How Friends and Family Can Support Survivors of Sexual Assault

We recently spoke with Michele Paolella, LMSW, director of social services and training at Day One (a New York-based nonprofit organization focused on domestic violence and sexual assault among young people), about ways to support victims of sexual assault and trauma—and avoid re-traumatizing them.

Survivors of sexual assault and harassment are our friends, neighbors, colleagues, and family members, and despite our good intentions, there might be some things we’re doing that could inadvertently make their situations harder.

Greatist: The first question for friends and family members of survivors of sexual assault is often "now what?" What do we do next?

Michele Paolella: If your friend or a family member has just told you that they experienced a sexual assault, the first thing to do is take a deep breath and ground yourself so that you are able to deeply listen to what they are sharing with you. You don't have to have all the answers at your fingertips; listen to really hear and not to respond.

Remember first and foremost that a survivor of sexual assault has been through an experience that took away their power and control, and the healing process can start as soon as they are able to regain some of the power and control that was taken from them. This means that no matter how tempted you may be to tell them what to do ("Call the police, get to the emergency room, etc."), it's better to support them in making their own decisions.

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