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How to Support Survivors

Responding supportively to a survivor who discloses or shares an experience of sexual violence is very important and may facilitate survivor healing, empower survivors to report to campus police, or help survivors feel comfortable moving forward with disciplinary procedures against their perpetrator (if they choose to do so). On the other hand, providing a negative or unsupportive response may increase survivor self-blame, lead to poor health outcomes for the survivor, or dissuade the survivor from sharing their experience with other campus support providers and resources.

Below, we have included advice and guidance on how to provide support for a student, peer, or member of the campus community who discloses a sexually violent experience to you, as well as information on which reactions to avoid.

Do:

  • Listen without judgment or interruptions. Allow the survivor to speak until they are finished.
  • Thank the survivor for trusting you with their story and assure them that you are here for them.
  • Provide emotional support to the survivor (i.e. remind them that they are valued)
  • Express non-blame (i.e. assure the survivor that this experience was not their fault)
  • Provide validation and belief (i.e. demonstrate that you believe their experience occurred the way they have presented it and assure them that you do not doubt their story).
  • Provide tangible support (i.e. offer to help the survivor find a campus mental health counselor; facilitate the reporting process with the college; locate alternative housing if they are currently living in close proximity to their perpetrator; help the survivor access resources such as a local sexual assault center, support group, or off-campus therapist).
  • If you are considered a mandated reporter by the College, do tell the survivor that you are required to report their experience, and ask them how they would like to move forward. Re-asserting survivor’s feelings of agency, independence, and choice are crucial during the reporting process. Assure them that they will be a full partner in the reporting process, and that you will not move forward with a reporting step until you are both on the same page. Assure them that you will check in regularly, and that you can take a break at any signs of emotional distress. Remind the survivor that, though it is your job to report the experience to the appropriate campus leadership, it is also your job to ensure that the survivor feels heard, supported, and in control of their healing process.

Do Not:

  • Blame the survivor or imply that the survivor was in any way responsible for their experience
  • Ask the survivor unnecessary questions or for more details than they have given you. If you are a mandated reporter, the survivor will likely be required to recount their experience, which can be re-traumatizing and stressful. Do not make them do so more than is absolutely necessary for the sake of reporting procedures.
  • Treat the survivor differently (as if they are damaged/broken) or act as though they are unable to take care of themselves.
  • Respond in an overly-emotional, angry, or upset way – the survivor is already coping with their own hurt and trauma and should not be required to comfort another person while they process their experience, disclose, and heal.
  • Assume the survivor will be visibly hurt, upset, or reacting to their experience. It is possible that the survivor will appear to be unemotional, display a flat affect, or be calm during their disclosure. This does not discount the severity of their experience.
  • Distract the survivor or attempt to get them to talk about something else – this may send the message that you do not want to listen to their story, are not taking their pain seriously, or do not care about their experience.
  • Try to take control of their decision-making process. The survivor is free to make their own choices regarding whether to tell family or friends, confront the perpetrator, seek additional counseling or support, or formally press charges.

Do Say:

  • “Thank you for sharing your story with me. I am honored that you would trust me with this, and I am grateful for the opportunity to support you.”
  • “I believe you. I believe that your experience happened as you say they did.”
  • “I support you and whatever decisions you make.”
  • “Would you like a hug? Would you like me to hold your hand?”
  • “This was not your fault. You did nothing to deserve what happened to you.”
  • “What do you need from me? What can I do to best support you right now?”
  • “Are you interested in learning about resources that can help you through this process?”
  • “Are you interested in reporting to police or law enforcement?”
  • If you are a college employee, and thus a mandated reporter*…“Because most college employees are mandated reporters of sexual misconduct and relationship violence, I am required to report this to campus administration.  Your safety and well-being are our main concern, so we want to make sure you receive support, resources, and information. This is your story and your experience. What can I do to help you feel safe and comfortable in communicating this information to the Title IX Office? Are there any other members of the campus community that you would like to be involved?”

*All college employees EXCEPT the counselors from the Counseling Center, the providers in the Health Center, and the chaplains are mandated reports.  Click here to learn more about mandated reporting

Do Not Say:

  • “What were you wearing?”
  • “Were you drinking before this happened?”
  • “Did you have a sexual history with this person?”
  • “Why didn’t you just leave? Why didn’t you fight back?”
  • “You have to report this right away.”
  • “You have to press charges.”
  • “I am so furious at [perpetrator]”
  • “I am so devastated”
  • “Let’s talk about something else, it seems like this is upsetting you.”

Source: Katherine W. Bogen, Nykia R. Leach, Richard J. Meza Lopez & Lindsay M. Orchowski (2019) Supporting students in responding to disclosure of sexual violence: a systematic review of online university resources, Journal of Sexual Aggression, 25:1, 31-48, DOI: 10.1080/13552600.2018.1509576