How You Can Help

Survivors of sexual violence can have a wide range of reactions. Some survivors may feel overwhelmed by emotions and some may feel numb or act like nothing has happened. Emotions may surface immediately after an assault or may appear years later.

Common Reactions to Sexual Violence

Some common psychological, emotional, and physical reactions to sexual violence:

  • Shock and disbelief. Survivors may feel emotionally numb and even begin to wonder if it really happened or why.

  • Fear and powerlessness about personal safety.

  • Embarrassment and shame.

  • Guilt. Survivors may believe they did something to make this happen or that it is somehow their fault.

  • Depression and loss of motivation to continue with everyday life. In particular, the impact on survivors’ ability to continue with school can leave them feeling exhausted and helpless.

  • Anxiety. Survivors may begin to experience panic attacks or phobias and have difficulty sitting still.

  • Intrusive memories or flashbacks of the assault. Survivors may continue to see the victimizer’s face, hear his or her voice, or be triggered by a smell.

  • Nightmares. Survivors may experience dreams where they relive the traumatic experience.

  • Physical symptoms of stress. Survivors may be easily startled and may have tension headaches, muscle aches, and stomach or digestive problems.

  • Relationship concerns: issues of trust and sexual intimacy may develop.

Helping those who have experienced sexual violence

Survivors of sexual assault are likely to seek support from their friends and loved ones. They may disclose experiences of sexual violence to you right after the incident or many years later. It can be difficult to know how to support a survivor of sexual violence, and it’s normal for you to have a strong emotional response to learning about a loved one’s trauma. It’s important to remember that there is no timeline for healing and that it’s up to the survivor to make any decisions about how to move forward.  

There are ways to help your loved one, regardless of your relationship to the survivor.

  • GUIDANCE FOR FRIENDS

    As a friend, you can support survivors by being there for them and letting them know you care.

    • Start by being a good listener. Talk less and listen more. Be curious as to how your friend feels about what happened and try not to judge or evaluate any of their statements. Paraphrasing what they said back to them may help them feel understood.
    • Provide reassurance. Self-blame is common among survivors of sexual assault, and you can help a survivor understand that what happened was not his/her fault.
    • Believe them. Be clear about this and do not point out discrepancies in the story. Survivors may feel shame and mistrust and may decide to open up more as time goes by.
    • Be patient. You don’t need to investigate what happened. Let the survivor tell the story at his/her own pace.
    • Protect their privacy. One of the few things a survivor has control over is who knows and what they know. Respect this. Do not gossip, regardless of how well meaning it is.
    • Encourage them to get help. Offer to go with them to the SDCC to meet with a counselor. Have lunch with them to talk about what it was like. If they want to press charges, judicially or through the Worcester police, offer to go along. Be sure to provide options and let the survivor make decisions for himself/herself.
  • GUIDANCE FOR PARENTS

    Learning of a child’s experience with sexual violence is likely to be shocking and overwhelming. It is natural to feel a wide variety of emotions. Many parents feel angry and instinctively want to protect their child. We encourage you to support your child by giving him/her as much control and freedom as possible in the wake of trauma.

    • Believe your son or daughter. Be clear about this. Tell your child that you believe him/her and want to support him/her.
    • Start by being a good listener. Talk less and listen more. Be curious as to how your child feels about what happened, and try not to judge or evaluate any of his/her statements.
    • Provide reassurance. Self-blame is common among survivors of sexual assault, and you can help your child understand that what happened was not his/her fault.
    • Be patient. You don’t need to investigate what happened. Let your child tell the story at his/her own pace.
    • Protect their privacy. One of the few things a survivor has control over is who knows and what they know. Respect this.
    • Encourage your child to get help. Be sure to provide options and let your child make decisions for himself/herself. Encourage your son or daughter to make an appointment at the SDCC or with a local counselor.
    • Encourage your child to speak with whomever he/she feels most comfortable. For some families, any discussions involving sex can be uncomfortable. Your son or daughter may want to speak with a counselor or a friend about issues involving sexual trauma and healing. Respect these decisions and offer support in other ways.
    • Consult. Counselors at the SDCC can help you identify resources and ways to support your child. You can also call Worcester’s local rape crisis center, Pathways for Change, through its 24-hour hotline for support: +1-800-870-5905.

