themselves, but I also think it's okay, and even really useful to hear, 'That sounds like you were assaulted, to me" if that's what you're trying to work up to accepting for yourself."
"I was in high school [when the assault happened], pre-coming out as trans, and wholeheartedly believed 'it can’t happen to guys, I just did something wrong.' That took years to work through," M.K. tells Bustle.
M.K. says it took five years to come forward about the assault, and she ended up first confiding in a close friend at a coffeeshop. "My friend held my hands the entire time, and when I was done, she looked me in the eyes and said 'I believe you.' That one little gesture helped me start to heal from it, and means more to me looking back than I can say," M.K. says.
When Elena first spoke up at 14 about the sexual abuse she experienced as a child, she tells Bustle that some people she confided in "took advantage" of her vulnerability when coming forward. But she says that being in a relationship with a supportive partner at age 19 changed everything.
"He commended me for my resiliency and the strength it took just to begin to tell my story," she says. "Not only did he encourage me to seek treatment, but he said, 'We are gonna get you help, and I will be here for you every step of the way.' Just hearing the word 'we' meant a lot, and finally I felt like someone was on my team after all those years of abuse."
Sarah says that when she told her father she was assaulted, he said, “I’m so sorry this happened to you. You didn’t deserve it. No one does. I only wish you would’ve told me sooner so I could’ve helped you.”
She says, "This was so helpful because, at that time of my recovery, there were others that blamed me in indirect ways, which was incredibly hurtful. So to have someone so close to me be supportive was so crucial for a successful recovery."
Jennifer says the most caring things that were said to her were, "I believe you. I'm sorry that happened. What can I do?"
Sam says the most helpful thing for her was, "People validating that what happened was sexual assault, and it was reasonable to feel upset and violated — it wasn’t just me overreacting." She says that just being believed made her feel seen after coming forward about the abuse she experienced.
The truth is, no conversation surrounding sexual assault is ever going to be as easy as following a script; every survivor may need to hear something different from loved ones in order to feel supported and safe. However, sometimes it's the simplest things — like "I believe you," or "Your voice matters" — that can make all the difference when a survivor takes that first step.
Name has been changed. If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org .