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Supporting a Survivor of Sexual Assault

Responding to a friend, partner, or loved one who has been sexually assaulted can feel overwhelming – most people want to help and support but are sometimes at a loss as to how to do so.  Below are some suggestions for how to best support your loved one immediately following an assault and beyond.

Responding to a friend or loved one who has been sexually assaulted

After an assault, some people experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Although symptoms may vary from person to person, your friend or loved one may…

  • try and avoid certain people, places, or reminders of their assault. 
  • feel afraid of being alone.  Alternatively, he or she may find people overwhelming and prefer to spend time alone.
  • experience anxiety, sadness, or depression.
  • experience flashbacks, panic attacks, or other intrusive thoughts about their experience. 
  • startle easily or have difficulty being hugged or touched unexpectedly.  
What to do
  • Believe your friend or loved one.  If your friend has shared with you that they have been sexually assaulted, it means they trust you. Your friend may be embarrassed, ashamed, or afraid that they will not be believed if they tell anyone about their experience.  Let them know that you believe, support, and do not judge them. 
  • Assure them that what happened was not their fault.  It is not uncommon for sexual assault survivors to doubt their experience or to blame themselves.  Be there to reassure them that no matter what the situation, an assault is never the survivor’s fault.
  • Listen.  The aftermath of an assault can be a confusing, painful time.  One of the most important things you can do to help is to listen to your friend and validate his or her feelings around their experience.   Although you may have questions for your friend, don’t press for details – allow them to share as much or as little with you as they wish.
  • Ask how you can help or support.  Survivors’ needs may vary drastically.  Some examples/suggestions include:
    • Physical presence – some survivors may struggle to be alone following an assault or need a safe place to stay temporarily. 
    • A safe space to talk about their feelings or experience.
    • Physical contact – some survivors may need or welcome hugs and physical touch.  Others may wish to avoid it or react strongly to unanticipated physical contact.  Respect this.     
    • Space – some survivors may need time alone in order to process their experience or to make sense of their feelings. 
  • Be familiar with resources in your area. For example, Harrisonburg and JMU Police Departments, the JMU Counseling Center, C.A.R.E., the JMU Health Center, or RHM Sentara Emergency Room (see bottom of page for contact information).  Encourage your friend to seek medical attention and emotional support. However it is important to respect your friend’s wishes about talking to others about their experience.  Allow them to decide if, how, and when to pursue support.
  • Recognize that healing takes time.  No matter how long it’s been since your friend’s assault, they may still be healing emotionally.  Remember to check in with your friend or loved one from time to time, regardless of whether it’s been a week or a year, to see if there are ways they still need your support.  
  • Seek out support for yourself. You may feel intense anger, sadness, or other emotions related to your friend or loved one’s experience.  Although this is not uncommon, it’s important to find alternative sources of support through which to process your own feelings and reactions to your friend or loved one’s assault. 
Additional suggestions for partners
  • Recognize that healing from a sexual assault takes time – be sensitive to your partner’s potential need for ongoing support. 
  • Recognize that your partner may struggle with physical or sexual contact following a sexual assault.  Be sensitive to this, and if they are ready, talk to your partner about their comfort with resuming physical and/or sexual activity.  Never pressure your partner to reengage physically or sexually. 
  • Recognize that different people respond differently to trauma – some will want to process it with their partners while others prefer to share little. 
Additional suggestions for parents
  • Don’t ask “Why…?”  Listen non-judgmentally to your child’s experience, and assure them that you believe them.
  • Recognize that some time may have passed between the assault and your child’s disclosure to you.  Don’t blame your child for not informing you sooner – they may have been afraid of sharing their experience or simply needed time to process it themselves.  Concentrate on the fact that they are telling you now.
  • As a parent, it is natural to want to help and support your child in difficult times.  It is important to encourage your child to seek support through counseling or other resources and support, but to allow them to control these next steps. 
  • Don’t assume you already know what you child needs following a sexual assault.  Ask him or her how you can provide support   
  • Feel free to contact the JMU Counseling Center to consult with a professional counselor about and/or for referral information should you be interested in seeking personal support.
What not to do
  • Don’t blame the survivor, sympathize with the perpetrator, or ask questions like, “Are you sure you were assaulted?” “Were you drinking?” “What were you wearing?” etc.
  • Don’t press for details – allow the survivor to share as much or as little as they feel comfortable.
  • Don’t assume the survivor wants to press charges or tell others.  Respect their decision.
  • Don’t’ assume that “S/he is over it by now.” – continue checking in with your friend or loved one and let them know they can continue to rely on you.

Local Resources

JMU Counseling Center
Student Success Center
MSC 0801
3rd Floor, Suite 3100
Harrisonburg, Virginia 22807
(540) 568-6552

JMU Public Safety
(540) 568-6912

Harrisonburg Police Department
Emergency: 911
Non-Emergency: (540) 434-4436

JMU Campus Assault Response (C.A.R.E.)
24/7 Helpline: (540) 568-6411

JMU Health Center
Student Success Center, 2nd Floor
Appointment Clinic: (540) 658-6178

RMH Sentara Emergency Department
2010 Health Campus Drive, Harrisonburg, VA 22801
(540) 689-1300

The Collins Center
217 S. Liberty Street #205, Harrisonburg, VA 22801
(540) 432-6430

Additional Resources

https://www.jmu.edu/counselingctr/services/sexual-assault-services.shtml#guidelines

http://www.pandys.org/secondarysurvivors.html

https://rainn.org/get-information/sexual-assault-recovery/respond-to-a-survivor

Suggestions for JMU Faculty and Staff

Please contact Clery Officer Lisa Carickhoff (x6768) or Title IX Officer James Robinson (x6991) for information regarding responding to a sexual assault as a faculty or staff member.  Additional information can be found at:

JMU Title IX

JMU Campus Coalition Against Sexual Assault 

JMU Survivor Resources