Supporting friends who have experienced sexual assault

A friend recently shared with me that they had experienced sexual assault.  I’m not sure I responded in the right way. How can I support them moving forward and how do I respond better if someone else shares this type of experience with me in the future? —(Un?)Supportive

RC: Hi (Un?)Supportive, we are so glad you asked!  It can feel like a lot of pressure to make sure that you’re responding well and we are happy to talk through some strategies to take some of that pressure off! In order to give the best advice we can, I’ve invited my colleague, Rose Poyau, Case Coordinator at OSAPR, to help me answer.

RP:  To begin, I’m thinking about questions that I often ask, which are usually, “how can I support you?” or “how can I be helpful?” This is one of the ways that I can center that person and their needs throughout the conversation. It also helps me to make sure I’m not imposing my ideas on them, but am hearing them and what they would like.

RC: Another thing we often talk to people about is making sure that you match their language. This is another way that we can make sure that we are not minimizing their experience or making meaning of their experience for them. For example, if someone describes their experience as “confusing but unwanted,” we recommend that you don’t use language like “assault,” because that might not be their experience. Conversely, if someone describes something as an assault, mirror that language so that it doesn’t feel like you are reducing the significance of that event.

RP:  It’s often really helpful to check in with people about what has helped them get through hardship in the past. This can remind people of their strength and capacity, and we certainly name those things to people every time we meet with them. Examples of questions to ask might be: “what are some of the things that have been helpful in the past?” or “what are some ways you take care of yourself?”

RC: As we named earlier, it can feel like a lot of pressure to hold this type of information for someone you care about. It’s really important to us that each person is able to set their own boundaries about what they can and can’t do. Because of that, it can be really helpful to know of resources in the community who can help provide support to friends who have experienced interpersonal harm.

At Harvard:

In the Community:

RP: Finally, it’s really helpful to make a plan for checking in with your friend in advance, so that you can decide when and how to check in. Some questions that might be helpful are: “do you want me to check in later?” “how would you prefer that I check in?” “when is good for me to check in?” Sometimes I also tell people that, depending on the type of relationship and friendship, it can be nice to do unsolicited acts of caring. I generally only offer that in relationships where that is already a norm.

RC:  Again, we are so glad you asked; the tools and strategies we have talked about apply in almost any type of interaction and we certainly use them in a wide array of conversations. These will hopefully help you as you navigate supporting your friend and any potential future conversations. While it may feel like there is a high bar for doing this right, what we consistently hear from people is that they appreciate having a friend who listens wholeheartedly and doesn’t make judgements.  

RP: We want you to know that you can connect with OSAPR at any time, whether over our hotline (617-495-9100), by walking in between 12-1 M-F, or by making an appointment (617-496-5636 or We are here for people who have experienced harm as well as for people who are supporting others.

RC:  Lastly, we do want to note that we are about to begin Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) and this is the year for the AAU Survey. Both of those might bring up more experiences or conversations that at other times of the year. We encourage people to connect with each other and with resources as they are able.  Take care and thanks!

RC: Ramsey Champagne, OSAPR Community Advocate

RP: Rose Poyau, OSAPR Case Coordinator