You don’t have to be a professional to support a person who has been impacted by sexual harassment, sexual assault, stalking, or relationship abuse (SVSH). A survivor’s community is an important part of healing from traumatic events. Below, you’ll find some tips to support someone.
How to Respond
- Recognize that experiences of SVSH are disempowering. Follow the survivor’s lead and respect their choices.
- Prioritize the survivor’s safety, whatever that means for them.
- Understand that the most dangerous time for a person in an abusive relationship is when they attempt to leave.
- Validate and affirm all feelings, even ones that seem extreme or confusing to you.
- Demonstrate that you believe them, avoiding questions or comments that imply the survivor’s fault.
- Show empathy and care about the survivor’s experience, even if you aren’t sure of all the facts. Listen actively and non-judgmentally.
- Ask what kind of support would be helpful. Offer choices, resources and support the survivor in seeking out and exploring options.
- Familiarize yourself with confidential resources on and off campus.
- Offer to connect your loved one with the PATH to Care Center, accompaniment to medical/advocacy/legal appointments, etc.
- Respond in a calm manner, avoiding over-reaction.
- Practice your own self-care, maintain boundaries, and seek support for yourself.
- Insist on a course of action or pressure the survivor into making decisions before they’re ready.
- Tell the person to be more assertive, engage in confrontation, call the police or make a report without permission.
- Expect or assume the survivor will react in any particular way.
- Define an experience as SVSH or rename the experience as something else.
- Express doubt or investigate their experience.
- Ask them probing questions, to recount the experience, or focus on details such as their behavior, appearance, and/or location of where the harm took place.
- Admonish, shame, or blame someone who stays in an unhealthy relationship or remains in contact with the person who has caused them harm.
- Become offended or angry if the survivor doesn’t want support.
- Compare or measure against your own experiences.
PATH to Care is here to provide resources and support but we also know that a survivor’s friends and family can be essential to a person’s safety. Often a support person can be impacted by the feelings of a friend or loved one. Remember not to neglect your own self-care or take on more than you can handle while acting as a support person. It is healthy to set your own boundaries with time and emotional limits while providing care. PATH to Care is available to support you too.
For Responsible Employees
Responsible employees are individuals required to inform the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination (OPHD, the campus Title IX Office) when they become aware, during the course of their work, that a student (including undergraduate, graduate, professional, online, visiting, and extension) has experienced Prohibited Conduct as defined by the UC Policy on SVSH.
- If you think an individual is going to disclose an experience of SVSH harm to you, let them know about your notification responsibilities as early as possible in the conversation.
- You can explain that you want to support them as well as empower them to make an informed decision about whether they wish to continue sharing information with you.
- Keep it simple and straightforward. Reassure them that even if they don’t want to proceed with a formal complaint with OPDH, they can always opt out without repercussion. Respect whatever decision they make.
- If they choose not to continue disclosing to you, you can share PATH to Care Center information and ask the individual if they’d like you to make a warm connection to the Care Line.
- Check in to ensure that they feel comfortable and safe in the immediate environment. Provide them the option to change locations.
- Express appreciation for their trust in coming to you.
- Let the survivor guide the conversation and tell you what they need; don’t press for information or solutions. Honor their boundaries.
- Validate their feelings and responses to the incident (ex: it makes sense to feel that way.)
- Some people may be flooded with emotions. If they are getting increasingly upset while telling you about what happened, they may be reliving the experience.
- Invite them to take slow deep breaths while gently planting their feet into the floor and holding on to their knees.
- Invite them to look around the room and name some ordinary objects they see.
- Do these or other grounding activities with them until they feel calmer.
- Offer resources for support and reporting. You can make a warm referral by initiating the call and then leaving the individual to continue the conversation in private.
- If applicable, reach out to your supervisor/chair/dean to debrief and review next steps.
- You may also call the Care Line to talk through your experience with a PATH to Care confidential advocate.
- Notify OPHD with all the information you’ve received. You can reach them via email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 510-643-7985 or online reporting link.
What to Expect
Each person’s situation and reaction will differ. There is no “one right way” to respond to a traumatic incident: any and all reactions are possible. However there may be some common experiences for each type of harm.
Possible Impacts of SVSH
- Self-blame, guilt, shame, worthlessness, low self-esteem
- Shock, denial, confusion
- Fear, not wanting to leave the house
- Depression, despair, hopelessness, feeling like no one can help, suicidal thoughts
- Easily becoming triggered or upset by seemingly “small” things
- Hypervigilance: increased alertness, fear, or paranoia
- Hyperarousal: easily startled, anxious, angry, in physical pain
- Hypoarousal: disassociated, fatigued, emotionally or physically numb
- Consumed: only wanting to talk about the traumatic events, difficulty concentrating
- Anger, blaming others, frustration with support system
- Constant feeling of being watched or being unsafe
- Unhealthy coping techniques: substance use, self-harm, isolation
- Post traumatic symptoms: intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks
- Somatic symptoms: changes in sleeping and eating, exacerbation of stress-related disabilities and health problems, hair loss, digestive problems, lowered immune system
Intimate Partner Violence
It is common for people experiencing relationship violence to hesitate before leaving an abusive partner. Often, one person will manipulate a partner with isolation, giving or withholding affection, threats, including threats to “out” someone to family and friends, restricting access to necessary medical treatments or mobility, and/or guilt to exert power and control. Some survivors of relationship violence liken the experience to being brainwashed. Statistically, the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is when the survivor attempts to leave, so it is important to have a safety plan and support system in place if the survivor chooses to leave.
When someone experiences sexual violence, the brain responds in ways that can be confusing to both the survivor and their support system. Our bodies are hard-wired to protect us against physical and emotional threats and it does this by initiating our survival responses and flooding our brains with chemicals which can make trauma responses appear unpredictable and inconsistent. As a support person, it can be helpful to understand the symptoms that someone might experience who has been impacted by trauma.
Sexual harassment is unwanted and can take place in the workplace, academic settings, or other private and public spaces. Sexual harassment often occurs when unequal power dynamics are present and the aggressor has some degree of power or privilege over the person being impacted – whether due to their position or the identities of the individual. Is it common for people to minimize the impact of sexual harassment or assume that it is commonplace or typical. The truth is, a person experiencing sexual harassment can be significantly affected by it, including experiencing symptoms of trauma.
Stalking is often not taken seriously by individuals in the survivor’s life. Stalking behavior is not often easily identifiable or harmful at first but can escalate quickly and be very dangerous. It is important to trust the instincts of the person who is experiencing stalking and to take all threats seriously.