Supporting a Sexual Assault Survivor

When a person tells you that they have been sexually assaulted or raped, it is sometimes difficult to know how to respond in a way that is genuine, appropriate, and empowering. Professionals and survivors are both impacted by the myths in our communities about this topic. Research shows that the first response that a survivor receives when they disclose is critical to their healing. If a survivor has chosen to disclose to you, it means they trust you and your response can have a lasting impact on their recovery.

Any professional can create a safe and competent point of entry to services for a survivor. Your role is to provide a safe place that empowers a survivor to SEEK what they need.  This is done by providing the following:

A safe space

To create a safe space for the survivor, keep privacy and confidentiality issues in mind while addressing immediate physical and emotional needs.

Privacy & Confidentiality: Ensure that the survivor understands the limitations of the confidentiality of the situation. Make sure they understand any mandated reporting requirements before they disclose to you.

Immediate Physical Concerns:

  • Do they have immediate medical needs?
  • Does the survivor have a place to go and a safe way to get there?
  • Is there anyone who can stay with him/her or she/he can stay with?
  • If the survivor is not safe, how can they be safe?

Immediate Emotional Concerns:

  • Are they feeling safe emotionally?
  • Are they suicidal or homicidal?
  • Are they able to find support if/when they need it?
  • How will they cope in the immediate?

Empowering attitude

Sexual assault takes away a person’s power and feeling of control. Regaining a sense of control is a key step to healing. Making decisions is a simple, yet important, way to feel powerful again. Let the survivor decide:

  • What to talk about.
  • When to talk.
  • The amount of detail to go into.

Help the survivor understand their options and where to find more information. Be respectful of a survivors decisions, even if you may not agree with them.

Use empowering language that reinforces that the survivor can make their own decisions. For example instead of saying “You should go to the hospital” say “Do you think you want to go to the hospital?”

Empathetic response

Believe. Survivors of sexual assault often worry that they will not be believed. Tell the survivor directly, “I believe you.” Try not to ask questions that sound like you don’t believe their story—for example, questions that start with “Why did you?” When a survivor feels believed, you have helped them start to heal.

Actively listen to the survivor. It is natural for the responder to get involved in their own thoughts and feelings about what they are hearing. It is important to stay focused on what the survivor is saying and what they need.

Be aware of your body language. Empathetic words have to be supported by empathetic body language.  Recognize that a survivor may not feel comfortable with physical contact. 

Use responses that are genuine. Don’t use “It’s not your fault.” Instead, put it in the context of what happened. For example, “You did not ask for this to happen. You trusted this person.” Communicate that survivors are never to blame for an assault.


Be prepared to hear a disclosure:

Know more about sexual violence. The more you know about the facts of sexual violence, the better you can understand and support the survivor.

If you are in a professional position that is likely to receive disclosures, contact your local rape crisis center to have them come to your site to train your staff.

Forensics for Survivors © 2015 All Rights Reserved

This project was supported by Grant #2009-WF-AX-0014 awarded by the Violence Against Women Grants Office, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety & Security Office of Grants & Research and subgranted to the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. Points of view in this document are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice or the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety Programs Division.