Learn how to support someone who has experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault.
What to do
In an emergency, use the emergency contacts on the reporting sexual misconduct page.
When someone discloses to you that they have experienced violence or abuse, your response is crucial to their recovery. Responding with compassion is key.
There are three sentences which a person who has been impacted should hear:
- “I believe you.”
- “What happened to you was not your fault.”
- “You are not alone.”
We know by saying these sentences and meaning them will help determine how a victim/survivor recovers and if they recover.
Follow these steps
If a friend, student or colleague tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted or sexually harassed, The STOP Campaign recommends following seven key steps.
1. Listen: It takes enormous courage to disclose an experience of sexual violence, so it’s important to be attentive and listen. Allow the victim/survivor to take their time.
Say, “Are you OK? I’m here for you. Take your time.”
2. Acknowledge: Having someone acknowledge what happened can help validate a victim/survivor’s experience and their feelings. Acknowledge their courage and strength for disclosing.
Say, “I recognise this may be difficult to talk about but thank you for speaking out. What has happened to you is not your fault.”
3. Believe. Sexual violence is never the fault of the victim/survivor. Make it clear to them that you believe them and that their feelings are valid. It’s important that the victim/survivor doesn’t feel judged while speaking with you.
Say, “Thank you for telling me. I believe you.”
4. Establish safety. Establish the immediate safety of the victim/survivor. They may still be at risk of future harm and it is important to determine whether they feel safe.
Ask, “Do you feel safe right now? Are you safe where you live/work/travel?”
5. Offer support: Ask the victim/survivor whether they would like further support. If they decline, it’s not your fault. Respect their choice but feel free to remind them that support is always available if they change their mind.
Ask, “What would you like to do? What kind of support would you like?”
6. Refer: Although someone has disclosed to you, you are not expected to be the main source of support. To maintain a safe personal boundary, mitigate vicarious trauma, and help the victim/survivor as best you can, it’s important to refer them on to the appropriate service if they give consent.
Say, “Have you considered speaking about this? Here are some support services that can help victim/survivors.”
7. Debrief: Receiving disclosures of traumatic experiences, including sexual violence, can be distressing. It’s important to ensure you’re also OK. Support services are available to talk about how you are feeling. This can help mitigate the effects of vicarious trauma.
Note: Always keep the identity of the victim/survivor confidential.
When dealing with a disclosure from a friend, student or colleague, it is important that you practise self-care and manage the impact of their trauma.
Vicarious trauma is a normal response to ongoing exposure to other people’s trauma. Working to support people who have experienced trauma, and hearing, seeing and learning about their experiences, can have a cumulative effect on you and many aspects of your personal life.
The symptoms of vicarious trauma are our brain’s way of coping. These symptoms might include:
- Intrusive reactions: Dreams or nightmares, flashbacks, obsessive thoughts, physiological reactions and re-experiencing; for example, feeling more irritable with friends, students and colleagues, dreaming about work or study, feeling hopeless or doubting your abilities.
- Avoidant reactions: General numbing in responsiveness and avoidance; for example, avoiding other people, taking increased sick days, blaming others, comfort eating, increasing your alcohol use.
- Hyper-arousal reactions: Hyper-vigilance and difficulty concentrating; for example, having difficulty falling or staying asleep, losing sleep over work and study, getting distracted, finding it difficult to retain information, experiencing fatigue.
Vicarious trauma shares similarities with stress, trauma, compassion fatigue, burnout and secondary traumatic stress. But there is one key difference: vicarious trauma can change or impact your core beliefs and inner experiences.
When you start to feel these symptoms, it’s important you practice self-care and seek professional help. To access support, contact an ACU counsellor (students), contact the Employee Assistance Program (staff) or browse external support services (PDF) .
Download self-care advice from The STOP Campaign.
Morrison, Z. (2007). “Feeling heavy”: Vicarious trauma and other issues facing those who work in the sexual assault field. ACSSA Wrap, No. 4. Melbourne: Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault, Australian Institute of Family Studies.
Moulden, H.M., & Firestone, P. (2007). Vicarious Traumatization: The Impact on Therapists Who Work with sexual offenders. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 8 1:67-83