What Do I Say if a Victim Discloses to Me?

Many people are uncomfortable talking about sexual violence. Listening to what a person is saying who discloses an assault often brings up feelings, thoughts and beliefs that are difficult. It is important to remember that if someone has chosen to tell you about an incident, s/he has done so because s/he trusts you. Honoring that trust means being supportive and non-judgmental. It is not your job to serve as a counselor to the victim but remember that the way in which you respond, offer support, and refer her/him for assistance can make a critical impact on her/his recovery.
In almost all instances, the appropriate action for faculty or staff that becomes aware of a victim of sexual assault is to refer by encouraging and assisting the victim to seek the assistance of the staff at the Department of Sexual Assault Services and Crime Victim Assistance (VPVA). While VPVA is a resource to help you, this brief guide may provide assistance in what you might want to say or do immediately after a victim discloses.
Sexual assault affects different people in different ways. For some people, it is an immediate crisis – they are overwhelmed by the emotions and thoughts they experience as a result of the assault, and it is obvious that something bad has happened. Some people have a delayed response – it may take them months or years before they talk about what happened to them. It is important that you know that students may come to you to talk about a sexual assault that they have experienced and they may appear calm, upset, or somewhere in between. However they appear, your response is very important. You have an opportunity to make a difference in their healing process by responding in a supportive, sensitive, nonjudgmental way.
It is especially important to use sensitive and effective communication with victims of sexual assault. Sensitive and effective communication is:
• supportive – it gives victims the sense that they can trust you;
• nonjudgmental – it conveys the message that the perpetrator, not the
victim, is responsible for the assault;
• empathic – it shows sensitivity to the trauma the victim is experiencing;
• non-directive – it encourages the victim to make her/his own choices, without pressure;
• provides information – gives the victim information about options available to her/him;
• encourages self-directed decision-making – allows the victim to regain a sense of control through making her/his own choices.

Examples of ways to talk with victims when they disclose that they have been sexually assaulted are:
“Thank you for telling me this, I realize how hard this is.”
– Conveys support and empathy.
“May I ask you some questions, so that we can figure out what to do next?”
– Shows respect and is non-directive.
“Sometimes when this happens, victims blame themselves – this is not your fault.”
– Shows non-judgment.
“There are different options for help, would you like to talk about these?”
– Gives information and encourages the victim’s decision-making.
“Staff at the Department of Sexual Assault Services are available to help. They are specially trained to work with students who have been assaulted, and can offer you help with whatever you choose to do or not do. They are available 24 hours a day – would you speak with someone from their office?”
– Gives information and helps the victim link with support services.

Remember that you are in a unique position to positively impact a victim’s recovery by the way you respond. The staff at VPVA are available any time to talk with you about how you can be supportive and follow up with a victim who discloses to you. You can also refer victims to our website. If you would like additional information about the options available to a victim, please visit the page “If you have been sexually assaulted”.