We use the term "ally" for someone who is truly supportive of the survivor. Often people in the survivor's life are trying to be helpful, but are doing so in ways that don't feel helpful or supportive to the survivor. Examples: encouraging the survivor to "leave it in the past," trying to "cheer up" a survivor who is feeling sad or angry, or attempting to have the survivor view the abuse as less painful because "it could have been worse." These strategies: denial, avoidance, and minimization are commonly used by survivors and those trying to "help," but they interfere with the process of true healing.
Tips for being a good support person:
1. Listen. Listen. Listen.
Try not to interrupt or overreact with your own thoughts and feelings. You may need to process your own reactions with someone to support you too. Most importantly, the survivor needs you to "be there" for her/him. Let them know that you are open to hearing anything they wish to share, and that although it's painful and upsetting, you are willing to enter those difficult places with them and to receive their words with respect. Ask how you can be of help in the healing process and honor the answer. Acknowledge and validate the survivor's feelings. If you have feelings of outrage, compassion, pain for their pain, do share them. There is probably nothing more comforting than a genuine human response. Just make sure your feelings don't overwhelm theirs.
2. Believe the abuse or rape happened.
Sometimes when we are shocked or upset about what we are hearing, we react with denial. It is very damaging to survivors when someone they are trusting with their painful secret does not believe them. Even if they sometimes doubt themselves, even if their memories are vague, even if what they tell you sounds too extreme, believe them. Don't try to make the survivor prove her/his story by asking questions about how it happened. Survivors need to hear that they are believed and that it was not their fault.
3. Educate yourself about sexual abuse/rape and the healing process.
If you have a basic idea of what the survivor is going through, it will help you to be supportive. Reading this is a great start! Check out the Resources for Allies. The more you know, the the more supportive you’ll be!
4. Help empower the survivor to feel safe again.
Many people who have been sexually abused or assaulted experience a sense of helplessness, fear, shame, rage, and violation. Helping the person talk about fears and identifying ways to feel safe again may help the survivor deal with those feelings while taking positive steps. Without telling the survivor "you need to do this, you need to do that," you may be able to offer constructive suggestions that (s)he hadn't already thought of.
5. Assist the survivor in validating the damage.
All sexual abuse & rape is harmful. Even if it's not overtly "violent", physical, or repeated, all sexual victimization has serious consequences. There is no positive or neutral experience of sexual abuse or rape.
6. Be clear that the abuse or rape was not the survivor's fault.
No one asks to be abused or raped. The survivor did what (s)he had to do to survive. It is always the fault of the perpetrator.
7. Don't sympathize with the abuser.
Survivors need to experience their feelings about the abuse and their abuser. Trying to figure out "why" the abuser did this, or pointing out the "good qualities" of the abuser is very damaging to this process, and the survivor may not trust that you are truly believing and validating her/his truth.
8. Offer support in whatever way the survivor needs it.
Healing is a slow, spiral process that can't be hurried. People heal in different ways, at their own pace. Don't try to guess what they need; ask them instead. For example, one woman may appreciate being held and touched, while another may find that touching triggers memories of what happened. Be honest about it. Don't promise to be there for a survivor in ways that you can't or in ways that overstretch your limits. It is far better to say you can't meet a need than to break a promise or be there feeling resentment.
9. Encourage the survivor to get support from various people/sources.
In addition to offering your own caring, encourage them to reach out to others. Get support for yourself. You will have many feelings about the abuse or rape also. You need to take care of yourself so you can be there for the survivor. The survivor may find it difficult to talk to you if (s)he thinks it upsets you. If so, encourage the survivor to speak with another trusted person. Remember that being sexually victimized brings up feelings of powerlessness - encourage the survivor to make choices and avoid insisting that the survivor talk to you.
10. Get professional help when needed.
Most survivors are not suicidal, but sometimes the pain of the abuse or rape is so devastating that the survivor may have the desire to kill herself/himself. If you are close to a survivor who is suicidal, get help immediately. The survivor may also need professional help if, after a reasonable amount of time, the survivor is still unable to deal with day-to-day life problems.
11. Accept that there will very likely be major changes in your relationship with the survivor as they heal.
If you are the partner of the survivor, choose an appropriate time (NOT right after an assault) to discuss how the survivor feels about herself/himself, the abuse, and your life together. It may be difficult for the survivor to handle or resume former activities for some time. The closeness and intimacy you may have shared before the abuse could be affected. Consider talking with a counselor, either individually or as a couple.
12. See and validate all the strengths that the survivor has.
Continue to see the survivor as a strong, courageous person who is reclaiming her/his own life.