Many survivors of sexual and relationship violence say that what helped them most was the unconditional support of a friend. You don't need to understand what they're going through to be helpful. Even if you don’t know what else to do, saying “I’m sorry this happened to you, you didn't do anything wrong,” can be extremely validating for a survivor to hear.
Unless you have an immediate concern about the health of your friend, understand that they have to make their own decisions. It is not helpful to push someone toward making a choice they’re not ready for or don’t want to take. Sexual assault and relationship violence are about someone else taking control of one's life and body. A survivor’s healing depends on getting that control back.
Supporting a Friend
There is no “right” way to be supportive of a friend who has survived sexual misconduct, relationship violence, stalking, or other inappropriate behavior. Survivors have a variety of reactions to trauma, including feelings of anger, frustration, sadness, or anxiety. While every survivor experiences trauma differently, some general tips for supporting survivors include:
- Use language that validates the survivor’s experience and reflects back to them what they’ve told you.
- Always reinforce that you believe the survivor and that whatever they are feeling is okay.
- Recognize that healing can be a long, ongoing process. Give survivors time and space to process what happened, and affirm to them that there is no timetable for healing.
- Avoid using language or asking questions that could suggest that what happened was the survivor’s fault. (i.e. How much were you drinking? What were you wearing? Why didn’t you call the police?)
- Don't insist that survivors “have to” do anything, including getting help or reporting the event. This is their choice and their choice alone.
- Listen to what a survivor has to say, but avoid asking intrusive questions. Only ask what you need to know in that moment: Is the survivor safe right now? Is there anything they want to talk about or need? Asking intrusive or extensive questions can be re-traumatizing and will not make the survivor feel supported.
- Your instinct might be to comfort your friend with hugs and hand-holding, which might be exactly what they want. Make sure to ask if physical touch is ok, because this can also feel like another invasion of their body or space. Asking what your friend wants and is comfortable with is another way of showing that you care and respect them.
- A common response to hearing that someone has harmed your friend is to want to confront -- or even hurt -- that person. However, keep in mind that your friend has already experienced violence and pain--having a friend become angrily violent can only hurt more. Even if you don’t intend on acting on it, saying in front of your friend that you want “to get back at them” can make your friend feel the need to defend someone who has harmed them. Focus your energy on supporting your friend rather than bad mouthing the perpetrator.
- Read the other sections of this website and educate yourself about the resources available. This will help you share with your friend the options and resources available to them.
- Remember that as important as it is to be present for survivors, it is also important to set boundaries and take care of yourself. Pay attention to your own emotional, physical, and mental health and be as honest as you can about what kind of and how much support you can individually provide.
UTC has resources that support friends of survivors as well:
- Location: 118 Lupton Hall (located within the Center for Women and Gender Equity)
- Phone: 423-425-5648 (M-F, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.)
- Email: [email protected]
- Location: 338 University Center
- Phone: 423-425-4438 (M-F, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.)
- After-hours emergency/crisis help: (423) 425-CARE (2273); select option #4 for counselor on-call
RAINN provides support for sexual assault survivors and their friends and family through two hotlines: