This is about people you love. They need you. How can you be there for them when they’re in the midst of searing pain? I have some ideas for you. My biggest theme? Follow their lead, no matter where it goes or how hard it may be. Showing up and maybe saying or doing the wrong thing is far better than not showing up at all. 

Things that are up to survivors, this month and every month:

  • Whether or not to disclose their story to you. If they tell you that they were assaulted and/or disclose any details of their story to you, they trust you deeply. They also trust you not to tell anyone unless they explicitly ask you to.
  • Whether to use the term “victim” or “survivor” when describing themselves.“Victim” tends to be a legal term, whereas “survivor” tends to be a term that people move toward throughout their healing processes. I personally prefer the word “survivor”, so I will be using it throughout this post, but that does not mean that people who prefer the term “victim” have less valid narratives.
  • Whether or not to report to the police. We live in a society that shames people for not reporting, but oftentimes, rape culture is alive and well within the legal system itself. Police officers often do not have appropriate training for the sensitive issue of sexual assault, and can have a bias against survivors, even though the rate of false reports is only 2%– the same as any other crime. In addition, reporting is not always the safest option, especially for domestic violence victims. It has to be up to the survivor.
  • Whether or not to get a rape kit done. Similar reasons to above. Some survivors just want to heal with the help of a therapist or trusted friend/family members and not ever get involved with the reporting process in any shape or form.
  • What their healing path will look like. Everyone is unique. In the same sense, so will be their healing path. There is no set timeline and no point at which a survivor’s feelings no longer matter because “it was so long ago.” PTSDis common, occurring in nearly one third of survivors. There are certain best practices for healing, including therapy, but again, everyone is unique. There is no wrong way to react to being assaulted.

Things that are not up to others:

  • Whether the assault could have been prevented. No one ever “asks for it.” Period. End of story. Sexual assault doesn’t discriminate. People of all different gender expressions, races, ages, sexual orientations, physical ability, religions, and appearances are assaulted every day.
  • Whether the survivor should forgive the assailant. Forgiveness of the assailant is not ever required, though it has over 100 benefitsto physical, emotional, and spiritual health. No one can or should ever pressure someone to forgive. That can damage the process, even if the survivor wanted to do it anyway. Every time we make decisions for survivors, we disempower them.
  • Whether the survivor’s assault was “serious” enough to merit the hard feelings they experience after. Not all assaults fit the narrative we expect. In fact, most of them don’t.

Things to do/say if someone discloses to you that they were assaulted:

  • “I’m deeply sorry that this happened to you. I know that my words can’t take your pain away, but I want you to know that I care about you and will be here to support you.”
  • “Your story is safe with me.” 
  • “You didn’t deserve that. No one does.” Survivors often blame themselves for what happened because our rape culture society teaches people that if you wear outfits that aren’t revealing, protect yourself well enough with common sense and martial arts, and stay away from people who seem dangerous, you won’t be assaulted. These are rape myths that we have been conditioned to believe, and we have to unlearn them. Support your friend through that difficult process.
  • “Please let me know how I can support you best during this hard time.”
  • Understand that their relationship with physical touch has been altered. Ask before hugging or kissing them or anything else, even if you are their significant other.
  • Do not ask for any more details than they are willing to give. They will tell you what they need to tell you.
  • Do not ask who the person was.If they do happen to tell you, do not say anything like, “Really? John/Jane Doe seems like such a lovely person!” Assaulters masquerade as completely typical people who you can trust and be open with. It’s an act. Do not fall for it and discount what the survivor says happened to them.
  • Love them unconditionally and know that they may be or act inherently different from who they were before. That doesn’t mean that they’re broken. It does mean that they need your support now more than ever.

How to show up for survivors on a societal level:

Thank you for reading and wanting to be there for others. May their stories and friendships bless you, and yours, them.

Emmie Arnold

Emmie Arnold (she/her/hers) is a hospital chaplain in New York; a Reverend in the PC(USA); avid cook; traveler (on hiatus); friend and family member to many; writer; and musician.


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