How to Support Sexual Assault Survivors

It’s easy to respond to a speaker who prompts the audience to say “cat,” “hat” and “bicycle.” But why does everyone hesitate when the word is “rape”? DePaul student Anna Nettie Hanson, a sexual assault survivor and author, says she knows why: “Rape is absolutely a difficult subject to talk about.” But, as she discussed at a DePaul Women’s Network Brown Bag luncheon on April 24, people must get past that fear in order to discuss an important topic.

The “Empowering through Assistance” event had two parts. First, Hanson told her personal story of surviving sexual assault and answered questions from the audience. Then, Rima Shaw, sexual health and violence prevention coordinator with DePaul’s Office of Health Promotion & Wellness, shared best practices and university resources that staff and faculty can embrace to show more support to friends in their own lives and to university students.

The event provided the following insight on how to support sexual assault survivors.

Anna Nettie Hanson book1. Start talking (Even if It’s Uncomfortable)

Hanson, who is studying communications and Spanish in DePaul’s honors program, told her personal story of being raped as a high school senior in 2011. To deal with the experience, she wrote a book, “For Now: Words of the Girl Who Fought Back.” Hanson acknowledged that sharing her story, as tough as it is, is part of what helps her heal and is a way to connect with others: “I don’t do it because it’s easy. I do it because it’s important.”

2. Raise Awareness

In her presentation, Hanson shared important statistics about sexual assault:

  • In America, one in six women will experience sexual assault or attempted sexual assault in her lifetime. In the world, that ratio is one in three.
  • Of 100 rapes, only five to 20 are ever reported. Of those reported, just 0.2 to five include a conviction. Unlike many cases that go unprosecuted, Hanson was able to see her attacker convicted and jailed.
  • In the United States, there are 400,000 untested rape kits.

3. Lend Your Support

During the question portion, an audience member asked how to help a loved one after an assault. Hanson talked about the importance of being supportive if you’re unsure of how to act: “I give you the permission to not know what to say. … You can just say, ‘I’m here.’”

Shah echoed that sentiment in her presentation on “Supporting Our Student Survivors.”

  • Begin by offering emotional support when someone comes to you with news of an assault. Listen and let the person know you are supportive: “I believe you.” “You did not deserve this.” “It was not your fault.”
  • Give the person options and let them make decisions. For example, provide referrals to on- and off-campus support services.
  • Don’t tell the person how to feel.
  • Don’t worry too much about saying the right thing; just focus on being there.

4. Do Your Research: Resources for Supporting Students

The Office of Health Promotion & Wellness has a number of handouts for faculty and staff who want to learn more about supporting students. Here are just a few resources DePaul faculty and staff should remember:

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