How to Respond (and How NOT to Respond) When a Friend Tells You About Their Assault
Updated: Oct 31, 2019
We’ll publish something more comprehensive about being a friend to an assault survivor in the long-term, but here we’re addressing how to respond in the conversation in which friend tells you he or she was assaulted. These conversations can be difficult to navigate for the listener, and it’s easy to say the wrong thing (by “wrong,” we mean something that is tone-deaf in the moment and will make the survivor feel worse).
We know this article may seem extensive, but it’s important; we tried to cover all the bases. The main point we want to get across here is that your job is to listen and be empathetic if your friend or loved one is telling you they were assaulted. Be as patient as possible and recognize how difficult it may be for them to tell you about what happened to them.
If you find yourself in the position of listening to someone tell you about their assault: first, take a moment to reflect on and be sensitive to how your friend must be feeling about their assault. We’ll help you out on this one; here are some common (but far from exhaustive) emotions many survivors of sexual assault experience:
- A profound sense of grief
- A profound sense of shame
- Dissociation from their own body
- Fear that no one will believe them
- Feeling responsible for causing the assault
- Feeling like they must’ve done something wrong to have been assaulted
- Fear of what will happen to them if others find out
- Fear of how you’ll respond
- Fear of what will happen if them saying anything gets back to the perpetrator
- Fear it will (imminently) happen again
- Fear of what being assaulted means for their life
- Feeling dirty
- Feelings of isolation
- Feeling that no one will understand or is capable of understanding what they’re going through
- Feeling unsafe
- Impaired judgment/difficulty making healthy decisions
- Feeling triggered by specific things like colors, words, sounds, songs, etc.
- Inability to concentrate or focus like they used to
- Inability to stop thinking about the assault
- Reduced sense of self; lack of self-confidence
- Fear of trusting others
- Fear of being touched
- Fear of being alone or of being alone with others
- Feeling unloved or unworthy
*(We know that each experience is unique and that not all survivors will have all of these emotions, and that certainly there are emotions we forgot that survivors experience. The purpose of the list is to give someone on the other end of the “I was sexually assaulted” conversation an idea of what their friend is thinking and feeling).
With that in mind, here are some Dos and Don’ts. This list draws from our personal experience as survivors as well as years of advocacy and research.
How TO Respond: The Dos
First and foremost, be patient.
We cannot emphasize this enough. There’s a decent chance you’re one of the first people they’re ever disclosing their assault to. That’s a big deal for them. They may not be ready to tell you everything—they may never be—and that’s okay. Recognize that this is their story to tell and that they don’t owe it to anyone. Reassure them that you’re a safe person to talk to and that they can discuss as much or as little about their assault with you in their own time.
DO listen intently and sincerely
They’re telling you something pretty heavy and it’s probably difficult for them to talk about. They need to know you’re taking them and their assault seriously, so do your best to be an active listener. Here’s what this looks like: put your phone and other distractions away and act like this conversation is the only thing that matters in that moment, regardless of how preoccupied your mind may be; maintain eye contact (even if the other party doesn’t); maybe even nod occasionally to show that you’re paying close attention to them and care about what they’re saying; try not to interrupt. (*this is probably good advice for your conversations in general but is especially important in this context).
DO appreciate the sensitivity of what they’re telling you.
Again, this is really heavy and serious stuff. Sexual assault is one of the most violating, traumatic, personal experiences a person can endure. This is something they will carry with them for years after. As their friend, appreciate how earth-shattering this must be for them and treat the information with the sensitivity it deserves.
DO try to control your own emotional response.
As their friend or loved one, the information from the survivor may be shocking or even enraging for you to hear. You, the listener, may even consider seeing a counselor to work through and process it. Try to limit how angry or shocked you are when the survivor is telling you their story. Responding with rage may upset or rattle the survivor even more or make them feel unsafe talking about telling their story. Further, it also detracts from your role as their friend in this situation: your focus shouldn’t be on the assault or the assaulter but on your friend who is working through it. Be there for your friend.
