What to Say/Not to Say When Someone Tells You They've Been Sexually Assaulted

We get it, this is an extremely uncomfortable and awkward topic for most people to handle. Chances are, you’re probably already put off just by reading the headline of this article. But that does not change the fact that this is something we all must pay attention to. Sexual violence affects millions of Americans. Some startling statistics for Americans are that every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, and 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted rape or completed rape in her lifetime (Rainn.org). With these kinds of horrifying odds, it is not uncommon for many of us to have a loved one or even a stranger confide in us about their sexual assault experience.

But what do we do about it? Most of us have no intention to hurt the people we care about when they decide to come to us about something so serious and emotionally charged. However, it’s very difficult to handle such a sensitive topic properly. Although no situation is the exact same, here are some general and professional opinions on how to help guide the difficult talk.

1. LISTEN

The most important thing we can do for survivors who have come to us is to listen. As decent human beings, we should all be well versed on how to listen to others without passing judgment or trying to interrupt. If you need a reminder, try not to prod the story along. Let the survivor tell you their story on THEIR TERMS.

2. AFFIRM

Try to reinforce the fact that they were able to confide in you about this by saying positive phrases recommended by RAINN such as:    

  • “I believe you.”

  • “It took a lot of courage for you to tell me about this.”

  • “It’s not your fault.”

  • “You didn’t do anything to deserve this.”

It’s absolutely vital that survivors feel validated. Remember, you are not a professional-- your job is not to interrogate, but rather to support. The best thing that you can do is believe them, as unfortunately not everyone will.

3. DON'T STOP THERE!

There are a number of ways to continue providing support after someone initially discloses the event to you. RAINN reminds individuals that there is no timetable for how someone recovers from a sexual violence act. NEVER pass judgment on how you believe the recovery process should be handled by the individual. Be sure to check in periodically and remind them that you are always there for them if they need you.

 

**Remember, just because you are there for them, does not mean that you are a professional and are responsible for someone else’s well-being. There are plenty of resources out there that you can refer to yourself or suggest to the survivor, such as the National Sexual Assault Hotline: (800) 656-HOPE. It is also helpful to be aware of the warning signs of suicide and how to offer help and support. You can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for assistance at any time: (800) 273-TALK.

If the person who has confided in you wants to report the case, you can of course offer your support. But it is essential that you do not try to force someone to share something if they are not comfortable doing so. Even if you think that is the right course of action, the bottom line is that it is not your decision to make. Someone has deemed you to be a trustworthy individual, and you do not want to do anything to harm or break that line of trust.

There is no guaranteed right way to handle this situation, and you can of course ultimately use your own personal guidelines to gauge the situation and your responses. Just remember to be sensitive and supportive above all else. Hopefully one day, these conversations won’t even have to occur in the first place.