How to Give a Compassionate Response to Survivors of Sexual Assault

By Jessica Stepensky

One of the most valuable skills we can have as human beings is knowing how to respond with empathy and compassion when a person is experiencing pain or suffering.

There is currently a huge shift taking place in this country. The #MeToo movement has been fueled by countless women (and men too!) sharing stories of sexual assault and harassment. If your Facebook timeline looks anything like mine, it is flooded with friends and family members sharing deeply personal and painful experiences.

Maybe a friend has shared with you for the first time that they are a survivor of sexual assault. When someone we care about is going through something we have never experienced, we might feel at a loss for words. Or it’s possible that we have experienced something similar, but we’re still not sure of the right way to respond. We want to say something to bring them comfort, but we don’t know where to start. This doesn’t only apply to sexual violence, other examples of events that we may not know how to process are a death in the family, suicidal thoughts, a diagnosis of an illness, a miscarriage, homelessness, or other painful experiences.

It’s okay if you don’t know the right words to say. Often times when people share a painful experience with us, it is our first reaction to try to fix the problem and make it all better. We offer solutions and give advice, when all that person is looking for is validation and a listening ear. It’s alright to be honest and tell them that you don’t have the words to express how you feel. You can say something like, “I don’t really know what this feels like for you, but if you can think of a way that I can support you, please let me know. I’m here if you ever need anything.”

With survivors of sexual assault, it is also important that they know that we believe them and that it wasn’t their fault. We should also be careful with the wording of our questions. Even if our intentions are good, asking a lot of questions might make them feel like we are blaming them or interrogating them, especially questions that start with “why.” It is better to just listen to this person’s needs and try to understand how they would like to be supported.

It’s also okay if you don’t know how to help them. That’s why organizations like the YWCA Sexual Assault Crisis Service exist. There are trained professionals who are available on a 24/7 confidential hotline to help people process what they are going through and to learn about the options available to them. It might be best to tell your friend that you’re not sure how to help them, but you know a hotline number for a person who can. You may even offer to sit with them while they call for the first time or to drive them to the hospital if that is something they decide to do.

You’re already doing great just by caring for your friend and being there for them. It’s okay that you don’t know the perfect way to respond, because there probably isn’t one perfect way. Sometimes all we can do is be a good listener and ask the people we care about how they would like to be supported.

If you or a friend would like to talk to a certified counselor, call our 24/7 free and confidential hotline.

English: 1-888-999-5545
Spanish: 1-888-568-8332

If you are not sure if you're in our catchment area for services, please visit http://www.ct.gov/doc/LIB/doc/PDF/Workbook/wb45.pdf to find the closest center to you.