When Someone You Know Was Sexually Assaulted

Monica Crawford

May 29, 2023


Trigger Warning: this post discusses sexual assault. It covers statistics, definitions, impacts of sexual assault, recommendations on how to support survivors, and resources.


Based on current statistics, it is likely that you personally know someone who has been sexually assaulted. Many sexual assault victims choose to disclose their experience to a friend or family member at some point in their life. The person they choose to share with could very well be you. 8% of men and 30% of women, aged 15 or older, have experienced an incident of sexual assault in Canada [1]. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) individuals are at even higher risk of experiencing sexual assault in their lifetime [2]. It is common to avoid or become uncomfortable during these difficult conversations, as we often fear that we may say something that will make the person feel worse. This article provides statistics, definitions, and impacts of sexual assault on victims, as well as guidance on how you can respond if someone makes a disclosure to you. It is our hope that after reading this post, you will feel better informed about how to best support a survivor of sexual assault. Note that resources for support are listed at the end of this post.

In order to support someone who has been sexually assaulted, it is first important to understand the realities of sexual assault. When you think about sexual assault, what comes to mind? Maybe it’s an image of a young woman being followed home at night by a dark shadowy figure in a baseball cap. Maybe it’s how your parents raised you to yell “fire!” if this stranger tried to harm you so that help would come. Maybe you think of instances you have seen in the news – cases like People v. [Brock] Turner [3]. And although some perpetrators of sexual assaults are strangers, more often they are people the victims know and may even love. In sexual assault crimes, the accused is known to the victim 80% of the time [4]. The most common perpetrator is an acquaintance (41%), followed by a family member (28%), and a friend (10%) [4]. Moreover, 20% of women, and 3% of men, have been sexually assaulted by their spouse [4].

Some Key Terms

Sexual assault: Sexual assault refers to any sexual contact or behaviour that occurs without explicit consent of the victim [5]. It can include forced sexual activity, attempted forced sexual activity, unwanted sexual touching, grabbing, kissing or fondling, or sexual relations without the victim being able to give consent [6].

Rape: Rape is often considered the most severe form of sexual assault. Rape includes sexual penetration of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without consent of the victim [5]. Although rape is a form of sexual assault, not all sexual assault is rape.

Force: It is important to note that force does not necessarily mean physical force, but also encompasses emotional coercion, psychological force, or manipulation to coerce a victim into non-consensual sex [5].

Potential Impacts of Sexual Assault

There is no “right” response to have in the aftermath of being sexually assaulted. How one person might feel or react after a sexual assault could be entirely different from another. Some victims may appear emotional after their assault, such as expressing anger or sadness, whereas others may appear detached, disconnected, or appear overly controlled in their demeanor [7]. Other survivors may even laugh or joke about the assault [8]. There is also no “right” timeline for a victim of sexual assault to have a reaction or to choose to disclose, which can sometimes come months or years after the assault. All these responses are valid, even if they do not align with how one might anticipate a victim of sexual assault to react or feel.

Survivors can experience a number of different impacts from the trauma. Some may feel ashamed or guilty for what has happened, while others may minimize or deny what happened to them as a way of coping [7]. In other cases, survivors may lose trust in themselves or others and isolate themselves [7]. They may experience amnesia of the incident, or experience dissociation (a disconnect between a person and their thoughts, feelings, memory, or sense of identity [9]) as a result of the assault [7]. In some, hypersexuality may develop after experiencing a trauma [10]. Survivors can also experience mental health consequences in relation to the assault, including posttraumatic stress, depression, anxiety, substance dependence, and suicidal ideation [11].

How to Support Someone When They Disclose They Were Sexually Assaulted

Studies have found that between 41% to 100% of sexual assault survivors will disclose to an informal source, such as friends or family, at some point in their life [12]. When a survivor is met with strong support after a sexual assault, it can positively influence their psychological health and can protect against negative mental health consequences, like posttraumatic stress and depression [13]. As such, it is important to feel equipped with the knowledge of how to react and support someone when they make a disclosure.

So how does one respond when someone discloses that they are a victim of sexual assault? First, aim to provide emotional validation to the survivor, which can help in their recovery by increasing feelings of control and allowing them to process the experience emotionally and cognitively [11]. Some examples might look like:

“Thank you for trusting me with your story. I’m so sorry this happened to you. I can imagine how scared and alone you must have felt through this.”

“What happened to you is not okay. I am here to support you in any way possible and we will figure this out together.”

“I’m really glad you decided to tell me, and I can imagine how difficult that was. Thank you for trusting me.”

It is also important to avoid unsupportive responses or victim blaming (e.g. “you were pretty drunk last night, are you sure you’re not just regretting sleeping with them?” or “what were you thinking going home alone with them?”). These types of responses can reinforce self-blame and hinder the survivor’s recovery [14].

