How to be Supportive

Sexual Assault Information for Friends & Family

Rape and sexual assault are crimes which affect many people close to the survivor. The survivor is the primary victim, but co-survivors (i.e. friends, family, partners, co-workers, roommates, etc.) become secondary victims to the crime, because they too are affected by the situation. Many co-survivors do not know what to do or where to go for help, or they may feel they don’t have a role in a survivor’s recovery. Co-survivors must respond to their feelings and emotions in regard to the incident. Family and friends will all respond differently, depending upon their past experiences in life and the myths and beliefs which they had about rape and assault prior to the experience.

A survivor of sexual assault has experienced a crime where control over the situation, and indeed the right to make decisions regarding one’s own body, has been removed. It is natural to feel a tremendous loss of power and control over life following sexual assault, so you should emphasize that just surviving is an accomplishment and that anything he or she did to survive was the right thing. Surviving a sexual assault is a testament of the individual’s strength.

Common Responses of Survivors

  • Emotional:
    • Anger: at the assailant(s) or themselves for not escaping the situation
    • Powerlessness: general loss of control over one’s life
    • Guilt: the feeling that she or he could have prevented the assault
    • Fear: of being blamed or assaulted again, people finding out, pregnancy, STIs, all people, physical contact, being alone or with others
    • Helplessness: loss of all self-reliance
    • Shame: humiliation, embarrassment, feeling “dirty” or “damaged”
    • Numbness: appearing extremely calm, controlled or unaffected
  • Physical:
    • Changes in eating patterns
    • Changes in sleep patterns
    • Changes in sexual interest
  • Cognitive:
    • Depression: mood swings, apathy, change in sleeping or eating
    • Anxiety: panic attacks, irritability, feeling of impending doom
    • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
    • Flashbacks: waking or sleeping in the form of night terrors
  • Behavioral:
    • Isolation: withdrawal from friends and family
    • Changes in lifestyle: improved or declined performance at work or school
    • Discomfort: around other people, with intimacy, with being alone

Learn more about Common Reactions to sexual violence and trauma responses

Common Responses of Co-Survivors

  • Pain, sorrow
  • Blame for oneself or the victim
  • Impatience with the recovery process
  • Anger at the assailant, wanting revenge
  • Preoccupation with sexual aspects of the assault; seeing it as sex rather than violence

What co-survivors can do to support the survivor

  • Thank them. It can be scary for survivors to share their story, even if it’s with a friend or family member. Try saying, “Thank you for trusting me with this,” or “I’m so glad you shared this with me.”
  • Believe them. Remember that it is not your job to investigate the assault. Avoid any “why” questions like, “why didn't you leave?” or “why didn't you call me?” Instead, try “I know it might feel like no one will believe you, but I believe you.”
  • Listen to them. Even if you or someone you know has been through a similar situation, remember that everyone experiences trauma differently. Let the survivor speak openly, then ask open-ended questions like “How are you feeling?”
  • Ask how to help. The survivor may not know right away how you can help them, but it’s always best to ask. Say, “What can I do to help?”
  • Don’t tell anyone. Let the survivor tell who they want, when they want. If there’s someone who you think should know, ask the survivor first.
  • Accept them. State that their feelings are normal and that the recovery process takes time. Show support by saying, “It’s okay to feel ______.”
  • Provide information. Inform the survivor of their options for receiving medical care and for reporting. Contact the MSU Sexual Assault Hotline with any questions.
  • Let the survivor take control. Remember, the survivor has been robbed of all sense of control, so letting them make decisions would be empowering. Support the survivor’s decisions, even if you disagree with them.
  • Help identify a support system for the survivor. Encourage them to seek counseling or help from a crisis center or therapist.
  • Be patient. Let the survivor recover at their own rate. It may take weeks, months, or years. Survivors may never feel fully recovered from their assault.
  • Take care of yourself. Consider seeking support from a crisis center or counselor. Supporting yourself also indirectly supports the survivor.
  • Check your own fears and prejudices about sexual assault. Educate yourself about the common myths and misconceptions surrounding sexual assault by researching online, reading articles or contacting your local crisis center.

Friends and family members of people who are sexually assaulted can call the MSU Sexual Assault Hotline for information and support 24-hours a day at (517) 372-6666 and Crisis Chat service available from 10am-10pm at


Online Resource:      RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network)