Sexual Assault Awareness Month: How to Be There

Jennifer Sullivan
Jennifer Sullivan

Editor’s Note: While this blog was originally published on April 30, 2019,  the advice on supporting survivors of sexual assault remains true to this day. Additionally, please be advised that this blog does contain mentions of sexual assault and rape.

According to RAINN, an American experiences sexual assault every 92 seconds. One in six women and one in 33 males have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in their life. More specifically, younger people are at higher risk of sexual violence. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and nationwide, colleges are educating their campuses on sexual violence. I am the vice president of It’s On Us, a campaign to end sexual assault, at Worcester State University and we compiled a list for friends and family on how to support someone who has been sexually assaulted:

  1. Let them know it is not their fault. Feeling blamed because of the situation is the last thing they need. Their clothing or whether they were drinking does not mean that they deserved or caused their sexual assault. Only rapists and perpetrators cause rape and sexual assault, never the victim.
  2. Respect the survivor and their decisions to report or not. Please do not pressure them to report if they are uncomfortable or unsafe in doing so. Investigations can be extremely exhausting and traumatic for a survivor of sexual assault to relive their experiences. From personal experience, someone pressured me to report and then blamed me for not reporting my rape. This action kept me silent for over a year.
  3. V-A-R® – Validate, Appreciate, Refer®. Validate their feelings and emotions. “I’m so sorry that happened to you” is one way to start the conversation (resist the urge to say “I understand” unless you are also a survivor of sexual assault). Appreciate their courage in reaching out to you. It can be very difficult to open up about a traumatic event to someone. Say things like, “You are not alone,” or “I’m here for you.Refer them to support or coping skills. If you are on campus, some resources that may maintain confidentiality include the counseling center, ministry or other religious services, and health services. Please note these vary from campus to campus. If they do not attend college, another option is to call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). You could also say, “I think it may be helpful to talk to someone. If you want, I can stay with you while we call/text the hotline, or make an appointment with a counselor.”
  4. Provide resources. The Title IX coordinator, counseling center, and campus police are all possible resources on campus. Websites such as RAINN help provide information and hotlines like the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800-656-HOPE) can supply immediate support.
  5. Ask for consent to touch. Ask them if they want a hug, or if you can convey comfort through touch (hug, touching shoulder/hand). If they reply that they’re not comfortable, respect their boundaries.
  6. Hear something, say something. If you hear a rape joke, stand up and explain the problem with that type of language. Your voice is powerful in bringing awareness to the issue and educating your family, friends, and classmates. If you notice someone at a party that may have had too much to drink heading upstairs with someone else, intervene by making a scene. Be an active bystander.  

To learn more about Sexual Assault Awareness Month, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.