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Helping Adult Survivors

How you can help adult survivors of sexual assault and abuse.

Listen. If a survivor confides in you about their experiences, don't interrupt what is being shared by telling them what they should have done, or should do now. Just open your ears, open your heart, and bear witness. Your caring attention will be invaluable.

Believe them. It is often incredibly difficult for survivors of sexual assault to tell someone that they were assaulted. Honor that. Your role is to help ease the survivor's pain, not to question whether they were "actually" assaulted. According to the FBI, false reports of sexual assault are no more nor less common than false reports of other violent crimes.

Don't try to take charge of the situation, or pressure the survivor to do what you think is best. Instead, help them explore options. Give them the freedom to choose a path of recovery that is comfortable for them, even if you'd do it differently. When a person is sexually assaulted, their choices are taken away. Therefore, one of the most powerful aspects of healing for survivors is being allowed to make their own choices about how to move forward.

Remember that there is not a "right" way for a survivor to act or appear after being assaulted. Everyone is different, and there are many possible responses. Some may be noticeably upset, while others may feel numb and show no emotion at all. Outward appearances are not necessarily an indication of the the trauma a survivor experienced. Nor do outward appearances necessarily indicate the inner turmoil and pain a survivor may be experiencing.

Never blame them. No one ever deserves to be sexually assaulted, abused or harassed. No matter what they wore, how many times they'd had consensual sex before the assault, whether they were walking alone at night, whether they had been drinking, whether they were in a relationship with the perpetrator, or whether they "went upstairs" with someone at a party. Even if the survivor feels responsible, say clearly and caringly that being sexually assaulted wasn't their fault.

Ask before you touch. Don't assume that physical contact, even in the form of a gentle touch or hug, will be comforting to a survivor. Many survivors, especially within the first weeks after an assault, prefer to avoid sex or simple touching even by those they love and trust. Be patient, give them the space they need, and try your best not to take it personally.

Recognize that you've been affected too. We can't help but be hurt when someone we love is made to suffer. Don't blame yourself for the many feelings you will likely have in response to learning that someone close to you has been sexually assaulted. Sadness, confusion, anger, helplessness, fear, guilt, disappointment, shock, anxiety, desperation, and compassion are all common reactions for survivors and their significant others. Being aware of these emotions may ultimately help you better understand the survivor's experience and support them more effectively.

Get help for yourself. Whether you reach out to a friend, family member, counselor, religious official, or others, make sure you don't go through this experience alone. Most rape crisis centers offer support for significant others and family members because they realize that the impact of sexual assault extends far beyond the survivor. Keeping all your feelings inside will only make you less able to support the survivor. Asking for help yourself is a sign of intelligence and strength.

Helping others recover from sexual assault is a difficult, yet extremely rewarding, process. As you work to help a loved one recover form sexual assault, let us help and support you. Call our helpline at 1-800-871-7741.