Research has shown that student communities include many survivors of sexual abuse and assault. When survivors receive positive social support, they’re less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or substance abuse issues, research shows.
Survivors are most likely to disclose to a friend, but may come to staff or faculty seeking helpful resources and referrals. Here’s how to prepare for that conversation.
Know what your college or university expects of you
If you’re a “responsible employee” or “mandatory reporter,” and if it seems a student may be working up to disclosing an assault, explain up front to the student that you’re legally obligated to share such disclosures with the Title IX coordinator or equivalent colleague. If you’re unclear about your reporting obligations or have concerns about the limits of confidentiality, talk to your Title IX coordinator.
Know resources on and off campus
Familiarize yourself with resources that can support students who’ve experienced gender-based violence—for example, the Title IX office, counseling center, and local sexual assault crisis center.
Consider all facets of a student’s identity
“Taking an intersectional approach when responding to a friend who has disclosed is crucial. An individual’s multiple identities—racial, socioeconomic, geographic, religious—all intersect and can inform how easy or difficult it may be to navigate the services and information to help them,” says Nadiah Mohajir, founder and executive director of HEART Women & Girls, an organization that promotes sexual health and sexual violence awareness in Muslim communities.
Some students, particularly those who experience marginalization based on their identity, may be more comfortable connecting with a resource from their community (e.g., a counselor of color, a police officer who has worked with people with disabilities, or a religious professional). Reach out to your Title IX coordinator, who can tell you about resources such as multicultural and LGBTQ+ centers, chaplains, offices of international students, disability resource offices, and others.
Know the key messages for supporting survivors
- “Thank you for sharing this with me.”
- “I want to support you. What do you think might be helpful?”
- “Would you like me to come with you to [helpful resource]?”
Kelly Addington, founder, One Student, Rearview, Florida.
Cristina Ayala, executive director, Asian American Task Force Against Domestic Violence, Boston, Massachusetts.
Melanie Boyd, PhD, assistant dean of student affairs; director, Office of Gender and Campus Culture, Yale University in Connecticut; and lecturer in women, gender, and sexuality studies at Yale University in Connecticut.
Nadiah Mohajir, founder and executive director, HEART Women & Girls, Chicago, Illinois.
Neville, H. A., & Pugh, A. O. (1997). General and culture-specific factors influencing African American women’s reporting patterns and perceived social support following sexual assault: An exploratory investigation. Violence Against Women, 3(4), 361–381.
Powers, L. E., Curry, M. A., Oschwald, M., & Maley, S. (2002). Barriers and strategies in addressing abuse: A survey of disabled women’s experiences. Journal of Rehabilitation, 68(1), 4.
Sabina, C., & Ho, L. Y. (2014). Campus and college victim responses to sexual assault and dating violence: Disclosure, service utilization, and service provision. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 15(3), 201–226.
Sable, M. R., Danis, F., Mauzy, D. L., & Gallagher, S. K. (2006). Barriers to reporting sexual assault for women and men: Perspectives of college students. Journal of American College Health, 55(3), 157–162.
Tillman, S., Bryant-Davis, T., Smith, K., & Marks, A. (2010). Shattering silence: Exploring barriers to disclosure for African American sexual assault survivors. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 11(2), 59–70.
Todahl, J. L., Linville, D., Bustin, A., Wheeler, J., & Gau, J. (2009). Sexual assault support services and community systems: Understanding critical issues and needs in the LGBTQ community. Violence Against Women, 15(8), 952–976.