If someone discloses an experience of sexual violence to you, it is probably because they trust and feel safe with you. That’s a big deal and something we want to respond to with care and respect.
Above all else, remember that when someone discloses their voice and their choices come first. They are in the best decision to make choices about what will be right for them.
Where to Start
The most important thing you can do is give someone your attention and the space to share. You don’t need to know any more than what they want to tell you – don’t pry or ask a lot of questions, as they can easily sound like victim blaming.
Remember, this is not your story to tell. Survivors should get to have control over who knows their story. If you are in a position where you are obligated to report a disclosure, you should let them know immediately as it may influence what they choose to tell you.
In most cases, you are not obliged to report on behalf of someone else. Exceptions include: if you feel there is imminent risk to the person disclosing or another member of the campus community; if a minor is being harmed or stands to be harmed; and/or if you are a supervisor, in an employment context, of the person disclosing or the perpetrator involved. For more information, refer to Section 6 of the Sexual Misconduct Policy.
If you need guidance, you can call Anne or ask the survivor if they would like to be referred to her.
Empathy is our best effort to understand where someone is at and what they are feeling. Even when you don’t fully understand, showing compassion and concern can go a long way.
Affirm a survivor’s decision to disclose. Assure them that you believe them and that it was not their fault. No one has the right to hurt them.
It is important we don’t assume we know how survivors should behave or what they will need. There is no right or wrong way to respond to an experience of violence. People respond in different ways and often have different needs. Ask about what support looks like for them.
Ways to Offer Support
This is the primary form of support that survivors seek. Emotional support is everything we have outlined above. It’s taking the time to listen, to show care and compassion. It’s using empathy to foster connection, and withholding judgment. Emotional support is about holding space for someone.
Sometimes, survivors have tangible needs with which you can help. Again, don’t assume, but do ask. The type and amount of practical support required depends greatly on the specifics of the situation. It might involve helping the survivor find a place to stay for the night, reaching out to a friend, calling a cab, or going with them to see a doctor. Sometimes, it involves helping connect with other people or making calls.
Survivors are always in the best place to tell you what they need; if they choose to decline your offer of help, respect that.
You can also help people by connecting them with other support in the community and on campus; people might not know where to go or what services are available. For instance, they may not know there is someone on campus who is here to offer support and guidance, or that there is a local Sexual Assault Crisis Centre that they can contact at any time, day or night.
Things that Are NOT Helpful
It is really important that people who disclose get to have control over what happens. You should never pressure them into reporting, telling other people, or seeking services they don’t want or aren’t ready for.
Survivors deserve to have autonomy and feel like they have control over their own life.
Sometimes, when we care about someone, it can be very painful to see them be hurt. It is easy to get caught up in our own feelings of distress, anger, or helplessness. When this happens, survivors often end up apologizing or comforting the person they disclosed to. This is not OK! Being a support person to someone who has experienced violence is sometimes very hard. It may trigger strong emotions or your own painful past experiences. Your feelings are valid, and you deserve to have space to share and process them, but when someone else is disclosing to you, it usually isn’t the right time.
If you need support or help processing a disclosure, you are encouraged to contact Anne. You can also use the 24-support line for the local Sexual Assault Crisis Centre.
If there is one thing you should avoid, it’s blaming someone for the violence to which they were exposed! This can cause long-term harm and seriously undermine someone’s recovery. Sometimes, the questions that we ask are well-meaning, but convey victim blaming messages.
For example, when we ask someone why they didn’t fight back, we suggest it was their fault – their fault for not resisting, or maybe for not being clear enough about their non-consent. When we ask if a survivor if they’d had sex with that person before, we suggest that maybe her consent was implied this time. These things are not true. You can visit ConsentEd to learn more about consent.
Educating yourself about rape myths can help you avoid questions and comments that can imply blame. For further information, please consult Rape Victim Advocates' Sexual Violence Myths and Facts page.