DO ask them what their needs are and if you can help
Generally, avoid asking stupid questions about their assault (ex: what were you wearing? what were you thinking? Were you drunk?)—none of that matters or is pertinent to your role as their friend helping through this. Here are some questions you can ask that ARE pertinent to your role in this: “are you safe now?” “do you need medical care, and if so, do you want me to go with you?” “do you need to go somewhere to feel safer?” “How can I help?” “is there anything you need?".
DO respect their decision to report or not report.
This decision is very personal and can come with a lot of consequences for the survivor. This isn’t a decision for you to make—it’s a decision for them to make.
DO respect their privacy and presume they told you in confidence.
Because of the serious and deeply personal nature of the information that they are communicating, assume (unless they explicitly tell you otherwise) that they’re telling you is confidence—that is, with the expectation that you won’t repeat it. Appreciate the fact that they “let you in” to this deeply personal aspect of their life and that it should remain private for them.
Here are some good lines to respond with (you could even use them ALL):
“I’m so sorry that happened to you.”
“I want you to know I believe you.”
“I’m here for you.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“Take your time”
“Your feelings are valid.”
“I’m glad you told me.”
“You didn’t deserve it”
“You’re not alone.”
“It’s okay to not be okay.”
“I know this must be difficult to share, so thank you for telling me.”
“How can I support you?”
How NOT to Respond: Don’ts
We recognize that people often have good intentions when they respond badly to a sexual assault survivor telling them their story. As the listener, your response can have a big impact on the survivor’s ability to trust others in the future, their sense of self, and how they feel about their assault.
When someone tells you something like this, it can be pretty shocking, and there’s an innate temptation to want to know more details and context. Keep in mind that you aren’t a detective, one of the lawyers in the case, or a member of the jury deciding the facts of the case—your role here is as a FRIEND (or LOVED ONE), and that means trusting your friend’s decision to tell you what they feel comfortable with and in their own time. Also, note that trauma often adversely affects an individual’s ability to recall the exact event or the order, so again, be patient with them and their processing.
More often than not, asking questions about the assault can be construed as victim-blaming or disbelieving them, even if asked with good intentions. Don’t ask “were you/how much were you drinking?” “What were you wearing?” “what were you thinking?”
As a general rule, when someone discloses something traumatic about their life to you, don’t start a question with the word “why.” “Why” tends to imply guilt of the person being asked.
This is likely one of the most traumatic things this person has gone through or will ever go through. Don’t interject or interrupt them. Let them speak and hear them out. Be patient and listen with open ears.
Don’t Judge Them
You may have some preconceived ideas of how someone should respond after being assaulted, but try to rid your mind of those. Everyone responds to trauma differently. As a friend or loved one, be patient and accepting of how they are reacting to all of this.
Don’t tell them things they could’ve done differently
We can pretty much guarantee almost every victim of sexual assault or dating violence reels with guilt about all the things they could’ve done differently to prevent the assault. You don’t need to validate those sentiments; your job is to be a friend or loved one to this person and make them feel safe telling you.
Don’t minimize what happened to them
This is a big one and probably the most common “bad response.” This is a temptation any time someone tells you about a life tragedy or setback. Make an effort not to do it here. Rape and sexual assault are horrific, traumatizing things to experience. Saying things like “it’s actually a blessing that [x] didn’t happen” or “you’re lucky it wasn’t worse” make it sound like you’re downplaying the severity of the event. You may be saying it in an attempt to comfort them, but this will only make them feel like you’re not taking it as seriously as they are.
On that note, don’t try to comfort them by telling them to “move on” or that they “should just try not to think about it too much.” They’re probably engulfed in the trauma and will think about it, whether they want to or not, every day for the next several years. Don’t imply that they should be suppressing their emotions about this. Instead, let them know their feelings and experiences are valid and that it’s okay for them to feel whatever they’re feeling about their assault.
