How To Support A Sexual Violence Survivor


The statistics are alarming: More than one in three women and one in four men will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. Most sexual violence is committed by someone known to the person, such as a current or ex-partner, relative, boss, teacher, coach, religious leader or casual acquaintance. And many sex crimes go unreported, due to fear, embarrassment or shame.


“It is important to remember the survivor is never to blame for a sexual assault, regardless of circumstance,” says Adrienne Cognata, a sexual assault nurse examiner in the emergency department at Henry Ford Allegiance Health. “If someone confides an experience of sexual assault, try to not react with shock or anger. Instead, believe them without judgment, acknowledge their experience and courage, and offer your support.”


Sexual violence is hard to talk about and often difficult to hear. It can feel confusing if the person is not crying or visibly upset when telling you about an assault. Everyone has their own individual response to trauma, however, and a wide range of reactions are normal. “While a person who is traumatized might appear hysterical, it’s very common for trauma survivors to appear completely calm, or even start laughing,” says Cognata.


Trauma, including sexual violence, sets off a complex reaction in the body. It releases hormones that may affect memory recall, concentration and emotional regulation. Helping survivors heal requires patience, understanding and compassion. You can help survivors begin the healing process by:

  • Listening without judgement. Staying present and letting them cry, talk or sit quietly.
  • Reminding them the assault wasn’t their fault and they didn’t deserve what happened.
  • Reassuring them that the assault doesn’t change your feelings about them or your relationship, and that the assault does not define them.
  • Offering to help them seek medical attention, get counseling, or report the crime—but remembering to not tell them what they “should” do. Returning a sense of control to survivors is very important in their healing.
  • Explaining that free medical exams are available that include support, education, and treatment against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
  • Helping them understand that under Michigan law, individuals ages 14 and older may seek medical attention without filing a police report (except in certain cases where a minor is assaulted by a person of authority, such as a parent, teacher, coach or clergy member).
  • Providing resources, such as the Michigan Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-855-864-2374 (1-855-VOICES4).

Lastly, checking in with them regularly to see how they are doing can help--and letting them know that if they don't feel like talking about it right now, that's okay too. 


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Adrienne Cognata, BSN, RN, SANE-A, SANE-P, MEI, was instrumental in creating a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program at Henry Ford Allegiance Health in Jackson.


Categories: FeelWell