Trigger Warning: Mentions sexual assault

There can be no “perfect” method to respond to a survivor recalling their trauma. Everyone’s story, trigger, and memory will ultimately be personal and different. That being said, there are definitely common insensitive phrases and words that people tend to use when speaking about harassment. Whether they are fueled with bad intentions or not, these inconsiderate ways of communicating can hinder a person’s healing

It’s important to extend as much aftercare and emotional support to survivors as you possibly can, as their experience can often be extremely traumatic and have lingering effects on their mental and physical wellbeing. 

Here is a guide of basic do’s and don’ts to keep in mind when speaking about sexual harassment and/or to a sexual assault survivor:

Don’ts:

1. Do not bring up the subject with a known survivor unless they have asked to speak about it—and do not ask for details

When and if they are comfortable with sharing their story, they will. Asking for unnecessary details such as location, clothing, and relationship status can act as a trigger and may also make the survivor feel as though you are doubting/blaming them for the incident. Often it can take survivors time to process what has happened before they are comfortable sharing their story, even with close loved ones. In fear of judgment, disbelief, shame, and victim-blaming, they require time to decide who they can trust.

The “Me Too” movement was one of the first widespread catalysts for change regarding sexual assault in 2017. It was finally being discussed worldwide as a topic, threat, and a reality. Sharing their story was monumentally difficult for people who had been harassed, but survivors were working to empower and support each other. More people were listening, believing, and coming forward with their own stories. A sense of communal healing could be observed, cultural narratives were being shifted, and a change of attitude/tolerance towards sexual assault took place. Whether or not people chose to share their own experiences, the effects of this movement could be felt by society as a whole. The movement led to a 14% increase in sex-crime reporting during the initial three-month period. A survey also shows that 45 % of respondents believe talking about their experience of sexual harassment is now safer. Yet, there is still an abundance of room for improvement.

2. Do not initiate physical contact

Avoid physical engagement like an endearing shoulder touch or a friendly hug (unless they have specified that they are comfortable with it). These can be triggering for survivors in terms of bringing up past trauma.

3. Do not use the phrase “but it happened so long ago”

Or any other alluding to time since the incident. Talking about the passage of time is not only irrelevant to the survivor’s current state of mind but can also be insensitive as it implies that they should have “moved on” by now. 

4. Do not question whether the survivor was in a relationship with the perpetrator

Questioning their relationship status is a form of victim-blaming as it implies that all acts in a relationship are consensual. It’s crucial to note that allowing consent, for one thing, does not allow it for everything. Consent is needed every time, regardless of the past, relationship status, or even a marriage certificate. Consent can also be withdrawn at any time. 

Alarmingly, between 14% to 25% of women are sexually assaulted by intimate partners during their relationship. In the United States, approximately 10-14% of married women are raped by their husbands. In the UK, almost 1 in 3 women (ages 16-59) will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime. And in India, a country where marital sexual assault is not criminalized, 1 in 3 men admit to raping their wives. 

5. Refrain from questioning their levels of sobriety

 “Were you drunk?” is a common question asked. Asking whether the survivor was intoxicated or not is ultimately shaming the victim. These types of questions can be detrimental to their mental well-being as it may suggest that they were partly responsible for the assault. 

If someone has been drinking and/or using drugs, it is important to ensure you receive consent – free from coercion, pressure, and incapacitation. If it is ambiguous or consent is given and then withdrawn, it means no. It’s important to note that if a person is incapacitated (unable to walk, incoherent speaking, confusion, passing out), consent cannot be given. At that point, everything means no.

6. Don’t ask them “Why didn’t you stop them?”

The details of how, what, and why are beside the point. A survey in the United States showed that 81% of women and 43% of men have had experiences of sexual assault and/or harassment in their lifetimes. In each of these cases, it’s vital to remember that the assault happened to them and was in no way their fault. It is important to reassure survivors that they could not have predicted or prevented what happened, and they should take no responsibility for it. 

7. Don’t tell them to “forget it” or “move on”

Suggesting to forget that it happened or sweep it under the rug can severely invalidate survivors’ feelings. It can negatively affect their healing journey if they feel like they aren’t allowed to process their emotions. A study showed that survivors who received negative reactions to their disclosure of sexual assault had worse mental health over a longer duration of time. As it is, 70% of rape and/or sexual assault victims experience moderate to severe distress. 

8. Don’t use phrases like “At least they didn’t…” or “It could have been worse”

Introducing these phrases of toxic positivity in the conversation can be inconsiderate and negate the survivor’s emotions. To truly heal their body and mind, they deserve to feel safe and be allowed to process all their feelings without a positivity agenda constantly being pushed. 

