Sexual assault can happen to anyone. It can be very difficult and overwhelming to hear that someone you care about has been sexually assaulted. At times like these, it is often hard to know how to act or what to say. The most important thing you can do is help the survivor feel safe and supported. Students at Colorado State University and in the greater Fort Collins community have a number of resources available to assist them in dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault.
Every person responds differently to sexual assault. Frequent responses include feelings of fear, distress, humiliation, anger, confusion, numbness, and guilt. It is important that the survivor is allowed to experience and process through these feelings without the fear of having them invalidated or dismissed.
The Basics of Survivor Support: The B.E.S.T. Model
B: First and most importantly, believe them when they confide in you. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes. Of those that are reported less than 2% are false or made up. Do not place blame on them for the sexual assault (there is NOTHING they could have done to deserve or cause what happened to them), and don’t pressure them to talk. It is better to go slowly and let them set the pace. Focus on the survivor’s needs, and remember that every person’s healing process is unique.
Try saying: "I am so sorry that this happened to you. Thank you for telling me. This isn't your fault."
E: As long as immediate safety and health care are not issues, restore choices through empowerment. In order for you to help facilitate healing for someone who had the choice taken from them by the attacker, you can provide choices and then follow their lead. It can be small things like, “would you like to sit on the couch or in the dining room?” Or, it can mean restoring choice in big decisions like, “do you want to report to the police or go to the hospital?” Also, open-ended questions (“What do you want to do?”) can be overwhelming so try to give specific options.
Try saying: "CSU has resources. Can I call an advocate for you? or Would you like the phone number for the hotline"
S: 50% of dating violence victims tell someone about their abuse, most of the time this is a friend. It is often hard to know what to say to someone after they tell you they have experienced violence. The most important thing you can do is to make them feel safe and supported.
- When you discuss options with the survivor you may need some extra support from an advocate. The survivor can talk to an advocate or, if they are not ready, you can talk to an advocate and bring the information to the survivor at an appropriate time.
- One option that can create confusion and strong emotions is the option to contact the police. It is important to know that reporting a sexual assault crime is often a very difficult, long, and painful process for survivors. It is not an option for everyone, but a trained advocate can help you both navigate through your student’s options. Numbers for college and community advocates are included at the end of this guide.
Try saying: "Healing takes time. I am here for you whenever you need me."
T: Take care of yourself. When you are supporting a survivor, you need to make sure the focus is on them and not on you (this may be difficult if you find that you have some very strong emotional reactions about the event and being a support person). Taking care of yourself might include talking with an advocate or a counselor. The more emotional clarity and strength you have when you are with the survivor, the better you will be able to support them.
- Listen and try to understand. Reassure them that they have your love and support.
- Help the survivor distinguish between “if only” and “guilt.” It is common for survivors to blame themselves for what happened. Reassure them that it was not their fault and that the only person responsible is the perpetrator.
- Don’t take it personally if they did not tell you right away. They may have been scared of your reaction, felt shame or embarrassment, or tried to protect you. It is very common for survivors to wait before sharing with people they care about.
- The survivor is in control. This means allowing them to speak for themselves unless they specifically want you to. Interpersonal Violence is a crime that takes away an individual’s power. It makes them feel invaded, changed, and out of control. It is crucial for survivors to be able to make their own decisions in order to regain power over their own lives.
- Encourage them to see themselves as a strong, courageous survivor who is reclaiming their own life.
- Question the validity of the survivor's claim. This can lead to more pain. Remember that 98% of reported sexual assaults are accurate.
- Do not criticize the survivor for being where they were, not resisting more, etc. The only person responsible for the sexual assault is the perpetrator. Everyone has the basic human right to be free from threat, harassment, or attack. Whatever they did to survive the situation was the right thing to do.
- Do not over simplify what happened by saying it wasn’t that bad or that they should forget about it. Let them say exactly how they feel.
- Do not sympathize with the abuser. The survivor needs your absolute support. The perpetrators behavior was inexcusable.
- Tell the survivor what they must do. Each and every person who experiences trauma is in the driver's seat about how to heal and move forward. They get to be the ones making decisions about who to tell and if they want to report.
- Share the story without permission.