Supporting a Survivor of Sexual Assault

What Can I Do to Help?

The Impact of Sexual Assault

Someone who has been sexually assaulted may experience shock, denial, sadness, anger, shame, anxiety, or self-blame. Inability to concentrate or relax and resurfacing memories of past abuse are also common occurrences following a sexual assault. The emotional impact of sexual assault can be both immediate and long lasting. A survivor of sexual assault may confide in you any time after the assault. Sexual assault can be difficult to talk about—you can help by listening and encouraging survivors to seek support.

Supporting a Survivor

Believe the survivor.

  • Know that revealing this experience takes a great deal of strength and courage.
  • Assure survivors that the assault was not their fault.
  • Normalize and validate feelings that come from the trauma experience.
  • Understand that the survivor’s memory may be fragmented after an assault, with additional or different facts being remembered over time.
  • Realize that behaviors that may seem difficult or obstructive have probably served the survivor well in the past. It is hard to give up a behavior that you believe has kept you safe.

Let the survivor lead the conversation.

  • Do not expect instant trust, but do everything in your power to be trustworthy.
  • Survivors should determine the pace and focus of the conversation.
  • Ask the survivor what will help them to feel more comfortable and how you can best work with them.
  • Help survivors understand the options that are available, but let survivors make their own decisions.
  • Avoid asking questions about what occurred; let survivors tell you what they are comfortable sharing.

Be careful about providing reassurance.

  • Survivors may interpret reassurances like “everything will be ok” to mean that you don’t understand their feelings.
  • Instead you might say, “I’m sorry this happened to you” or “How can I be helpful?”
  • Maintaining appropriate boundaries is always important, but even more so with survivors, as it contributes to a sense of safety.
What to Share with Survivors
  • Remember to ask survivors how you can help, and let survivors make their own decisions.
  • Support those decisions, even if you don’t agree with them.

After an assault, survivors may consider the following:

  • Medical
    • Encourage survivors to seek medical attention as soon as possible following a sexual assault.
    • Medical professionals can help identify possible injuries and/or prescribe medication(s) to prevent sexually transmitted infections and/or pregnancy.
  • Evidence Collection
    • Physical evidence is collected in the emergency room by trained medical providers.
    • It is recommended that survivors wait to shower, brush their teeth, or change clothes until after evidence collection.
    • Evidence can still be collected up to 96 hours after an assault.
    • Evidence is useful in any criminal justice investigation, but collection does not commit survivors to filing a police report.
  • Reporting

For more information about Columbia University policies on sexual assault visit sexualrespect.columbia.edu.