Helping Survivors

Supporting Victims of Sexual Assault

Essentials for helping

Helping a sexual assault survivor can be an overwhelming experience. There are several things you can do to provide support during this person’s time of need.

  • Listen: Let survivors talk about their feelings and experience, without advising or asking too many questions—especially “why” questions.
  • Believe: Assure survivors that you believe them. Many survivors are afraid to seek help for fear they will not be believed.
  • Support: Do not make decisions for survivors. Allow them to decide what course of action to take next and support their decisions.
  • Identify Resources: Help survivors identify any campus or community sources of support and information.
  • Acknowledge your limitations:  Realistically identify your abilities to assist survivors. Seek assistance when you know you have reached your limits for helping.
  • Take care of yourself: Assisting someone in need can be stressful. Set aside time for yourself and your daily responsibilities so that you don’t feel overwhelmed by his or her problems.  Get help if you need it – you don’t have to know everything or “do it all.”

Basics in supporting survivors of sexual assault

Sexual assault deeply affects survivors, their family, friends, partners, and anyone who cares for them. As a supporter, you have a profound impact on a survivor’s recovery. Supporters are best able to help when they have accurate and non-blaming information and can support the survivor’s choices in her/his healing.

Sexual assault is any type of aggressive act, threats and/or intimidation in which a person is forced into non-consensual sexual activity. Sexual assault affects all genders, sexual orientations and socio-economic backgrounds.

Sexual assault and related incidents, such as stalking or relationship violence, often have the same effects on survivors; these are also crimes under the university’s student judicial code and Virginia state law.

Many survivors of sexual assault never disclose their experiences for fear of disappointing or upsetting someone. Instead, many survivors struggle through a traumatic experience without asking for help. If someone discloses a sexual assault, it demonstrates a tremendous amount of trust in you. It is essential that you honor that trust and support this person in any way you feel comfortable. Reassure her/him that your love and support are absolute and that you will be there throughout the recovery process.

Following a sexual assault, a survivor faces decisions regarding:

  • Seeking medical care
  • Reporting the assault to authorities (campus judicial affairs, housing, and/or law enforcement)
  • Obtaining emotional and psychological support through formal or informal counseling
  • Disclosing the assault to family and friends

These decisions belong to the survivor. That individual must assess his or her own circumstances and preferences to determine what choices are the most appropriate. No one else can or should make these choices for a survivor of sexual assault.

In some cases, you are not the first person the survivor has told about the assault, or you have not been told until long after the assault.

There are many different reasons why the survivor may not tell anyone about their sexual assault. Some examples include:

  • A survivor may not tell a best friend because the perpetrator is a friend of his or hers
  • A survivor may not tell a partner because she/he does not want to be seen as “damaged,” she/he wants to pretend everything is “normal” or she/he may be afraid the partner will accuse her/him of “cheating.”
  •  A survivor may not tell their parent due to having feelings of shame or self-blame, or fear the parents will retaliate against the perpetrator or force the survivor to report to the police.

Other considerations

 (From the University of Alberta Sexual Assault Centre)
  • The survivor is in no way responsible for the assault or for the decisions she/he made leading up to the assault. Regardless of the clothes she/he was wearing, where she/he was, whether she/he was drinking, knew the perpetrator or not, or fought back or did not, the survivor is never to blame for the assault.
  • It is very common for people in terrifying situations to “freeze up” or become too frightened to fight back. There are many ways to say “no” or to show resistance that are often overlooked.
  • Sexual assault is a frightening experience, and recovery takes time. It is a normal for someone to still be affected by their sexual assault experience for years after the incident.
  • Since sexual assault is not consensual, it is not “cheating” on one’s partner.
  • The majority of sexual assaults go unreported.Reasons for not reporting sexual assault include: fear of retaliation, fear of people finding out, fear of not being believed, not wanting to hurt the perpetrator (if known to her/him), or length of the court process. Please click here for more information about reasons sexual violence often goes unreported.

Trust is important

The vast majority of sexual assaults that take place among college students occur between two people who know each other.  This type of sexual assault is often referred to as acquaintance (non-stranger) rape. Acquaintance assault is a violation of the trust the survivor had placed in another person.

Whether the assailant was a dating partner, classmate or friend, the survivor does not often suspected the friend or acquaintance to be capable of such an offense.  Consequently, it is often difficult for survivors to trust others or their own judgment.

Barriers to getting help

  • Talking about the incident with a professional may prove to be immensely helpful for your student. There are, however, several barriers that often prevent victims from seeking help. It is a good idea to become aware of and understand some of the barriers so that you do not isolate your student with pressure and to seek assistance. Some of the barriers facing your student include:
  • Confusion and denial about what happened before and during the assault
  • Shame and self-blame—a belief s/he was somehow to blame for the assault, or could have prevented it
  • Stigma or discrimination that may occur if s/he reveals the assault
  • Anxiety about losing control over anonymity, privacy and personal identity
  • Lack of knowledge about  his/her legal and civil rights or options
  • Fear of retaliation for disclosing the identity of, or taking action against, an assailant

Sexual assault is NEVER the victim’s fault. As a helper, you play an integral role in a victim’s recovery, but you cannot “solve” the situation, and no one expects you will. Being patient, supportive and non-judgmental is the greatest help you can provide.

How supporting victims impacts you

As the supporter of a survivor, you may find yourself having a variety of reactions to the assault. You may have unexpected feelings of grief, anger, frustration, and devastation.. It will be helpful for you to learn how to cope with both your feelings and those of the survivor. Unfortunately, you may not feel you have an outlet for your feelings of frustration, and you may transfer your anger or frustration to the survivor. This can especially happen when:

  • You are feeling taxed or burnt out emotionally because the need for understanding and patience seems unending. It is important for you to connect to your own support system (Student Support and Advocacy Center is here to help supporters as well as survivors).
  • You may feel that “the survivor should put the assault behind her/him now and move on with life.” It may be important to learn about Rape Trauma Syndrome or the Spiral of Recovery to better understand that it takes time to heal.

