How to Help People Experiencing Sexual Violence

Sexual violence is a term that applies to a number of crimes including sexual assault, sexual harassment, rape, and any other scenario where a person has experienced unwanted sexual contact or the threat of unwanted sexual contact.

At Durham College and UOIT, I sat on a Working Group that drafted a new “Sexual Violence Response Protocol.” The impetus for the formation of this working group was because of a posting on a Facebook page, Spotted at DC/UOIT. This page allows people to submit posts about the college and students which are posted anonymously.

In the days after CampusFest, the orientation event, a student posted that she had met a man at the beginning of the night and explained she wasn’t interested in having sex. Later in the night, after many drinks, they had sex; clearly she felt taken advantage of (and stated as much.) This was an obvious case of sexual violence, as she was too drunk to consent.

Unfortunately, the response from the campus community was not one of warmth and acceptance, but one of victim-blaming. While the post was deleted, the comments (from both men and women) were focused on the amount of alcohol she had drank. Obviously that was not a helpful response.

A group of concerned students (including a student who later became a member of the working group with me) spoke to the Durham College Leadership Team. This led to the formation of a “Building Respect” team and a smaller working group that drafted a new policy.

The old policy was focused on a Campus Safety model. If you reported sexual violence, you would be sent to Campus Security; if the event involved a student, an assessment would be made to determine whether the student posed a threat. Information could be passed to the police and you could referred to other resources like the Durham Region Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Care Centre (DVSACC), as well as counselling, but for most people it was not a good experience.

The new model involves:

  • Single access point phone number
  • Focus on emotional support – what does the person in front of us want?
  • Respect and non-judgemental support
  • Training for Outreach Services, Campus Athletics and other front-line workers
  • Counselling referrals

The new protocol provides options for every situation, from someone who is reporting sexual violence anonymously to someone who wishes for direct police intervention – and any situation in between.

Elements for Helping Sexual Violence Survivors

  • Believe the person. Nobody asks to be sexually assaulted, and it doesn’t matter what elements precipitated the assault (clothing, intoxication, choice of transportation, etc.)
  • Tell the person that the violence was not their fault or responsibility. Part of the reason that reports of sexual violence are so low is the tendency to self-rationalize that it was not an assault or it was the fault of the survivor.
  • Validate the survivor’s feelings. After sexual violence, a survivor can be feeling a range of experiences including guilt, regret, anger, sadness, or simply numbness. All these experiences are okay.
  • The survivor may not want referrals. They may not want a solution. A survivor may not be able to talk about much. Stay with them. Simply listen. Be okay with silence.
  • Refer if necessary. Help the survivor identify or access the resources that they are interested in, while respecting their decision not to do so. Remember that you should respect confidentiality as much as your position requires you to. Know before you get someone in front of you what your confidentiality requirements are.

Men in particular have a difficult time reporting sexual violence because of long-standing beliefs that men cannot be assaulted; the above elements are even more important with them because of the stigma of sexual assault.

Knowing resources for male survivors will become more important; many women who are victims of sexual violence experience a difficulty working with male care providers (therapists, doctors, advocates) and men may find themselves similarly limited. Respect their choices for gendered helpers as they work through the healing process.

Additional Training for Sexual Violence

The US Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) produces a program for training Sexual Assault Advocates. This includes a comprehensive instructor’s manual and complete training, including slides. While the information is American-based it is still a fantastic resource.

Local Rape Crisis Centres. For women who have experienced sexual violence from men, rape crisis centres often provide advocacy, crisis intervention, suicide prevention, and emotional support on 24-hour helplines and with trained rape counsellors. One limitation of the Rape Crisis Centres (at least in Ontario) is that many of them do not provide support to men or to trans women who have not had sexual reassignment surgery.

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2015), "How to Help People Experiencing Sexual Violence," retrieved on June 26, 2019 from

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