While we as a culture work to confront the crisis of sexual violence, we have witnessed waves of survivor disclosures via movements like #MeToo, #TimesUp, and #NotOkay. For the health, safety, and emotional wellbeing of survivors of sexual violence, it is critically important that support providers — including friends and family members — be prepared to provide positive, helpful reactions to survivors who come forward.
This article aims to outline the difference between positive and negative reactions to sexual violence as identified in the fields of clinical psychology and criminology. Our hope is that this piece will better prepare readers to provide loving, compassionate support to the survivors in their lives who choose to disclose, and to contribute to a safer culture for survivors regardless of their disclosure decision.
Social reactions to disclosures of violence have a significant impact on health outcomes for survivors, and are commonly characterized in psychology research as being either positive or negative.1
Positive reactions to disclosures include:
Whereas negative reactions to disclosure include:
While survivors who receive positive reactions to disclosures tend to have better health outcomes and are more likely to formally report their experience, survivors who receive negative reactions to their disclosure may experience heightened PTSD, anxiety, depression, self-blame, avoidance coping, feelings of shame, feelings of guilt, and negative affect.2-5 It is therefore important that individuals learn how best to respond to survivors who disclose experiences of violence.
For a comprehensive list of what to do, what not to do, what to say, what not to say, and resources for self-care following receipt of a disclosure, please see the “supporting survivors” section below.
Note: this section has been adapted from a manuscript written by the author and published in the Journal of Sexual Aggression.6
As discussed above, responding supportively to a survivor who discloses or shares an experience of sexual violence may facilitate survivor healing, empower survivors to report, or help survivors feel comfortable moving forward with disciplinary or legal procedures against their perpetrator.
On the other hand, providing a negative or unsupportive response may increase survivor self-blame, lead to poor outcomes for the survivor, or dissuade the survivor from sharing their experience with other support providers and resources.
It is critical that we all be prepared to respond appropriately to disclosures of sexual violence.
Advice and guidance on how to provide support for a survivor who discloses a sexually violent experience, as well as information on which reactions to avoid, are included below. Some basic scripts on what to say and what not to say to survivors, as well as information regarding self-care resources, are also included. Please review these carefully, and print a copy to keep in your home, your vehicle, your wallet, or your place of employment.
If this is a campus assault, and you are considered a Mandated Reporter by the University, do tell the survivor that you are required to report their experience, and ask them how they would like to move forward.
Re-asserting survivors' feelings of agency, independence, and choice is crucial during the reporting process.
Assure them that they will be a full partner in the reporting process, and that you will not move forward with a reporting step until you are both on the same page. Assure them that you will check in regularly, and that you can take a break at any signs of emotional distress. Remind the survivor that, though it is your job to report the experience to the appropriate campus leadership, it is also your job to ensure that the survivor feels heard, supported, and in control of their healing process.
It is normal to feel stressed, sad, anxious, worried, confused, or hurt after receiving a disclosure.
Your feelings as a support provider and disclosure respondent are valid, and your own emotional health matters.
Self-care is an important part of the disclosure and response process — it is impossible to “pour from an empty glass.” In order to best support other people, you must also make sure that you feel safe, happy, healthy, and cared for. Here are some skills and activities that are recommended for self-care:
To you, who move through the harm of this world and are still standing. You, who have the resilience and compassion to create radical change in our society. You, whose presence in my world I celebrate. You, who deserve so much better than this world has given you.
First, I would like to say: I believe you, I support you, your voice matters, your story matters.
It is up to you to decide whether you want to disclose or report, it is up to you to decide how you want to process your trauma.
As a survivor myself, I know how important it was for me to have ownership over my healing process; how critical it was to feel confident that I was back in the driver seat. Developing agency in the aftermath of my experience was miraculously healing.
The self-care resources and skills listed above are for you, too. Use them. Figure out what self-care works best for you. Radical self-love is a game-changer.
I am honored by your presence in my world. The strength that you gain in moving through your experience will be the strength that heals your community, that changes our society, that leads to a better future for all of us. Though this burden should not be ours to bear, we make this world a sweeter, softer place when we work in kinship and community with each other. There is no safer space than the love between survivors who validate one another.
Survivors are a boon to our communities. To future victims, we will be your calm after the storm. There are no words strong enough to hold my love for you — the way your presence in my universe honors and validates me — the honor it is to build community with you. We are going to change this world. We are the warriors of equality and accountability. We are the harbingers of love, light, and change.
Our voices, our experiences, and our resilience are revolutionary. We are a mighty tide, and we will carry our communities toward justice.
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