    Remember to take care of your own emotions as you support your son or daughter. If you aren’t sure where to turn for support, contact your local rape crisis center.

  • GUIDANCE FOR PARTNERS

    As a survivor’s romantic partner, you may be one of his or her primary sources of support. It can be tempting to want to help your partner heal faster, but it’s important to remember that healing takes time. Your relationship may be affected after your partner’s experience with sexual violence, and it’s normal to feel a wide variety of emotions.

    • Start by being a good listener. Talk less and listen more. Be curious as to how your partner feels about what happened, and try not to judge or evaluate any of his/her statements.
    • Provide reassurance. Self-blame is common among survivors of sexual assault, and you can help a survivor understand that what happened was not his/her fault.
    • Believe them. Be clear about this. Survivors may feel shame and mistrust and may decide to open up more as time goes on.
    • Be patient. You don’t need to investigate what happened. Let the survivor tell the story at his/her own pace.
    • Protect their privacy. One of the few things a survivor has control over is who knows and what they know. Respect this. Do not gossip, regardless of how well meaning it is.
    • Encourage them to get help. Offer to go with your partner to the SDCC to meet with a counselor. Have lunch with them to talk about what it was like. If they want to press charges, judicially or through the Worcester police, offer to go along. Be sure to provide options and let the survivor make decisions for himself/herself.
    • Educate yourself about the healing process. Take the time to learn about sexual violence, how it can impact romantic and sexual relationships, and the healing process.
    • Communicate with your partner. You and your partner may need to re-establish boundaries in your relationship. Ask your partner what he/she needs to feel safe.
  • GUIDANCE FOR WPI FACULTY & STAFF

    Students may seek support from faculty and staff for a variety of reasons. Sometimes students' reactions are triggered by an assignment or material in class, or students may struggle academically following an experience with sexual violence. Sometimes students open up to you simply because they see you as a trusted mentor. It can be challenging to respond to a student who has disclosed such personal information, but remember that there is no single “right” response. You can offer support by communicating your care and concern. 

    • Know your responsibilities as a WPI employee. In order to keep students and the WPI community safe, employees are required to report some information to a Title IX Coordinator. Communicate with the survivor that you are not a confidential resource, and let them know what confidential resources are available. Learn more.
    • Start by being a good listener. Talk less and listen more. Allow the student to share his/her experience and try not to judge or evaluate any of his/her statements.
    • Provide reassurance. Self-blame is common among survivors of sexual assault, and you can help a survivor understand that what happened was not his/her fault.
    • Believe them. Be clear about this. Survivors often experience self-doubt and it may be difficult to open up with anyone for support.
    • Encourage them to get help. Let the student know what WPI resources are available, including the SDCC. Be sure to provide options and let the survivor make decisions for himself/herself.
    • Consult with the SDCC. A counselor at the SDCC can offer suggestions for how to follow up with students and help you connect the student with appropriate resources.

    Click here (PDF) for the Responding to Sexual Violence: A Guide for Faculty and Staff brochure.

    Supporting a survivor of sexual violence can be challenging and can trigger a range of emotional experiences for you. For WPI students, remember that the SDCC is here for you, too. We encourage you to make an appointment with a counselor to discuss your own feelings and to learn more about how you can provide support.  If you are not a WPI student, you can call the SDCC to consult with one of our counselors who can help identify and connect you with appropriate resources.

Other Resources

  • Online
  • Publications
    • If She is Raped: A Guidebook for Husbands, Fathers, and Male Friends by Alan McEvoy. (2001)
    • If He is Raped: a Guidebook for Parents, Partners, Spouses, and Friends by Alan McEvoy (2003)
    • The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M. D. (2014)
    • Voices of Courage by Michael Domitrz (2005)
    • Lived Through This: Listening to the Stories of Sexual Violence Survivors by Anne Ream (2014)
  • Disclaimer

    We encourage WPI community members to evaluate the materials listed here and to use what they find to be helpful. Please keep in mind that WPI cannot assume responsibility for information on other web sites or publications.  

    These resources are not intended as a substitute for assistance from the SDCC. For personal assistance, WPI students should contact the SDCC at +1-508-831-5540 to schedule an appointment with one of our professional staff.