Violence Against Women (VAW) almost always takes the form of interpersonal violence, such as sexual assault/abuse and domestic physical abuse, which continues to have great stigma and denial in our society. This denial of the reality of abuse and violence that pervades our communities results in ignorance of how to support a survivor. We have so many ways to support people with medical problems, people who are in accidents, and people with mental health and now substance abuse problems, yet we continue to disregard survivors of violence and their needs toward support and healing.
Supporting a survivor of violence requires intentional thought and behaviour toward recognising what the survivor needs at any given moment during their recovery. And the response to survivors is often very different than responses we may give to other events or issues in a person’s life.
To help you get started, we have compiled 16 ways to help support a survivor.
Introduction by Carol Olson, List compiled by Jennifer Gallienne and Jodi Layne, Edited by Carol Olson and Jerica Nonell
How you can support a survivor #1: Listen. One of the primary things a survivor of violence needs is for you to just sit and listen sincerely. Listen without judging and listen without fixating over what you are going to say next. Listen without freaking out over the accounting of the events of violence and abuse. Just listen to what they have to say and allow them to be truly heard. Most people who did not report their assaults decided not to because they “thought it was not important enough” or that “no one would want to hear about it.” Listen and let your friend know that both they and what they went through are important.
How you can support a survivor #2: Believe. Another primary thing a survivor needs is to be believed. Do not question their version of events or if what happened to them was a “legitimate” sexual assault. Tell them directly: “I believe you.” A lot of people never report their assault because they are afraid that no one will believe them. Many survivors will have to spend their whole lives trying to convince authorities that what happened to them was real: from the police (should your friend choose to report the incident), to the court (if the case ever even gets there), and to the media (and the way it handles rape and rape victims). They will have their account of the assault repeatedly challenged and de-legitimized throughout their life, so please offer unconditional support.
How you can support a survivor #3: Ask how you can help. Sometimes we may feel like we know what to do in this situation or may want to immediately seek help for the victim. We must remember that this is not about us and it is more useful to ask “Is there anything you need from me right now?” instead of taking control of the situation. It is important to remember to go at the victim’s pace and what they are comfortable in doing.
How you can support a survivor #4: No coulda, shoulda, woulda. The fact is that sexual assault happens because people do it, not because of the length of a dress, the time of day they were out, or how much they were drinking. Do not offer your friend suggestions on how they could have prevented being assaulted – the chances are that they have already replayed their assault in their head and wondered what they could have done differently. The reality is that the person who assaulted them should never have done it in the first place. It is never the victim’s fault that someone assaulted them.
How you can support a survivor #5: Respect Boundaries. If they ask you not to say anything and to just listen: just listen. If they ask for a hug or other reassuring touch: offer it if you feel comfortable and do not touch them in any way unless asked or permitted. Do not try and help or offer suggestions if they do not want any. React in the way they ask you to. Do not tell others about the assault if they have confided in you. Do not report their assault to law enforcement or officials without their consent. Remember that victims of violence have had their boundaries violently abused by the offender and will need people to respect them.
How you can support a survivor #6: Empower!
Put them in control of their own healing while being supportive. Never put pressure on your friend to pursue these options or react in a certain way. Give them the tools to decide how to move forward and don’t judge their decisions. Being a survivor of sexual violence means they are usually dealing with a loss of power, so do all that you can to help them restore their autonomy.
How you can support a survivor #7: Provide resources.
If you know someone that has been a victim of sexual assault give them resources. Let them know that there is professional help available. If they are not ready to go to a local center, they can use a hotline, such as the National Assault Hotline 1.800.656.HOPE and the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline.
How you can support a survivor #8: Accompany the Survivor to Get Help. If they decide to move forward with seeking help and healing, offer to drive them and/or accompany them (with their permission) to any or all of the agencies that will provide them with help, such as the hospital for a medical and/or forensic exam, to the sexual assault center for legal advocacy and support, and/or to the counselor for therapy. You may not be able to sit in their counseling session but ask the advocate/counselor if you could be present with them through the initial steps. Some counselors will work with family, partners, and friends to help educate them and engage them in supporting the survivor.
How you can support a survivor #9: Combat victim blaming and rape culture. Ever heard someone make a rape joke? Every heard someone blame a victim of rape because of what they were wearing or where they were? Ever heard someone use the word rape to describe beating a video game? Ever heard someone say she really wanted it or state that no means they are just playing hard to get? Challenge and confront these when they happen! If it is your friend or relative saying these things, do not worry about hurting their feelings; let them know how this hurts survivors. Look for these teachable moments and educate them on why what they are saying is hurtful and perpetuating violence against women.
How your can support a survivor #10: Confront Harmful Language
Sexual assault has nothing to do with what the victim was wearing and harmful language used to describe women objectify them. Take the time to educate your community, family, and friends about how harmful this language is. The next time you hear someone say that the victim should have been dressed differently, confront that directly.
How to support a survivor #11: Debunk the myth of alcohol/medication or other substances. Many people have heard victim blaming language when it comes to a victim drinking alcohol, taking sleeping pills, or using other substances before their assault. Just because a person had something to drink or took medication does not mean the person asked for the assault to happen and nor is to blame for it. Let them know that just because they had alcohol or other substances does not mean they deserved the assault to happen.
How to support a survivor #12: Hold Abusers Accountable for their Actions. Do not let abusers make excuses, such as blaming the victim for alcohol, drugs, behaviour, or clothing. Our culture and media spends a lot of time blaming the victim but never blames the person who committed the crime. Shift the blame back on to the abuser, where it belongs, and away from the victim.
How to support a survivor #13: Volunteer! Many domestic violence/sexual assault centres have wonderful volunteer opportunities and programmes available. Many of these agencies rely on dedicated volunteers to respond to sexual assault calls. These agencies do a wonderful job at training interested volunteers as well as offering them support along the way. Go online and search for these centres in your community to find the nearest volunteer opportunity.
How to support a survivor #14: Attend a Community Event. One of the ways you can support rape survivors and show your support is attend a community event that is bringing awareness to sexual assault and offering support. There are many events like Take Back the Night that happen on college campuses around the world and various events that happen during April for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This is a good way to show your support for the community of survivors living in your city and is a good way to get education on the issue.
How to support a survivor #15: Have Conversations with Men in Your Life. Because victim blaming will not prevent rape, what needs to change is the conversations that we are having with men about all of these issues. Educating on consent and sending messages to men to be accountable for their actions and behaviour is more effective because it shifts the focus onto them and clears away any misunderstandings that may not come out otherwise. Men need to realize the responsibility to prevent rape is on them and not the people getting raped. We need to have more conversations with men and boys about healthy relationships and consensual sex.
How to support a survivor #16: Take Care of Yourself. Sexual assault is more common and has more manifestations than we let ourselves believe or acknowledge within our society. If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, the disclosure of another friend may bring up uncomfortable feelings or reawaken trauma. Make sure you get the support you need to be a good ally to your friend and to keep your own mental and emotional health in check.