To learn more about these recovery models you can talk to someone at Student Support and Advocacy Center. To read more about Rape Trauma Syndrome, please click here.

  • You feel anger towards the survivor for decisions you may feel “allowed the incident to occur”. As discussed earlier, debunking the myths about sexual assault and talking to someone at Student Support and Advocacy Center is a better way to deal with that frustration.
  • You know the perpetrator, or mutual friends are involved. The perpetrator may be telling others a different version of the incident that can cause you to have feelings of anger, rage or doubt about the survivor’s story. These feelings are normal, and but you must also to remember to be accepting and supportive of the survivor.

Put aside your feelings, and deal with them somewhere else. Although it is beneficial for a survivor to know that others are equally upset with what happened, it does them no good to manage others’ feelings in addition to their own. If you need help finding support or managing your feelings, Student Support and Advocacy Center is here for you, too.

Partners of Survivors

Sexual assault not only affects the victims, but their loved ones as well. The victim’s loved ones are often referred to as “secondary survivors” and may experience many different feelings including guilt, anger, and frustration. It is often important for partners of survivors to seek help, since addressing their loved one’s assault can unintentionally cause additional individual issues to surface. Many sexual abuse hotlines will accept calls from partners of victims, which might be very helpful.

Sexual difficulties

Though sexual assault may not be an act of sexual need or desire, it is violence manifested sexually. It should not be surprising that many survivors experience difficulties surrounding sex and intimacy.

  • Difficulties and/or changes in sexual activity and sexual feelings are very common after sexual assault. A survivor may experience fear, flashbacks or difficulties with her/his own sexual response. A partner can help with these difficulties by:
  • Giving the survivor the opportunity to make sexual decisions and advances. This will help her/him to feel more comfortable and empowered sexually.
  • Respecting that the survivor may need a period of abstinence from certain sexual acts, sexual intercourse or all sexual activity. The partner can best support the survivor during this period of abstinence by continuing to express their intimacy with nurturing and loving contact that is acceptable to the survivor.
  • Being patient. Sexual difficulties are quite normal and usually do not last forever. If the survivor feels loved and unconditionally accepted, she/he will again be ready to explore sexual intimacy with the partner.
  • Work with the survivor to identify triggers, and avoid those activities that trigger the survivor back to the sexual assault. Develop a plan of how to handle a trigger if one happens while being intimate. For example, are there signs that the survivor is triggered, is there a word or phrase she/he can use to stop intimacy, does the survivor want to be held afterwards or does she/he need to be left alone?

For University Professionals, Peer Helpers, or Resident Assistants

As a university professional at George Mason University, you influence your students academically and personally. The support you provide your students can make all the difference for your students’ academic success. Your willingness to respond to students in distress is influenced by your personal style and your beliefs about the limits of your responsibility for helping students deal with such personal and emotionally charged issues. You simply may not be comfortable discussing sexual assault, dating/partner violence and/or stalking with students. If you are not, please refer her/him immediately to Student Support and Advocacy Center.

If you choose to be the student’s initial source of information and support, this brief guide provides assistance about how to help someone who tells you s/he is or has experienced a sexual assault, dating/partner violence or stalking. It focuses on what you might do and say and some of the options available for both you and the survivor.

When you are concerned about a student

Look for potential signs of a student in distress, which may include:

  • An abrupt or sudden drop in attendance, or an unusual pattern of coming to class late or leaving early
  •  Decline in classroom participation
  • Failure to turn in assignments
  • Signs of bruising or other injuries
  • Reasons for absences that include multiple hospital or doctor visits

Approach the student—let him or her know you are supportive and can be trusted. Ask your student if something is wrong—most victims appreciate your concern and may have been hoping someone notices their distress, but may be afraid to ask for help. Some examples of ways to start the conversation include:

  • “I hope you don’t mind my asking, but is there something you’d like to talk to me about? I’ve noticed some changes in your performance/behavior/appearance lately”
  • “I have noticed that you’ve missed the last __ classes, which is unusual for you. If there is something going on that you’d like to talk about, I’m here.”
  • “I’ve noticed you seem to have a lot of bruises/injuries lately. Is everything ok, or is there something you want to talk about?”

When a student confides in you

Be supportive and non-judgmental. If someone discloses an experience with sexual, physical or emotional violence, it demonstrates a tremendous amount of trust in you. It is essential that you honor that trust and support this person in any way you feel comfortable. Try one of the following statements:

  • “I’m sorry this happened to you.”
  • “You are not alone—there is help.”
  • “You are very courageous for sharing this with me. Thank you.”
  • “How can I help?”
  • “Do you feel safe?”

Refer your student to Sexual Assault Services and/or some other safe place. Sexual Assault Services can help students locate available resources—this is free and confidential.

What to expect

If a student is or has been the victim of a sexual assault, dating/partner violence or stalking, s/he may be experiencing trauma &fear that life will never be the same again. A few issues that often arise for such students are:

  • Concerns about confidentiality: victims often worry that everyone will know if they seek help, and that it might become a part of their university record. Embarrassment, shame and fear that make it difficult to discuss the situation also make it harder to ask for help.
  • Fears about personal safety: victims may not feel safe – in their current housing situations, on campus or in the community.
  • Fears about health: victims may also be worried about contracting STIs, HIV, or becoming pregnant.
  • Loss of sense of control: victims often feel helplessness and depression after such violations of personal control. This is even truer for victims who do not feel they are allowed to make their own choices about what happens next.