Below are some suggestions on how to handle a conversation if someone confides to you that they are a survivor of sexual violence or if a perpetrator talks about an incident. For formal Disclosure Training check out Sexual Assault Centre London’s website.
Discussions with Survivors
How to Help a Survivor – What to Do:
You may be the first person a survivor talks to. While you might want to help, you may not know what to do. If you, or someone you know, have been assaulted here are some things to think about:
• Listen with empathy and respect. Thank her or him for trusting you with their story
• Believe and validate the survivor
• Accept how they are in the moment. Survivors can demonstrate a range of emotional responses from detachment to severe. emotional crisis or they may appear to contradict or question themselves. This is a normal response to trauma.
• Let him or her know that they are not alone
• Emphasize that what happened is not their fault
• Don’t blame them – no one asks to be assaulted
• Ask what you can do to help, and other open-ended, non-judgmental questions
• Encourage the survivor to write down the details of their experience(s)
• Provide support without taking over – encourage the survivor to explore their options and next steps, and help them to make the choices that are right for them
• Respect the person’s privacy and keep the story in confidence unless given permission to share it
• Emphasize the survivor’s strengths, including their courage in disclosing their abuse, and the steps taken to this point
• Provide ongoing support – listening and supporting the person as they seek help, if they choose to
• Practice self care – use your support system, find ways of expressing your anger and worry with someone safe
What not to do:
• If something traumatic has just happened, don’t leave the survivor alone. If you can’t stay, find someone else who can
• Don’t imply that the survivor is somehow to blame. Be careful about the questions you ask and the assumptions you make
• Don’t minimize the experience, even if the survivor appears to do so
• Ask before touching if you want to comfort or physically support him or her.
• Don’t make a decision for the survivor. Even if that person is distraught, your role is to help facilitate decision-making without taking over
• Enable the survivor to make the decisions that are best for them given their lived experience. The only exception is strongly encouraging her or him to seek medical attention, if necessary
• Don’t say that you know what the survivor is going through even if you have experienced sexual violence yourself. Each situation and survivor is different. Respond empathetically but use third person language to validate the survivor’s thoughts and feelings
• Don’t expect to save the day and solve all the survivor’s problems. Your support is important but don’t put pressure on them or and have realistic expectations about what you can do.
What might be happening for them:
Survivors can be triggered by sights, sounds, touch, smells or tastes. A trigger is anything that sets off a flashback. Flashbacks can also be triggered by the time of year an assault took place, stress and fatigue, and many other factors.
Flashbacks are memories of past traumatic experiences. They can take the form of pictures, sounds, smells, bodily sensations, feelings or numbness. While many people think of flashbacks as visual memories, they can also consist of intense feelings of panic, of being trapped or feeling claustrophobic or powerless. These intense feelings and bodily sensations are not related to the reality of the present and can often seem to come from nowhere. Survivors, and their friends, may begin to think that she or he is going crazy because she or he seems out of control, panicked or scared. These are normal responses to trauma. Help your friend to seek professional help on campus or in the community. There are people who can help.
Discussions with Perpetrators
How to Help a Perpetrator:
Sexual violence can happen in both heterosexual and queer relationships, and friends, roommates and partners can sometimes ignore the warning signs or turn away because it’s uncomfortable to talk about it. But they’re in the best position to not only see what’s happening but also to support the person in taking responsibility for their behaviour and making life-giving changes.
When perpetrators disclose they may do it out of guilt or more likely that they are unaware that the information they’re sharing is about sexual violence. It might look or sound like:
• Bragging – I got her so wasted she didn’t know where she was
• Minimizing/Rationalizing – It’s not a big deal. She was all over me all night!
• Blaming the victim – She shouldn’t have worn that skirt if she didn’t want it!
• Coercion – I knew that she really wanted it. I just kept at it until she gave in.
• Obligation – I bought her dinner so she owed me
Sometimes you have to act in the moment. Other times you have some space to talk. Some things to consider:
• Choose the right time and place to have a full discussion
• Approach him or her when they’re calm
• Be clear and direct about what you’ve seen or heard
• Tell him or her that they are responsible for their behaviour. Avoid making judgmental comments. Don’t validate his or her attempts to blame others for their behaviour or minimize the impact
• Don’t try to force him or her to change or seek help – tell them that you’re concerned for them
• Keep the lines of communication open and look for opportunities to help him or her find support and professional help.