Once you have the information and resources to recognize domestic violence and sexual assault, you can use the tools below to prepare yourself to help someone get the support they need and deserve, and to also prevent these crimes going forward.
Knowing what to say to someone who may be experiencing domestic violence or sexual assault can be overwhelming and downright scary. Though it may be tough, you can still be of some help.
The most important thing to remember is that you don’t need to be an expert — you need to be a friend.
In addition to the info below, the national hotlines offer free, confidential services to anyone who has been affected by domestic violence and sexual assault, including friends and families.
Responding to a Friend or Family Member
Listen without judgement
Remember, if someone you know discloses that they are currently experiencing abuse or have been abused or sexually assaulted in the past, this could be the first time they’re telling anyone. Listening without judgment or blame and letting them know they’re not alone can make a huge difference. If the victim/survivor is in need of support, ask them if they’d like to talk to a professional counselor, and offer to sit with them while they call one of the 24-hour national hotlines. While you may have a strong reaction to what you’ve heard, it’s important to focus and fully listen to the survivor’s words. And if you’re in need of support for yourself after being there for your loved one, the hotlines can offer you help as well.
Tip→ Sometimes you don’t even need words (or at least, many words), to be there for someone. Many people share that just being able to tell their story to someone else lessens the weight of isolation, secrecy and self-blame. Remember, listening alone can make a huge difference in someone’s life. – via the Joyful Heart Foundation’s 6 Steps to Supporting a Survivor
Let them know that you believe them
By letting a victim/survivor know that you believe them, you can change that person’s life. A victim/survivor may feel like what happened to them is their fault. It’s not unusual for victims/survivors to experience self-blame, doubt or denial. This could be the first time they’re telling someone so reassurance that you believe them and that this was not their fault can go a long way to making that person feel comfortable getting the help they need and deserve.
It can be helpful to communicate the following gently and repeatedly:
- “Nothing you did or could’ve done differently makes this your fault.”
- “The responsibility is on the person who hurt you.”
- “No one ever has the right to hurt you.”
- “I promise, you didn’t ask for this.”
- “I know that it can feel like you did something wrong, but you didn’t.”
- “It doesn’t matter if you did or didn’t _______. No one asks to be hurt in this way.”
Tip→ No one deserves abuse or violence. Statements or questions that focus on what a victim did or didn’t do – unintentionally or not – signals that the survivor is responsible. The only person to blame for violence and abuse is the perpetrator. Although this sounds like a simple idea, educating yourself about the common myths about domestic violence and sexual assault can help you offer informed, compassionate support and make a huge difference.
Ask what more you can do to help
Support their decisions
Tip→ This point can be very difficult. It can be quite tempting to try to “fix” things or solve the problem immediately. By listening, allowing a survivor to make decisions for her/himself and assuring them that their decisions are supported, you can make a huge impact on that survivor’s life. – via Rape Victim Advocates’ Effects Of Sexual Violence
It is critical for a victim/survivor to regain their sense of control and agency. Support their decisions instead of pushing them to take actions that they may not feel comfortable with (such as reporting to police, or seeking counseling).
If a victim/survivor wants to talk, try to be an open listener. If they prefer not to talk about the assault, then try to be supportive in other ways, such as letting them know that you care about them and are willing to listen at a later time.
Balance their safety with their wishes about confidentiality: always respect the victim’s/survivor’s confidentiality and don’t tell others about their experience without explicit permission and consent. However, if you believe there to be immediate danger, call 911.
Finally, encourage them to reach out to the national hotlines for help and guidance. If you need someone to talk to, the National Domestic Violence Hotline or the National Sexual Assault Helpline can support you too as you’re figuring out how to support someone else. They’re free and confidential.
Take care of yourself too. Make sure you seek support and help if you are feeling overwhelmed.
Domestic violence and sexual assault can be extremely difficult and painful experiences for the families and friends of victims/survivors. Common feelings of those supporting victims/survivors include helplessness, frustration, anger and guilt. It can be helpful to talk with someone. Confidential support is available.
Is it different when the victim/survivor is a man?
Both women and men must contend with socially-imposed, internalized messages that create barriers to getting help to heal from domestic violence or sexual assault. Common responses for anyone experiencing abuse or violence, like feelings of self-blame, fear of not being believed, and the way in which an individual might try to reclaim safety and control over their lives are inevitably deeply influenced by gendered social norms.
Efforts to identify and most effectively address the needs of females who have been victimized have improved over many years and continue to evolve, but in recent years, it has become clear that there may be great value in deepening our understanding of how men emotionally respond to and heal from sexual abuse or interpersonal violence, using tools and strategies that may be different from our standard assumptions about providing support.
Any man who wants help to heal must first overcome widely-accepted standards of masculinity that discourage men from acknowledging any vulnerability or experiences of victimization, or from showing weakness. As outlined above, listening, believing and respecting whatever steps he’s ready to take are crucial elements of supporting a man who has experienced abuse.
Additionally, a man may benefit from assurance that asking for help is in fact a courageous act. Men deserve support to heal from trauma.
Normalizing the fact that 1 in 6 men has experienced childhood sexual abuse and that 1 in every 5 men experience some form of sexual assault in their lifetimes can help counter some of the most damaging aspects of those norms and help a man feel less isolated and alone.
Tip→ A man may particularly benefit from the knowledge that whether he is gay, straight or bisexual, a boy’s or man’s sexual orientation is neither the cause nor the result of sexual abuse. This knowledge can help dispel some key fears men often have about being misunderstood or stereotyped based on homophobic attitudes. By focusing on the abusive nature of sexual abuse rather than the sexual aspects of the interaction, it becomes easier to understand that sexual abuse has nothing to do with sexual orientation. – via 1 in 6
And it’s important to know that the vast majority of boys who are sexually abused will never sexually abuse or assault anyone else.
Additional resources from our Partners on how to support friends and family:
Facts and Myths of boys' and men's experiences with abuse
1 in 6
Help for Friends and Family
The National Domestic Violence Hotline
6 Steps to Supporting a Survivor
Joyful Heart Foundation
Know the Effects of Sexual Violence
Rape Victim Advocates