Additionally (we’ve seen this quite a bit) don’t discourage reporting if they want to report. Not only does it minimize the survivor’s pain but actively discouraging someone from reporting a sexual assault could get you in trouble later on for a type of “retaliation.”
Don’t let your emotions get the best of you or respond with rage
This person is telling you about their assault. As traumatic as it may be for you to hear, they are calling on you for support and comfort. We can attest as survivors ourselves—and also note what droves of other survivors have told us—that very few victims of sexual assault find comfort in someone responding that they “want to kill the rapist” or expressions of rage. While rage or vengeance maybe your initial gut reaction, do your best to remember that at this moment, the survivor who is telling their story comes first, and try to put your rage on the back-burner. We understand that experiencing hearing these stories may be very painful, but it’s nowhere as painful as experiencing the story as the survivor themselves.
Don’t make them feel like they need to tell anyone else
It is important to understand that them reaching out to you is probably a HUGE step. A step that is so multifaceted it is very hard for anyone else to understand exactly where their mental state stands. If they do not want to tell their parents, do not judge them. If they don’t want to tell their romantic partner, do not make them feel negative about that decision. In the same vain, if they do not want to tell the cops, support whatever they need.
Don’t decide what their next steps should be for them
Again, reporting is a big step and one the survivor should make themselves. Don’t put pressure on them to report if they’re uneasy about it. Healthcare and therapy are a little different: these are means in which you could actually help your friend. But be gentle and not forceful with it. Instead of saying, “you need to go to the hospital,” say, “have you received any medical care? If not, would you like to? I can help.” The same is true for counseling; don’t force it on them by saying, “First thing is first, let’s get to counseling” or anything that could be perceived as dictating their course of action for them. Instead, if you think counseling would be helpful, try saying, “I know you’re going through a lot and I can’t imagine the effect it could be having on your mental health. Do you want me to help you find a counselor?” Keep in mind that they couldn’t control what happened to them, so it’s important they’re empowered to have control over how they handle the situation. Empower them to make those choices without pressure or judgment from you.
Don’t talk about the rapist.
Just don’t. Especially if you know the perpetrator. Saying things like “he was in my math class last year and I could never see him doing something like this” or “oh but he seems so nice” or “he dated my friend’s sister and was a gentleman to her” will only make the survivor feel like you’re casting doubt on their story. At the same time, even if the perpetrator is someone you know and dislike, try to keep the focus on the survivor and their needs. There’s very little you have the power to do legally about the attacker, and doing anything (say, for example, beating them up or starting rumors) could significantly backfire and do more harm than good to the victim. Let your friend tell you what they want regarding their attacker but keep your response about the rapist to a minimum.
Don’t go telling people
Not only is this not your story to tell but telling people about someone else’s assault can also betray their trust AND start a rumor mill about a deeply personal part of their life without you realizing it.
Don’t touch them unless they want to be touched
If you want to comfort them by means of physical touch (holding their hand, hugging them, etc.), we recommend you ask the survivor if it’s okay to do so. Otherwise giving your friend physical space as they talk to you is the safest choice.
Don’t make them feel bad for not telling you sooner
Telling someone about an assault is a big, scary step for survivors. Although you may well could have been there for them sooner, they didn’t feel comfortable telling you about it until this moment. Accept that they don’t owe anyone an explanation about their assault and that everyone processes things at different paces and take steps towards healing in their own time. Making them feel bad about not telling you sooner will make them feel like they haven’t handled their healing in the best way they could’ve. They’ve been going through a lot. Let them heal how they want and respect the decisions they make and the timing of those decisions.
Here are some bad lines to respond with—do your best not to say these things if your friend or loved one tells you they were assaulted.
“I’m sorry, I’m too angry right now” - the focus should be on the survivor, not your anger.
“Everything is going to be okay”
“I don’t know what to say” - if you’ve read this article, now you do!
“I’m thankful it wasn’t worse.”
“You’re lucky [x] didn’t happen”
“Are you sure?”
“That doesn’t happen to men.” - it does.
