How to Be a Supportive Listener For a Survivor of Sexual Assault
Most survivors, female or male, never tell anyone.
If someone tells you about their abuse consider it an honor. You may not feel lucky, but you are.
Welcome to a very confusing, murky world. Be ready to feel many, sometimes contradictory, feelings.
All survivors (indeed, all people) are complex.
This is not a checklist, something to memorize and apply to each survivor.
I don’t suggest that every survivor wants or needs to hear every item on the list.
Different people respond to their experiences in a variety of ways.
Most of these apply equally to female and male survivors.
Things you can do:
- Believe them they are telling you the truth.
- Tell them you’re sorry this happened that it wasn’t their fault.
- Really listen; don’t jump to solutions. For example, something not to say is “What you (the survivor) should do now is…”
- Ask what kind of help they would like. If they don’t know, that’s okay.
- Don’t distract yourself with heroic fantasies of beating up the perpetrator.
- Offer to make appointments with them and accompany them to counselor, clergy, police, etc.
- All of us have the right as human beings to define ourselves and our experiences as we wish to. Don’t insist that anyone identify their experience as assault if they are resistant to doing so. You won’t be helping the survivor if you force them to submit to your opinion.
- Don’t say that you understand or know how they feel. You don’t, even if you are a survivor yourself. Your experience was not identical to theirs. It might be okay to say, “I remember feeling really scared (angry, ashamed, etc.) when I was sexually assaulted.”
- Suggest counseling in addition to talking with you. You are not a professional, and your knowledge and experience are limited.
- There is no limit to how long the healing process takes. It is very individual. Saying things like, “You’ve got to forget about this,” or “When are you going to pull yourself together?” won’t help and may harm recovery. In fact, they may stop confiding in you, and pretend that everything is “okay.”
- Be aware of your school and local survivor support resources and share those.
- Sometimes you can’t “do” what seems to you very much, but the “little” that you know may be wonderful, at least sufficient for the survivor now. Don’t assume for them.
- Don’t abandon them. Assuming they want to be left alone, without checking in, may be you “covering” for your unwillingness to get involved.
- Give them time and room and space. If you are talking more than they are, you are probably not helping.
- Don’t give advice, even if asked for it. Survivors of incest of other sexual assault have had their power taken from them in a very profound way. Making decisions for them is not helpful. It over-protects them and may send a message that you think they’re incompetent. Help them problem-solve by offering all the possible options. Offer to support whatever decision they make, then do it.
- Get support for yourself too the more you care, the more you are affected, too. Look inward now, pay attention to your own feelings, and take care of yourself too. Your needs are also valid. Seek support for yourself, if for no other reason than so you can be better support for the survivor.
- Don’t burden the survivor with your “stuff.” Males learn to expect females to “take care of” our emotional needs. We expect her to explain to us what we are thinking/feeling about her trauma. It isn’t wrong for us to have emotional needs. It is wrong for us to add to the survivor’s burden.
- Respect their need for absolute confidentiality. This is their life. Do not play God by deciding that you know better what they need. As they see it, not making their secret public may be the only safe thing for them to do. If you get support for yourself as an affected ‘significant other,’ do not recklessly tell the details of the abuse to anyone. Even though lying is wrong, this is one time that it is better to conceal the truth. For example, your best friend tells you that she is an incest survivor. If you tell another friend about what you are going through, change enough details so that the identity of the survivor could not be obvious. Change your best friend to “someone I knew years ago in high school” or “someone I knew last summer at camp,” etc. If the person who you confide in presses you to identify the survivor, do not tell them. The identity of the survivor is none of their business. NONE. Whatever your intention, if you help make the details of the assault public, assume you will do the survivor harm.
- Check in with a person before leaping into an intense follow-up discussion. Don’t assume that the level of disclosure or intensity of intimacy that you shared yesterday is acceptable today or sometime later when you next talk to that person. If you want to talk further, recognize that this might not be a good time for them to talk. For example, you might say, “Yesterday you brought up some difficult things. I thought a lot about what you were talking about. I’d like to talk more. We definitely don’t have to though. If you’d like to talk, you set the ground rules.”
- Some people will seek out someone they don’t know well to tell their story to. Some survivors may feel safer telling their story to someone they think they won’t ever see again. They feel safer with the anonymity that this stranger provides.
- Sometimes a friend/lover/relative will share the information that they were assaulted by someone. Some will then proceed never to bring it up again. If they refuse to talk further about it, or even avoid you, this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with you. You might, for example, be the only person they have confided in and every time they see you or think of you they recall their abuse. Don’t punish them for your feelings (feeling bereft, confused, angry or used among others) if that is how you feel. Similarly, you may choose to approach them at a private time and ask them if they want to talk further. If they don’t, that should be fine with you. If they do want to talk, that’s also fine as long as you both feel comfortable and safe. The worst-case scenario: That you bully the survivor into a course of action against their will “for their own good.”
- When a survivor tells you that they were abused, this may make you uncomfortable, even intensely uncomfortable, for a variety of reasons. You may be a survivor yourself. You have the right to state compassionately that what they are telling you is too difficult for you to hear. You may choose gently to help them find someone else who can be there for them. You don’t need to tell them the details of why you cannot listen now.
- If you are a survivor and you are feeling those painful, familiar feelings again, there are caring resources available in your community. Even if your abuse occurred years ago, it is never too late for you to get support.
- If someone’s story resonates with you, breathe. Calm down. It does not prove that you are a survivor. You are a caring, empathic person and may feel some of the survivor’s pain. Many of the feelings experienced by survivors of incest or other sexual assault can be similar to feelings of survivors of other abuse or people who have undergone a great personal loss feel (a parent dying, for example). That you have some similar emotional reactions to someone’s story does not absolutely mean that you are a survivor. On the other hand, it may mean that you are a survivor. Many survivors feel that their assault was the worst thing that could have happened to them. Many fear that they will not ever feel better. Many survivors though, have bravely faced and healed their pain and taken back control of their lives.
- Remember: Nothing is so bad that you cannot tell someone. We all deserve the right to feel safe.
- What did it feel like when a good friend took the time to really listen to you?
by Joseph Weinberg