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How to help a victim

It takes a lot of courage for a person to reveal that they have experienced sexual violence. A victim’s words must be received with kindness and believed. 

Listening, believing and supporting the victim in their decisions will encourage them to take back control of their life. If they feel you are judging them or making light of their experience, they could feel even more hurt and stop asking for help altogether. 

To avoid victimizing someone a second time (known as “blaming the victim” or secondary victimization) and to aid in their recovery, it is important to offer an empathetic, listening ear, focus on their needs, and respect their choices.

Concentrate on the here and now

The team at the MSAC concentrates on the here and now to meet the immediate needs expressed by the victim. We give each person the necessary space and time to explain their situation and help them to identify their needs and determine whether or not they have been met. We never presume to know what a victim needs. We respect their ability to speak for themselves.

Whether you are someone who is close to the victim or work with victims, you can play an important role in their recovery. Every victim is different; it is important to respect their individual rhythm.

Consult our concise guide on intervening in situations of sexual exploitation for counsellors and practitioners in every field.

How to react to a victim of sexual violence

Depending on your relationship with the person, the following helpful attitudes may help you to provide better support. The most important thing is to believe them and show that you are ready to help them during their recovery.


What you are hearing is the victim’s perception of their experience: their reality. A simple “I believe you” can go a long way. Stay focused on what the victim is saying and what they experienced. Avoid minimizing or dramatizing the facts or their emotions.

Validate their emotions

Help the victim express what they are feeling by reassuring them that their reactions, emotions and feelings—anger, resentment, guilt or low self-esteem—are normal. For example, you could say, “What you’re feeling is perfectly normal.”

Validate their rhythm of recovery and their reactions in the short, medium and long term.

Show empathy by saying things like “You seem upset today,” and asking open-ended questions that focus on their feelings: “Do you feel like telling me about what you’re feeling right now?” Sympathetic words will help the victim to feel understood and safe.

Try to understand their needs

Focus on the victim’s needs by asking open-ended questions in order to better understand their situation. Don’t try to extract every detail of the assault if the victim is vague about what happened. Most victims of sexual violence react less to the sexual aspect of the violence and more to their feelings of powerlessness and terror. Give them the opportunity to talk about the event without forcing them.

Explore options together

It is important to encourage the person to commit to a process when they’re ready and to work through it at the own pace. Explore the options that are open to them, but let the victim decide what they want to do, even if it isn’t what you would do. Give them information and resources, not advice. Don’t try to convince them or dissuade them from reporting their assault to the police.

The victim may have issues that are worrying them more than the actual sexual assault. They might want to talk about their concerns about going back to work, childcare, school or their financial situation, for example. Respect and support their choices, even if they want to do absolutely nothing.

Alleviate guilt and listen without judging

Listen to what the victim is saying. Remind them that the sexual violence they experienced was in no way their fault. The perpetrator is solely responsible for their acts. Pay attention to your body language and tone of voice. For example, try to avoid showing a strong reaction to what you are hearing. Speak quietly.

Choose your words carefully

Avoid questioning the person about their behaviour and decisions during the event, asking why they behaved one way and not another, for example. Generally speaking, questions starting with “why” are to be avoided as they can give the impression that you are blaming the victim for what was done to them. 

Use the same words the victim does to describe their situation. For example, if they talk about their “boyfriend,” say “boyfriend,” not “attacker” or “assailant.”

Encourage their independence

An experience of sexual violence leaves victims with a feeling of loss of control and powerlessness in the face of their lives. By encouraging them to identify their needs and take action to meet them, you will be helping them to regain control of the situation. If you are involved in a professional conversation with a victim, remind them that they are free to ask questions, take breaks, ask for a glass of water, or put an end to the conversation at any time. 

It is important to respect their rhythm and to restrain yourself from telling them what to do. Give them room to breathe and return to their normal activities while assuring them that you are there if they need you. If the victim becomes distant, don’t force your presence on them, but take the initiative of contacting them from time to time.

Recognize your limits

Take the time to get help for yourself as well. We can experience very strong emotions on learning that someone we care about has been a victim of sexual violence. Look after yourself!

Support from close friends and family is invaluable for victims of sexual violence. For that reason, it is very important that you remain aware of your own concerns, fears and prejudices. 

If it is difficult for you to provide the victim with the support they need, help them to identify someone else they can talk to. Being frank about what you are capable of doing in this type of situation can actually be very helpful, as victims are often more worried about the feelings of their loved ones than their own.