Supporting Survivors In The Short Term and Long Term
Whether you’re a college student, active in a sport, or a trusted family member, it’s likely that someone will disclose to you that they have experienced some form of sexual misconduct at some point in your life. 1 in 4 college athletes experience sexual misconduct, and 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men in college experience sexual assault. When someone discloses their sexual assault experience to you, responding with compassion and awareness can make a positive impact. The following includes best practices that can help you navigate how to best support the survivor.
In the short term
If there is immediate danger of harm, it is in the survivor’s best interest to call 911 immediately. However, if they live with the perpetrator or are at risk of harm if their disclosure becomes known to the perpetrator, it is better to make a safety plan.
If there is no immediate risk of harm to the survivor, ask them how they want to move forward. Remember you can’t rescue them – decisions must be their own. This helps the survivor to be in charge of their own healing.
Start by believing.
The first person a survivor discloses to can affect their healing long term and determine whether or not they seek help or report their experience. Remember to always ask for consent before initiating any physical contact with the survivor, like holding their hand or hugging.
It’s important to gently remind the survivor that what happened to them was not their fault. Survivors may experience self-blame. As a supporter and friend, the best thing that you can do is remind them that their traumatic experience was not their fault. Being a safe person who they can share their feelings and experiences with can positively impact the survivor. Never ask a survivor if they were drinking, on drugs, or somehow invited their abuse. Non-consensual sexual contact is never the survivor’s fault and can happen to people of any gender. Learn more about self-blame here.
After a sexual assault, a survivor may respond to the trauma in ways that you don’t completely understand. Survivors respond to trauma differently and may exhibit behavior and mood changes. As a support person, being observant and kind to survivors impacted by trauma and helping them access resources as needed can be beneficial, even if you feel confused by their behavior. Learn more about trauma-informed responses here.
Ask how they want to move forward with reporting.
It should always be the survivor’s choice whether or not to report to the authorities that they have been abused. However, if the survivor is a minor, and/or you are both members of the same sporting or educational organization, mandated reporting laws and procedures apply. Educate or remind the survivor about mandatory reporting laws in your jurisdiction if they are a minor.
Survivors in education settings also have the right to report to their school or university under Title IX. And, in some workplace settings, survivors may be able to report their experience to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) under Title VII.
In athletic settings under the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Movement, survivors have the right to report their experience to the U.S. Center for SafeSport. This is a process that takes place separately from the criminal court system and is available to any survivor whose experience happened within a USOPC sport setting.
Reporting to law enforcement is also an option for survivors. To do this, a survivor will have to file a police report. The criminal justice system can be incredibly difficult for survivors to navigate. If the survivor chooses this option, supporting them as much as possible can make a huge difference in the mental health of the survivor as they navigate the process.
If the survivor chooses not to report at all, that’s okay! It is always the survivor’s decision whether or not to report. For more information on the nuances of these options please see #WeRideTogether’s blog post, Justice Options for Athletes. Providing the survivor with this information, resources, and options takes a load off their shoulders so they can focus on making the right decision for themselves rather than researching and navigating this confusing process.
In the long term
Know the basics of non-reporting options.
If the survivor does not wish to report to the authorities, that is their choice. Remember, mandated reporting laws are applicable for minors. Providing survivors with resources and information that may benefit their long-term healing is a great way to support a survivor. Finding resources can be overwhelming. Survivors.org from 501(c)(3) Promoting Awareness | Victim Empowerment (PAVE) is a good resource to begin searching for counselors, if the survivor is interested in finding a therapist that specializes in trauma. Psychology Today is also a great resource. By sharing ideas and offering a starting point, you can empower the survivor to make positive steps in their healing journey.
Student survivors can also use a tool like Callisto to create a record of the assault without immediately involving the authorities or university administration. This is a valuable tool for survivors who may want to report in the future, but are currently unsure.
Remember to support yourself.
Navigating supporting a survivor of sexual assault can be difficult. Remember to support the survivor while caring for your own mental health as well. If you believe, support, and give grace to your loved one who has experienced sexual violence, you will proactively help them to heal.
Leave it up to them.
It’s normal to want to do everything you can to help a survivor you know and care for. However, it’s important to leave all decisions about moving forward to the survivor and to support as best you can in those choices. A person who has experienced sexual misconduct has had their agency taken from them, and gaining that power back is vital in the healing process. Ask them what they need from you and what you can do to support them.
Communications Manager at #WeRideTogether
If you are experiencing sexual abuse, the RAINN National Sexual Assault Helpline can be reached at 1-800-656-4673. If you are an athlete experiencing abuse, the Courage First Athlete Helpline can be reached at 888-279-1026. And if you are experiencing intimate partner violence, the National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 800-799-7233.