When someone tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted or abused, it can be a lot to handle. A supportive reaction is essential to diminish any shame or blame the survivor usually takes on after abuse. Encouraging words and phrases can avoid judgement and show support for the survivor. Consider the following phrases:

I’m sorry this happened.

Acknowledge that the experience has affected their life. Phrases like “This must be really tough for you,” and, “I’m so glad you are sharing this with me,” helps to communicate empathy. Validate their experience. All abuse is harmful, even if it is not overtly physical or violent. However much what has happened to them is not normal, the way they are reacting to it is. The anger, pain and fear they are experiencing need to be expressed and heard. It is really helpful to educate yourself about sexual violence so that you are informed about how they are feeling. Check out our about sexual violence page or our research & resources page.

It’s not your fault

Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind the survivor, maybe even more than once, that they are not to blame. Abuse is NEVER the fault of the victim. Nobody seduces an offender. People ask for affection and attention, but not for sexual abuse. Even if an individual has a physiological response (erection/orgasm), didn't protest or froze in the moment - it was not their fault.

I believe you 

It can be extremely difficult for survivors to come forward and share their story. They may feel ashamed, concerned that they won’t be believed, or worried they’ll be blamed. Leave any “why” questions or investigations to the experts—your job is to support this person. Be careful not to interpret calmness as a sign that the event did not occur—everyone responds differently. The best thing you can do is to believe them even when they are doubting themselves. Let them know that however painful and upsetting their story is, you are there with them and are ready to receive their words with respect and support.

You are not alone

Remind the survivor that you are there for them and willing to listen to their story. This is the case now and in the future. They may not feel ready to share everything with you right away. Let them know that they can tell you as little or as much as they want to at whatever speed is best for them. UK statistics show that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men have experienced sexual violence or abuse. Although they feel like the only person going through this right now, they are not alone. When they have expressed that they are ready to reach out for external support (this needs to be their decision), locate your closest specialist service or support group. They do not have to suffer alone and you don't have to be alone in supporting them.

You can trust me

If a survivor opens up to you, it means they trust you. Reassure them that you can be trusted and will respect their privacy. Always ask the survivor before you share their story with others. If a minor discloses a situation of sexual abuse, you are required in most situations to report the crime. Let the minor know that you have to tell another adult, and ask them if they’d like to be involved.

This doesn’t change how I think of you

Some survivors are concerned that sharing what happened will change the way other people see them, especially a partner. Reassure the survivor that surviving sexual violence doesn’t change the way you think or feel about them. Try not to view them as a victim but empower them by reminding them how strong they are for sharing this with you. Although disclosure may inevitably change your relationship with that person, make sure you make it clear that you are not judging them and that you understand that they couldn't prevent what happened to them.

Are you open to seeking medical attention?

The survivor might need medical attention, even if the event happened a while ago. It’s okay to ask directly, “Are you open to seeking medical care?" Sexual violence makes victims feel like they have lost control so do not pressure them into this.

How do you want me to help you?

Do not take control of the situation. Sexual violence strips victims of control and makes them feel violated and weak. It is very common for loved ones to feel so distressed on hearing about abuse that they start to make decisions for the survivor and be over protective. Make sure your feelings don't overwhelm their feelings. You are inevitably going to be angry, but make sure that you communicate that this is aimed at the perpetrator and not the survivor. Seeing you upset could make the survivor feel distressed and worry that they shouldn't have told you. Don't threaten to take the law into your own hands. This is not helpful for anyone and could upset the survivor even more due to fears that you will get hurt or in trouble. Simply ask them how they want to be helped and make it clear that they are in control of the situation.

I am here for you, but I am not a professional 

It is essential that you honour your own needs. If the survivor wants more than you are able to give them, admit your limits. Encourage them to call on other resources. Take some breaks. Get help for yourself. Dealing with such raw pain is difficult and you need a place where you can express your own feelings and frustrations. If you find yourself feeling extremely defensive or upset when the survivor talks about the abuse, you may be reacting from experiences you’ve repressed from your own past. This is very common. One person’s pain frequently brings up hurts for another. Seek support in dealing with your own unresolved feelings. You are important too.

Many of our member agencies provide support to loved ones as well as survivors. To find your closest local support, check out our Find Support page.