9. Don’t push them to report if they aren’t ready

 Forcing a survivor to report their assault or talk about it publicly is not your place. Suggesting that they recall their trauma for police officers, parents, or the public can induce anxiety. There can be a number of other reasons a survivor takes time before they feel comfortable reporting it. For instance, they may be experiencing shame, self-blame, or fear of judgment. They could also be fearful of reprisal

Studies also show that 60.4% of women, on average, did not recognize their experience had been classified as rape. Choosing not to report it is not an uncommon occurrence; almost two-thirds of cases go unreported. If they do decide to come forward, 14% of people wait more than six months, and 28% of people below the age of 16 wait six months in the United Kingdom. Ultimately, when and if they are ready to report it, they will, and you can offer them support. 

For the sake of the survivors’ mental wellbeing and the way sexual assault is regarded in the public and media, it is essential that you reflect upon the way you speak about the subject. While keeping the Don’ts list in mind, there is also a multitude of words and actions you can use to be sensitive and mindful of survivors’ emotional wellness and their healing.

Do’s:

1. Listen. Listen. Listen

Before offering advice or interrupting them to voice your opinion (don’t unless asked), it is MOST important to listen. Often survivors just want a safe space to speak and vent. If they have chosen you, offer your ears and attention completely.

2. Tell them you believe them

Even if you feel like that may be implied or understood based on your relationship with the survivor, it’s important to voice your belief. Survivors need to hear that their story has been heard and believed. It offers them unconditional support and increases their level of trust in the confidant. 

3. Commend their bravery, courage, and strength

Depending on the situation, commending them on their strength to talk about it may be a positive healthy reassurance for their mental well-being. Try saying something like “you are so brave for sharing your story” or “your strength in this matter is inspiring”.  It shows that you have heard, believe, and support them completely.

4. Remind them that it was not their fault

Whether they voice their innermost thoughts or not, some survivors may engage in self victim-blaming by feeling that they are partially responsible. It would be helpful to remind them that it was not at all their fault, and they didn’t deserve this to happen to them. 

5. Offer them your support and help

People have different emotions in response to sexual assault. Some may experience emotional shock, denial, anxiety, depression, nightmares, and many other symptoms displaying a response to trauma. Let them know that you will continue to listen to them and would like to be helpful in any way possible. 

Something as simple as “I am here for you” or “What can I do to help you?” can mean a great deal. Research shows that the environment that a survivor is in can affect their recovery and wellbeing. So it’s important to display acts of continuous support and validation as it can be extremely beneficial to improving their mental health. 

6. Be empathetic

Acknowledging that the experience has negatively impacted their life can make them feel heard. It is normal to feel great sadness or anger when you hear about sexual assault; there is no need to feel guilty about that. Expressing your deep concern or vulnerable emotional state can be a positive way of showing a survivor that you care. Try offering support in phrases like “This must be really tough for you” or “I am very sorry happened to you.” 

7. Over time, encourage self-care

Recommending self-care tips in small doses can be helpful for them to try. Avoid being pushy or forceful, but ideas such as meditation, yoga, journaling, or any tried and tested self-care ideas can aid them in their journey of healing.

8. Check in

Remind them ever so often that you care about them, and continue to offer support with/without talking about the trauma itself. Even if the assault took place before you were in the survivor’s life, it is still important to continue to check in so that they can continuously feel that they are not alone.

9. Become familiar with resources

As you are not an expert, it’s always helpful to educate yourself using resource options around you. Victims may find it very difficult to resume their habits, relationships, and lifestyle. It can last several months or longer. It’s important to discuss options of counseling, psychotherapy, medications, or other coping methods.

Ultimately, when talking to a sexual assault survivor, it is essential for their mental well-being to make them feel heard, believed, and supported. Unconditionally. It’s important to be emotionally available and patient while they regain their sense of trust and security. Remind them that their hurt, anger, and any other feelings they may be having are completely valid, and their response to trauma does not define them. 

We hope this guide helps you to remember that survivors may have different triggers—so staying kind, considerate, and sensitive is the best and universal way to offer emotional support in the survivors’ journey of healing. 

If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual assault, check out the resources below:

* Call the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline, 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), for confidential crisis support.

7 Cups and IMAlive are free, anonymous online text chat services with trained listeners, online therapists, and counselors.

*Utilize the Me Too Movement Organization’s resources and information if you are in crisis, looking to help someone, or need healing.

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  • Zara Khan

    Zara Khan is a student at the University of British Columbia. She is an avid supporter of women's rights activism and fascinated by the startup ecosystem. She plans to further her passion for digital marketing, experience in social media and journalism.

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