what to do when someone tells you they were sexually assaulted

With #metoo and #believesurvivors amplifying the conversation around sexual violence, more and more survivors are talking about what they’ve experienced. Co-survivors — people who love and support survivors of violence — need to know how to respond when someone tells them they’ve been assaulted. If you’ve never done it before, it can feel overwhelming to hear that kind of story and to learn that someone you care about has experienced such violence.

But you can do it. Let me offer some straightforward advice.

It’s fairly simple, though not even a little bit easy. You just use these four sentences, usually (but not always) in this order:

  1. I believe you.
  2. Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me.
  3. I am sorry that happened to you.
  4. I support you, whatever you choose to do.

And then you listen and be present… and then listen and be present some more.

You’ll experience an urge to take care of the person. That’s normal, that’s healthy. But the best way to care for a trauma survivor is to sit still with that urge and let the person take care of themselves. You are not the healer in this scenario. You are the splint or brace or cast. You create an environment of holding, which allows the survivor to be safe enough to heal.

Why?

Because trauma is (in part) about having control over your body and your choices taken away. Survivors need, therefore, safe environments where they can take back control. So sit still with your need to drive them to the hospital, call the police, beat the shit out of the perpetrator, or even hug the survivor. Sit still, notice that you care, be kind to yourself, and sit still some more.

When they make choices you wouldn’t make for them — when they decide not to report, or to report, or to confront their perpetrator, or not confront their perpetrator, or to move to a different state, or to move next door to their perpetrator, you sit still with your urge to change their mind or stop them or argue. You return to the four difficult sentences — especially that last one.

“I support you, whatever you choose to do.”

And then you take really good care of yourself, because you’re a co-survivor and that’s hard too.

And forgive yourself when you screw up, because you will screw up and it’s okay. I’ve screwed up, and the survivors still healed. My co-survivors screwed up and I still healed. We’re all in this together, working toward wholeness.


Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. is the award-winning author of the New York Times bestseller, Come As You Are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex life. This piece was adapted from her blog post at thedirtynormal.com, written in 2014 in response to #yesallwomen.