What to Say, and Not Say, to a Victim of Sexual Assault
Because sexual assault is a form of victimization that is particularly stigmatized in American society, many victims suffer in silence, which only intensifies their distress and disgrace. There is a societal impulse to blame traumatized individuals for their suffering. Research findings suggest blaming victims for post-traumatic symptoms is not only wrong but also contributes to the vicious cycle of traumatization. Victims experiencing negative social reactions have poorer adjustment. Research has proven that the only social reactions related to better adjustment by victims are being believed and being listened to by others.
What to say
Below is a list of things to say that would support and encourage a victim:
- I believe you.
- Thank you for telling me.
- How can I help?
- I’m glad you’re talking with me.
- I’m glad you’re safe now.
- It wasn’t your fault.
- Your reaction is not an uncommon response.
- It’s understandable you feel that way.
- You’re not going crazy; these are normal reactions following an assault.
- Things may not ever be the same, but they can get better.
- It’s OK to cry.
- I can’t imagine how terrible your experience must have been.
- I’m sorry this happened to you.
What not to say
Hurtful reactions toward victims may be intentional (victim blaming) or they may arise from ineffective attempts to show compassion by people who mean well (like asking invasive questions regarding the assault, which can cause revictimization and more suffering for the victim).
Below is a list of things not to say, because they shame, blame, or doubt the victim:
- I know how you feel.
- I understand.
- You’re lucky that ___________.
- It’ll take some time, but you’ll get over it.
- Why don’t you tell me more details about what happened.
- I can imagine how you feel.
- Don’t worry, it’s going to be all right.
- Try to be strong.
- Out of tragedies, good things happen.
- Time heals all wounds.
- It was God’s will.
- You need to forgive and move on.
- Calm down and try to relax.
- You should get on with your life.
Ways you can help a victim
- Listen. Don’t be judgmental.
- Let them know the assault(s) was not their fault.
- Let them know they did what was necessary to prevent further harm.
- Reassure the survivor that he or she is cared for and loved.
- Be patient. Remember, it will take him or her some time to deal with the crime.
- Encourage the sexual assault victim to seek medical attention.
- Empower the victim. Don’t tell them what they should do or make decisions on their behalf, but present the options and help them think through them.
- Encourage the survivor to talk about the assault(s) with an advocate, pastor, mental health professional, law-enforcement officer, or someone they trust.
- Let them know they do not have to manage this crisis alone.
- Remember that sexual assault victims have different needs (what may have been beneficial for one person might not work for another).
- Remember not to ask for probing questions about the assault. Probing questions can cause revictimization. Follow the victim’s lead and listen.
Adapted from Justin and Lindsey Holcomb’s book Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault.