How to Support a Sexual Assault Survivor

How do I know if a friend has been sexually assaulted?

There is no one way to identify if someone has been sexually assaulted unless she or he or someone close to them tells you that this has occurred. However, there are several signs/symptoms of rape trauma ( a type of post-traumatic stress) which may help you to identify if a friend needs help.

  • Sleep disturbances: nightmares, difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Change in appetite
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fears about personal safety
  • Exaggerated startle response (jumps at a small noise or if their name is called)
  • Numbness, uncommunicative
  • Depression/ feelings of hopelessness
  • Difficulty being touched or expressing loving feelings
  • Withdrawal or not interested in participating in activities they once enjoyed (doesn't feel like going out, going to movies, seeing friends, volunteering or participating in student groups, etc.)
  • Seems detached from others

What can I do to help?

No one expects you to be a trained rape counselor, but there are things you can do to help your friend to cope and to find help.

  1. Always ensure that your friend is safe.
  2. Remember that your role is NOT to define or prove the assault. The most helpful thing that you can do is to remain supportive while referring your friend to campus or community resources
  3. You do not have to have all of the answers. If someone discloses to you, it usually means that you are someone they trust. Often, they just want to be heard. Though there is not one "right" way to respond to someone who has been sexually assaulted, the following may serve as a general guide:

Helpful Responses:

  • Believe your friend.
  • Don't panic, remain calm and concerned.
  • Ensure that the survivor is in a safe place.
  • Listen without judgment or interruption, encourage your friend to take whatever time is necessary.
  • Respect the language your friend uses to identify what's happened
  • Understand that individuals from different backgrounds may express or experience reactions to an assault in different ways.
  • Validate your friend's experience or reactions.
  • Remind your friend that he or she is not at fault.
  • Help your friend identify other safe people in his or her existing support system.
  • Encourage your friend to seek medical attention and counseling.
  • Allow your friend to make his or her own decisions.
  • Understand that there is no "normal" way for them to act or feel.
  • Allow the person to make their own decisions, and ask what you can do to be supportive.
  • Refer them to confidential support resources such as CARE.
  • Provide information on reporting options.
  • Direct individuals with safety concerns to UCI PD.

You do not have to have all of the answers. If someone is disclosing to you, it typically means that you are someone they trust and often they just want to be heard and supported. For more information on helping someone, visit the UCI Sexual Violence Prevention & Response website.

Unhelpful Responses

Some common responses to sexual assault are not helpful. These responses are part of a natural attempt to gain control over the situation and cope with your own feelings about rape, but they are ultimately not useful in helping the survivor to get help or to recover:

  • Asking questions that imply blame or question the survivor's actions. Questions like these may make the person feel guilty and may decrease the chances of their being willing to speak to a counselor who can help them.
    • "What were you doing there?"
    • "Why did you drink so much?"
    • "Why didn't you ask someone to walk you to your car?"
    • "Why did you go to his room?"
    • "Why didn't you yell?"
  • Asking for details about what happened or ask too many probing questions. You can be just as helpful without knowing the details of what happened. You can be most helpful by helping to get the assault survivor to a counselor who can assist your friend.
  • Blaming or judging. (i.e. "You shouldn't have had so much to drink.")
  • Dismissing feelings or minimizing the experience. (i..e. "You should just forget about it.")
  • Telling others about the assault or gossiping about it. Unless your have the survivor's permission and are making a referral to someone in a professional capacity, do not talk to others about the assault. It is critical that you respect the confidentiality of the person who has been assaulted. Their trust in themselves and others has already been severely damaged by the assault. You don't want to accidentally make things worse.
  • Telling the survivor what to do - they need to feel in control of what is happening to them.
  • Trying to "fix" the problem. (i.e. pressuring to make a report or take certain actions)

How to help a friend who may be in an abusive relationship

How do I know if my friend is in an abusive relationship?

Sometimes it's hard to know what to do or say if a friend has been a victim. Understand that your friend is probably dealing with many different emotions and might not know how to talk about it either.

Reading this page is a great start to helping your friend. It might not answer all your questions, but it should help you understand how your friend is feeling and provide you with tips on what to say or do, as well as what to avoid. For more information about helping your friend, contact UCI CARE, contact a Helpline at 1‑800‑FYI‑CALL or gethelp@ncvc.org, or talk to a trusted professional.

People react to trauma caused by crime in lots of ways. You might see your friend doing or saying things you're not used to. If your friend is changing in ways that worry you, talk to a trusted adult or a helpline about how to address it.

Some changes you might see include:

  • New eating or sleeping habits
  • Being angry all the time
  • Taking lots of risks
  • Doing badly in school
  • Skipping school
  • Feeling hopeless and helpless
  • Having lots of headaches or stomach aches
  • Having a hard time concentrating
  • Mood swings
  • Clinginess
  • Nervousness
  • Depression
  • Using drugs or alcohol

What you can do to help

  • Let your friend know you care.
  • Try to stay calm. Remember that you friend will be aware of your reactions.
  • Don't judge your friend.
  • Just listen - Let your friend vent and don't try to have answers for everything.
  • Understand that you friend might have mood swings
  • Give your friend time to heal. Don't expect your friend to "snap out of it" quickly.
  • Help find other people who can help - other friends, teachers, coaches, and family who can support your friend
  • Don't confront the person who hurt your friend. Though you might want to fix the situation or get back at them, this could make things worse, for you and your friend.

Good things to say

  • Nothing you did (or didn't do) makes you deserve this.
  • I'm glad you told me.
  • How can I/we help you feel safer?
  • I'm proud of you.
  • This happens to other people. Would it help to talk to someone who works with those people?
  • I believe you.
  • I'll support your decisions.

Things not to say

  • This wouldn't have happened if you hadn't (had)…
  • I told you not to: go to that party, date that person, hang out with those people
  • Just forget it ever happened.
  • Get over it.
  • This is private. Don't tell anyone what happened.
  • Try not to think about it.
  • I want to kill the person who hurt you.

Mandated Reporting

If you choose to talk to someone else about your friend, you should know that some adults are mandated reporters. This means they are legally required to report neglect or abuse to someone else, like the police or child protective services. Some examples of mandated reporters are teachers, counselors, doctors, social workers, coaches, and activity leaders. If you want help deciding who to talk to, contact UCI CARE or a condfidential Helpline at 1‑800‑FYI‑CALL.

This information was developed by the Office of Violence Against Women of the U.S. Department of Justice