“If you were married, then it doesn’t count.” - it does.
“It happened too long ago.”
“What were you wearing? / Were you drinking? / Did you flirt?”
“Did you say ‘no’?”
“Are you sure it wasn’t just regrettable sex?”
“What did you expect?”
“Was [the perpetrator] drunk?”
“So you consented to other stuff but not [the assault]?”
“Are we sure [the perpetrator] meant to?”
“Why did you (insert action here)?”
“Why didn’t you (insert action here, usually “fight back” or “say no”)?”
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“Do you think you can still enjoy sex?”
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” - a lot of survivors feel weak. It’s okay to feel weak. Don’t rush them in their recovery.
“Everything happens for a reason” - this implies that it was “meant to happen to them.”
“This is all part of God’s plan.” (see above).
“You should be more careful.”
“First, you need to file a report.”
“Let’s find you a therapist ASAP”
“Don’t dwell on it/think about it too much”
“Try to forget about it and move on”
“If you talk about it too much, you’ll never heal” (that’s also a total lie)
“That’s how men are/men are such assholes/ boys will be boys.”
“Not all men are like that.”
“It takes two to tango.”
“It’s just sex in the grand scheme of things.”
“You seem to be doing fine/not that traumatized”
“Girls can’t rape [insert gender here].”
“But you’re a guy, why couldn’t you overpower [insert gender here]?”
“No way/no you didn’t”
“That doesn’t count”
“Don’t let it ruin your life”
“Don’t let this become your identity”
If you, the listener, are a “mandatory reporter.”
A “mandatory reporter” is someone who has to report an assault to a university or authority if they hear about it. This is much more common in campus settings, especially with resident hall assistants or directors, professors, etc. To be sure, we recognize that not everyone wants their assault reported and could feel betrayed (or would regret their decision to tell you about their assault) if they found out you were a mandatory reporter too late. We recommend being as sensitive as possible if you’re in this role. If you’re in this position, you should try to disclose that you’re a mandatory reporter as soon as you think they might be about to talk about their assault. Some indicators of this may be them saying “something happened and…”, “Someone did something to me,” “I have something to tell you and I don’t know how to deal with it.” Because reporters on college campuses generally aren’t limited to having to report assault but also need to report things like suicidal thoughts and self-harm attempts, when you think someone is about to disclose anything that could be serious, try to interject by saying “before you continue, you should know that I’m a mandatory reporter in case that changes whether or not you want to keep going or how much you want to disclose.” On college campuses, “mandatory reporters” typically report to Title IX and/or the campus police, not necessarily the local police.
Many hospital employees are also mandatory reporters but only when it comes to minors. If you are over 18 years of age and confiding in a healthcare worker, your confession will be safe with them (unless you are disclosing that you will be hurt or are planning to hurt yourself).
If you, the listener, are ALSO a survivor of sexual assault:
Feel free to disclose that to them. In fact, it’s probably best you do. Try to limit the details, though, because talking too much about your own experience could give the appearance of you “one-upping” them or triggering them.
Just make sure you keep the focus on them. You can use your story as a way to make an empathy bridge with the survivor but try not to dominate the conversation with your own experience.
Finally, even if they’re responding differently to their assault than you may have, don’t hold that against them; keep in mind that everyone responds to things like this differently. Your response to being assaulted is probably not everyone else’s response, and that’s okay.
In the Event that You Do Happen to Respond Poorly:
No one is perfect. People make mistakes. It’s an unfortunate time to say the wrong thing, but sadly sexual violence is not discussed enough. It can be incredibly difficult to respond to - and not just for the victim. We, the authors/founders, have had plenty of people we love respond in unsavory ways to our assaults. We’re still close with most of those people, and it’s rarely been a reason we’ve burned a bridge unless the person was clearly intentionally malicious (we’ll discuss that issue in another post).
If you reflect on the conversation later on and realize you could’ve handled yourself better - let the survivor know! If the dialogue is still open, apologize and reiterate what you meant to say or support them in another way.