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The #SVYALit Project: First Responders, part 1 (by author Christa Desir)

When I was six years old, I got lost in a mall. I went out to the parking lot to look for my car and got in a stranger’s car instead, someone who told me he could help me. The half hour that followed changed my life, though I said nothing about it at the time. As a matter of fact, I said nothing about it until almost ten years later.

My best friend in high school was the first person I ever disclosed my sexual assault to. Sitting on the floor in her tiny room, she told me that something terrible had happened to her years earlier. So I told her what had happened to me. Also years earlier.
When I go to speak to high school students about the issue of sexual violence, one of the first things I say to them is that there is a really good chance that someone will disclose sexual violence to them at one point in their lifetime. Run the stats and there’s a good chance that someone will disclose sexual violence to every single one of us. But for teenagers, the chance that they’ll be the firstperson that their friends disclose sexual violence to is really high. Because 44% of people sexually assaulted are under the age of 18 (RAINN). And the reality is teenagers tell their friends things first.
So I wanted to talk a little today about how critical it is not to retraumatize a survivor if they do disclose rape to you. And that’s particularly important if you are the first person they disclose to. Words matter. How you respond to rape matters. It can have a huge impact on the journey a survivor takes toward healing. As a rape victim advocate, I was told that the first twenty-four hours after rape are the most important in terms of minimizing rape trauma syndrome.

No, there is no guidebook on the “right way” for friends/family to respond to rape. What helps some people may not help others. And most first responders aren’t professionally trained. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t do our best for survivors. The truth is, sometimes “I’m sorry” is enough. Sometimes listening, really hearing, is all a survivor needs from you.
When rape victim advocates talk to survivors in ERs, our primary objective is to give them back as much power as we can. To give them choice. To help them feel comfortable. To let them decide what they need. If a person discloses rape, there is nothing wrong with asking, “What can I do to help?” There is nothing wrong with saying, “I believe you.” There is nothing wrong with just sitting next to them and saying, “I’ll be here whenever you need me.” These words are a big deal. They mean a lot.
I think when someone is disclosing to you, the best thing you can do is let them tell their story. Don’t probe for details. Don’t ask them for more than they want to give you. Don’t insist that THIS SHOULD BE THEIR COURSE OF ACTION. Let them decide what they want to happen. Don’t judge them for whatever choices they made before or after the rape. Don’t ask things that feel like you’re blaming them (How much did you have to drink? What were you doing at that party? Haven’t you heard about that guy?) Offer support. Offer to get them in touch with someone who could help or give them a phone number for RAINN. Be present and focus on what they want and need.

Additional Resources:
Sexual Assault: How to Support a Friend
Supporting Someone Who Has Been Raped or Sexually Assaulted
RAINN: Help a Loved One
RAINN: Self Care for Friends and Family Members

Christa Desir is an author, editor, and rape victim advocate. Her debut YA novel Fault Line is out now. Bleed Like Me will be published by Simon & Schuster in October 2014.


  1. So, so important. Thank you for this, Christa.

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