Another way to provide support to the survivor is talking with them about options and offering to support or assist them in moving forward. Some options might include:

  1. Seeking medical attention by going to a hospital or doctor’s office
  2. Calling the police (911 if the person is in immediate danger, or the non-emergency line for your local police department) or reporting the incident to campus security (if on school grounds)
  3. Seeking mental health support from a sexual assault centre, crisis line, or counsellor
  4. Choosing to not report or disclose the sexual assault

According to the 2019 Canadian General Social Survey (GSS) on Victimization, only 6% of incidents of sexual assault were reported to the police [6] and there are a variety of reasons that sexual assault victims choose not to report. Uncertainty about how or where to report a sexual assault is a hindering factor of reporting for survivors [15]. Other reasons for not reporting include internalizing shame, guilt, and stigma about the assault, fear that they will not be believed, or fear that they will be met with victim blaming or treated with disrespect [1]. There is no time limit to report an assault to the police; some survivors may choose to do so later in life if they did report the assault at the time of the incident [16].

It is important to support and encourage the survivor to take steps to care for themselves, but not pressure the survivor to share the information to others. Supporters need to ensure that their own biases, expectations, or emotions, do not become more important than the survivors’ choice of how they want to proceed. Ultimately, it is up to the survivor to decide how they want to move forward.

Further Reading

Making a Decision About Reporting to Police: https://www.vsac.ca/reporting-to-police/

Information for Sexual Assault Survivors: https://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/en/relationship-violence/information-sexual-assault-survivors

Recovering from Rape and Sexual Trauma: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma/recovering-from-rape-and-sexual-trauma.htm

“You Can Help, A Guide for Family and Friends of Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Assault” by Rebecca Street: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/32053437-you-can-help


Canada Sexual Assault Centres: https://www.reescommunity.com/resources/

WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre & Helpline: British Columbia’s largest rape crisis centre. https://www.wavaw.ca. Responders are available 24/7 to provide emotional support and information by calling 1-877-392-7583.

VictimLinkBC: free and confidential service available 24/7 in B.C. and the Yukon by calling or texting 1-800-563-0808. Responders can help connect you to community, social, health, justice and government resources, including victim services, transition houses and counselling resources. You can call this service even if you’re unsure if you or the person you’re supporting is the victim of a crime.


[1] Cotter, A. & Savage, L. (2019). Gender-based violence and unwanted sexual behaviour in Canada, 2018: Initial findings from the Survey of Safety in Public and Private Spaces. Statistics Canada. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2019001/article/00017-eng.htm

[2] Messinger, A.M., & Koon-Magnin, S. (2019). Sexual violence in LGBT communities. Handbook of Sexual Assault and Sexual Assault Prevention. 661-674. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-23645-8

[3] Stack, L. (2016). In Stanford rape case, Brock Turner blamed drinking and promiscuity. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/09/us/brock-turner-blamed-drinking-and-promiscuity-in-sexual-assault-at-stanford.html

[4] Government of Canada. (2022). Bill C-46: Records applications post-mills, a caselaw review. https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/csj-sjc/ccs-ajc/rr06_vic2/p3_4.html

[5] Rape, Abuse & Incest Nation Network (RAINN). (n.d.). Retrieved March 30, 2023 from https://www.rainn.org/articles/sexual-assault

[6] Statistics Canada (2021). Criminal victimization in Canada, 2019. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/210825/dq210825a-eng.htm

[7] Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs (n.d.). The effects of sexual assault. Retrieved March 30, 2023 from https://www.wcsap.org/help/about-sexual-assault/effects-sexual-assault

[8] Hopper, J. (2020). Important things to get right about the “neurobiology of trauma.” Part 2: Victim responses during sexual assault. End Violence Against Women International. https://evawintl.org/wp-content/uploads/TB-02_Victim-Responses.pdf  

[9] American Psychiatric Association. (n.d). What are dissociative disorders? Retrieved May 26, 2023 from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/dissociative-disorders/what-are-dissociative-disorders

[10] Fontanesi, L., Marchetti, D., Limoncin, E., Rossi, R., Nimbi, F. M., Mollaioli, D., Sansone, A., Colonnello, E., Simonelli, C., Di Lorenzo, G., Jannini, E. A., & Ciocca, G. (2021). Hypersexuality and Trauma: a mediation and moderation model from psychopathology to problematic sexual behavior. Journal of Affective Disorders281, 631–637. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2020.11.100

[11] Grandgenett, H. M., Steel, A. L., Brock, R. L., & DiLillo, D. (2022). Responding to disclosure of sexual assault: The potential impact of victimization history and rape myth acceptance. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 37(5-6), 2102–2125. https://doi.org/10.1177/088626051989842

[12] 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, 201–226. https://doi.org/10.1177/1524838014521322

[13] Ozbay, F., Johnson, D. C., Dimoulas, E., Morgan, C. A., III, Charney, D., & Southwick, S. (2007). Social support and resilience to stress: From neurobiology to clinical practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 4, 35–40

[14] Ahrens, C. E., Campbell, R., Ternier-Thames, N. K., Wasco, S. M., & Sefl, T. (2007). Deciding whom to tell: Expectations and outcomes of rape survivors’ first disclosures. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 31, 38–49. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.2007.00329.x

[15] Kilpatrick D. G., Resnick H. S., Ruggiero K. J., Conoscenti L. M., McCauley J. (2007). Drug-facilitated, incapacitated, and forcible rape: A national study (Document No. 219181). https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/219181.pdf

[16] Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) (n.d.). Information for sexual assault survivors. Retrieved March 30, 2023 from https://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/en/relationship-violence/information-sexual-assault-survivors