“I know someone who survived a sexual assault. How can I help?”

What percentage of people in the US are Sexually Abused? According to the CDC, 10.6%

of adult women and 2.1% of adult men have reported experiencing a forced sexual encounter at some point in their lives. This means that just as many of us will find ourselves in the role known as “secondary survivor.”

What is a secondary survivor? “A person who is in the survivor’s life, and shares enough of an emotional bond that they are in a position to help the survivor deal with what happened.”
Sexual assault and trauma is often uncharted territory for many of us, until we are unnaturally affected by it.

How do we help a survivor cope with such a trauma, when listening to the survivor’s disclosure of the assault can be just as traumatic for the support person? Emotions and thoughts can range from anger to shock, disbelief, helplessness, wanting to “rescue the victim” or “fix the situation.” We may not know what to say, or we may have too much to say.

What the survivor needs is someone to act with thoughtful understanding and support. We have been chosen to share in their story because they trust us and feel safe with us.

Here are some responses that might be helpful if you find yourself in the role of Secondary Survivor, courtesy of the Rape Recovery Center in Salt Lake City, Utah:
1. Provide meaningful support– be a good listener. If you are hearing your voice more than theirs during the conversation, you are talking too much and not listening enough.
  • Do not allow the focus of every conversation to revolve around this topic. There was more to both of you prior to the assault, and there will be again.
  • When asking questions, avoid starting any sentence with “why.” You will only succeed in backing the survivor into a defensive corner. If you must ask questions, use “how,” “when,” or “where” instead.

2. Be careful your anger toward the perpetrator is not conveyed as anger toward the survivor.

  • Threatening to “take care” of the situation only shifts attention away from the survivor’s needs to your own. Even though you are now in the role of secondary survivor, nothing about this situation has to do with you.
  • Avoid the urge to rescue and overprotect. Survivors need help rebuiliding self-confidence and independence, not an unhealthy dependence on others.
3. The greatest gift you can give a survivor is the freedom to make their own choice on how best to proceed.
  • Rape is a crime of power and control. Be careful not to limit the survivor’s independence by making decisions for them.
  • Make the decision for yourself, right now, to follow the survivor’s lead. Tell them you support whatever decisions they makes, then do so.
4. Do not be afraid of silence. It is ok if you do not know what to say.
  • The most powerful statement you can make is simply being present, without trying to fix everything or pretending all is well.
  • It is ok to say, “I want you to know that I don’t know what to say, but I do believe you and will support you in whatever decisions you choose to make.”
  • Ask how you can help by simply stating, “Tell me how I can help you.

Secondary Survivor Self-Help (courtesy of RAINN)

Most importantly, be sure to take care of yourself. Hearing the survivors story and helping to support them can and will have a significant emotional impact on you as well. Be sure to maintain your emotional health– you can not help your loved one if you are in crisis yourself!

1. Become involved in activities that do not revolve around the abuse experience.

  • Get involved in a sport or hobby you love. Knowing that other people are counting on you to show up may help motivate your involvement and participation.
  • If you have a spouse or partner, make a date night and stick to it!
  • Set time aside to do what you need to do, and when that time is up, move on to other activities.

2. Work to manage your feelings.

  • Keep a journal. It may prove helpful to write down some of the feelings you are experiencing.
  • Practice relaxation exercises, or consult your doctor about practicing yoga or starting an exercise regimen.
  • Consider talking to a counselor who specializes in sexual abuse and assault. Do not rely on your survivor for emotional support.

Note: You can freely redistribute this resource, electronically or in print, provided the author’s information below is left intact.