How to support survivors of sexual assault


Once a sexual assault survivor chooses to confide in someone close to them, it can be hard for that person to cope with the information and figure out what steps should be taken to help his or her loved one heal from the assault.

A support system is often necessary in the recovery after a sexual assault, according to Drew Zaitsoff, psychology intern for K-State Counseling Services. Zaitsoff said supportive organizations like the Office of Student Life and Counseling Services are good allies or support systems, however, those closest to the survivor are likely to be the best supporters.

“A lot of times, some of the most important, closest (supporters) are the friends and family this person already has,” Zaitsoff said.

He said survivors will often confide in people who they feel they can depend on and are available to them.

“The things that are important for an ally to have are being there and being available for whatever the person needs,” Zaitsoff said. “Being able to listen to what they’re saying and doing so in a nonjudgmental manner is also useful.”

What to do when someone confides in you

If someone is assaulted, usually there are not clear and specific indicators that an assault has happened, because the survivor has subjective responses to the incident, according to Jenna Tripodi, coordinator and advocate-educator for K-State’s Center for Advocacy, Response and Education.

“Individuals who’ve experienced sexual violence react in a variety of different ways,” Tripodi said. “Some of those ways are stereotypical, what we’d expect, like being incredibly emotional, distraught, isolating themselves. But I’ve also worked with people who, sadly two hours after they’ve been sexually assaulted, they’re laughing as they’re telling me their story. Not because they think it’s funny, but it’s a response, or self-protection mechanism.”

Those closest to the survivor, however, might be able to tell that there is some change in their behavior, according to Zaitsoff.

“People who are close to them, can generally tell if they’re having a bad day,” Zaitsoff said. “If that bad day has been going on for quite a while, it seems different than usual.”

According to Zaitsoff, there is nothing wrong with asking them about a change in their behavior, however, a supporter should let them decide if they want to talk about a problem rather than confronting them.

“I feel like another important thing that allies can do is support the choices survivors are making,” Zaitsoff said.

If someone has suspicions that a loved one has been assaulted, voicing their support for the potential survivor without asking them is also important, according to Tripodi.

If a survivor does reveal that they’ve been assaulted, Zaitsoff said the best initial response is to listen.

“The first response should be listening to what they have to say,” Zaitsoff said. “It can be difficult to talk about this at all, and if someone is talking to one of their friends, an ally, about what they’ve gone through, that’s probably a difficult thing for them just to say.”

According to Tripodi, another acceptable response would be to voice in some way that the supporter believes the survivor.

“You don’t even have to say the words, but just say in some way ‘I’m sorry this happened to you,’ because that’s still implying that in some way that you believe them,” Tripodi said.

Jessica Haymaker, coordinator and advocate-educator for CARE, said she encourages people to avoid forcing the survivor to recall details of the event and what led up to it.

“One thing to avoid is trying to pull up details about the event,” Haymaker said. “Asking things like, ‘How much did you drink? Did you try to flirt with him or her that night? Have you guys had sex before?’ Those are questions that aren’t necessary to understand and to know that someone was assaulted and they start to feel like investigative questions. I think letting the details come out in their own way at their own time is the best thing you can do.”

Asking what the survivor needs at that moment and letting them decide what to do afterward is also a good response, according to both Tripodi and Haymaker.

“It’s a way of giving the power back to them,” Tripodi said. “It’s letting them know that the way they want to proceed is going to be right, as long as the way they are proceeding isn’t endangering theirselves or another person.”

How to cope as a secondary survivor of sexual assault

Friends and family who support survivors are often referred to as secondary survivors, because they are sometimes affected in the same emotional manner as the assault survivor, according to Haymaker.

“When you’re there with someone quite often, then you start to, yourself, carry some of the weight, pain and trauma that they are carrying, even if you do it in a small way or a much bigger way,” Haymaker said.

Coping with the aftermath of an assault can be challenging for both supporters and survivors. However, Tripodi and Haymaker suggested some things supporters should keep in mind.

Tripodi said one thing to understand is that they cannot fix what has happened.

“There’s a knee-jerk reaction to ‘should’ all over the place. ‘You should go to the police. You should go to the hospital,'” Tripodi said. “A lot of those things are good intentions, because it comes out of the supporter’s own anxiety, and they feel like they want to fix this. But there’s no ‘fixing sexual violence,’ there’s supporting. Those are two very different things.”

Normalizing how the survivor chooses to cope is also helpful, both short and long term, according to Haymaker.

“(Normalizing) can be done in simple ways, not expecting them to be a certain way about anything that has to do with their experience,” Haymaker said. “While still knowing that sometimes our coping methods aren’t sometimes healthy.”

Tripodi said supporters should understand, for a survivor, healing from the assault is not linear and survivors do not always heal in a way that is expected.

“(Supports might believe) they’re going to have the initial impact of the experience,” Tripodi said. “But then they’re going to do the right things and they’re just going to keep getting better until they’re the same person again, and that just isn’t reflective of those who experience trauma.”

Secondary survivors are encouraged to find help for themselves, because recovering from an assault can be hard for both survivors and their loved ones, according to Haymaker.

“I think that it is important for those supporting to also get support,” Tripodi said. “If you are supporting long term, so for years, that’s also going to take it’s toll on you. That doesn’t mean you are not a good helper or a good friend. These are just really hard things to talk about, so making sure you are taking care of yourself and making sure you have the resources is important.”