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What to say and not to say: How to help a victim/survivor of sexual abuse

By Keener A. Tippin II

 

When trying to support a sexual abuse survivor, try not to be judgmental or take control. (Even when we know a lot about sexual abuse, we bring our own values and prejudices to all situations.) A sympathetic ear can go a long way toward aiding their recovery process.

The most important things you can communicate are:

* "I'm glad you're alive."
* "It's not your fault."
* "You did the best you could."
* "I'm sorry this happened."

Please also keep in mind the following guidelines:

Do:

* Be a good listener.
* Assist the survivor in getting the help he/she needs and wants. This may mean providing phone numbers, information, transportation, etc.
* Express support. Sometimes standing close to the survivor and conveying feelings by touch can be very comforting. However, physical touch may be upsetting given the assault, so ask if you may hold their hand, touch their shoulder, etc. before doing so.
* Reinforce that cooperation or submission does NOT mean consent. (Many survivors feel guilty because they didn't fight back.) Remind him/her that fear often immobilizes people.
* Try to minimize the number of times the survivor must tell the story of the assault.
* Assure the survivor that it was not his/her fault, and that no one asks to be or deserves to be raped.
* Help the survivor know that this experience will cause a disruption in his/her life, but they will recover.

Do not:

* Give advice or make decisions for the survivor. (Remember that it is important for the survivor to make his/her own decisions as a step toward regaining control and overcoming feelings of helplessness.)
* Tell the survivor what you would have done.
* Ask them why he/she didn't scream, fight or run.
* Prod for details of the assault.
* Prevent the survivor from talking about the assault if he/she wants to.
* Stare or make piercing eye contact.
* Ask him/her if they did anything to "lead the attacker on."
* Ask what the survivor was wearing.
* Ask why he/she was walking alone at night.
* Ask whether he/she was drinking.
* Blame the survivor.

Kansas State University offers assistance to any member of the university community following a sexual assault. Assistance is available through the Women's Center, 206 Holton Hall. After hours and on the weekend, the K-State police will put the individual in touch with the staff member on-call with no questions asked. Center staff will help the individual explore available options while respecting the individual's needs and rights. Assistance by the center's staff is available in reporting the assault to the appropriate law enforcement agencies.

A range of confidential assistance by both campus offices and off-campus agencies is available to any member of the university community who is a victim of sexual assault. The K-State Women's Center and The Crisis Center Inc., of Manhattan, provide crisis intervention, victim support and advocacy. University Counseling Services and other community resources such as Pawnee Mental Health Services provide counseling and information and/or referral. Medical assistance is available at both the Lafene Student Health Center and Mercy Health Center of Manhattan.

Adapted from a publication prepared by U-M Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center

 

August 2003