Supporting a survivor of sexual and gender based violence

If someone discloses information about an incident of sexual or gender based violence, abuse or harassment to you, they are placing a great deal of trust in you. It takes a huge deal of courage to make a disclosure of this type, and it is very important to respond sensitively and supportively.

Responding effectively and appropriately to a disclosure of sexual violence

Anyone can create a safe place for a survivor of sexual violence to discuss their experience. If you are disclosed to, it is not your role to be a counsellor, rather to provide an appropriate response that empowers a survivor to SEEK what they need. This is done by providing:

  • Safe space to talk
  • An Empowering attitude
  • An Empathetic response
  • Your Knowledge sources of support in the University and externally

There are some excellent resources which provide simple, easy to follow guidelines on how to respond effectively if you receive a disclosure. Have a look at this article in The Conversation for more information.

First Responder Guidelines for staff

This guidance has been developed in partnership with Forth Valley Rape Crisis for staff to enable them to provide initial support and referral information.

First Responder Guidelines

Some key points to remember

  • Dont panic if you receive a disclosure – try not to look shocked or upset, keep calm and maintain an open mind
  • Recognise and acknowledge how difficult it can be to make a disclosure – it takes a great deal of courage to do so
  • Don't be judgemental, show disbelief, or use 'victim-blaming' language; use language such as 'I believe you' and 'Thank you for choosing to share this with me'
  • Don't cast doubt on the disclosure. The proportion of false allegations is tiny (less than 3%).
  • Don't probe for excessive details about what happened - if the survivor wants to disclose this, they will, and if they want to make a formal report they will be asked to provide that level of detail at that point.
  • Remember your job is not to be an investigator. It is simply to be supportive, to make the person feel validated, to ask them what they want to happen next, and to refer them to the right sources of support.
  • Don't try to 'fix the problem' – you can't. What you can do is show that you believe the survivor, and ask them what they want to happen next.
  • Refer the survivor to the right place: provide them with information about professional support available in the University or provided via external agencies. Have a look at the information on this website about support that is available.
  • Don't try to take control. It is really important to survivors that they feel in control of their options and next steps.
  • Don't force a survivor to make a formal report or speak to the police - that's their choice.
  • If you are a member of staff, keep a factual record of your discussion with the person making the disclosure. Only record the facts; do not include your own opinions or subjective statements. Record any guidance you gave e.g. referrals.
  • Be aware that, if the case goes to Court, you could be called as a witness and your notes will be important evidence. Always be happy that your notes are clear and accurate, as you may be asked to stand by what you have written.
  • Any notes you take should be saved securely and confidentially in case you need to find them and share them in future e.g. if the person making the disclosure decides they want to make a formal report.
Woman on phone

In an emergency

If you're away from campus, you should call 999 to reach any of the emergency services.

If you're on campus, call the Security Team any time on 7999 (on an internal phone) or 01786 467999 (from a mobile phone) to request the Police.

If you need an ambulance, dial 999 directly to speak to a call handler. Once you have done so, call the Security Team on 7999 (on an internal phone) or 01786 467999 (from a mobile phone) to advise them that an ambulance will be arriving.

An empathetic response is really important

Believe: survivors of sexual assault often worry that they will not be believed. Tell the survivor directly, 'I believe you.' Try not to ask questions that sound like you don’t believe their story - for example, questions that start with 'Why did you…' or 'I can't believe he would do that!' When a survivor feels believed, you have helped them start the process of dealing with their experience.

Actively listen to the survivor: it is natural for the responder to get involved in their own thoughts and feelings about what they are hearing. However, it is important to stay focused on what the survivor is saying and what he or she needs.

Be aware of your body language: empathetic words have to be supported by empathetic body language.  Recognise that a survivor may not feel comfortable with physical contact, and be aware that this may not be appropriate, particularly in a work environment.

Use responses that are genuine: Use supportive phrases such as 'You did not ask for this to happen, you trusted this person.' Communicate that survivors are never to blame for an assault.

Ongoing support following a disclosure

If you have received a disclosure from a friend or colleague, you might want to know more about how to support him or her in the subsequent weeks and months.

Rape Crisis Scotland has produced a suite of excellent resources. Of particular value might be Information For Friends and Information For Young People Supporting Friends.