Allies of Survivors
Many survivors of sexual and relationship violence say that what helped them most was the unconditional support of a friend. You don't need to understand what they're going through to be helpful. If you don’t know what else to do, saying “I’m sorry this happened to you, you didn't do anything wrong,” can be extremely validating for a survivor to hear.
As a friend, you can help protect their privacy and their ability to make choices about how information about them is shared. Sexual assault and relationship abuse are about someone else taking control of one's life and body. Recovery depends on getting that control back. Sharing their story with others without their permission is another form of betrayal. Unless you have an immediate concern about the well-being of your friend, understand that they have to make--and live with the consequences of--their own decisions, including making a report or telling others the name of the person who harmed them. It's not helpful to push someone towards making a choice they’re not ready for or don’t want to take.
How to Be Supportive
Survivors have a variety of reactions to trauma, including numbness and feelings of anger, frustration, sadness, or anxiety. There's no one "right" way to respond. They may want to pretend the event didn’t happen or want to talk about it at length. A survivor may not want to be alone, or they may isolate themself; they may also dissociate and disconnect in social situations.
It's common for survivors to not initially name what happened to them as rape or abuse, although they recognize something is wrong. Once they start to feel safer, they may begin trying to understand the experience by talking about it. In speaking with survivors, use language that validates the survivor’s experience, and reflects back to them what they've told you. Reinforce that you believe the survivor, and that whatever they are feeling and however they want to deal with their experience is okay. If a survivor speaks to you about an event that happened years ago, realize that healing can be a long, ongoing process.
Avoid using language or asking questions that could suggest that what happened was the survivor’s fault. Remember that the choices and actions of another person harmed them. Making suggestions about what they could do not to get hurt again is the same as telling them what they "should" have done, and is not helpful. Neither is telling them what they "should" do now, including getting help or reporting the event. They are the one who has to live with the consequences of their decisions, and they are the only one who has the right to make those decisions. Give them time and space to process what happened, and affirm to them that there's no timetable for healing.
Listen to what a survivor has to say, but avoid asking invasive questions. Only ask what you need to know in that moment: Is the survivor safe right now? Is there anything they want to ask about or need from you? Asking intrusive or extensive questions can be re-traumatizing and will not make the survivor feel supported. It can take a huge amount of trust and effort for a survivor to speak about their experiences; don’t push someone to tell you more than they feel comfortable saying.
As important as it is to be present for survivors, remember to set boundaries and take care of yourself. If you are a survivor yourself, this is especially important. Be as honest as you can about what support you can provide and how much time you have to spend with the survivor. If you have an exam at 10 a.m. tomorrow, you don't have to respond to calls from the survivor at 3 a.m. Remind them of the other resources (such as crisis lines) that are available to them.
Enforcing boundaries can be really hard, because as friends we want to do whatever we can to help. However, it’s important to understand that by setting boundaries we can avoid setting false expectations for a survivor. By creating an example of healthy boundary-setting you can show the survivor that it is okay to lovingly set and respect others' limits, and avoid letting them down when you’re not available to offer support. You can help them create a bigger safety net by offering to connect them to other resources. Being the "only person I can talk to" isn't healthy for you or the survivor; they will be better off if they have a broad base of support.