How to Support the Recovery of Sexual Assault Survivors

How to Support the Recovery of Sexual Assault Survivors

This article is a sponsored collaboration between HBO and PAPER

Sexual assault is still an unfortunate, all-too-prevalent experience for a large number of people. According to statistics published by the US Department of Justice, it was estimated that 734,630 people were survivors of rape threats, attempts or assaults in 2018. And while it's difficult enough to experience this sort of trauma, what's less talked about is the added challenge of recovering emotionally, mentally and physically from an assault — a process that can be layered, confusing and often exacerbates lingering issues related to what happened.

In this vein, within HBO's I May Destroy You, Arabella — played by Writer and Executive Producer Michaela Coel — is haunted by flashbacks of being drugged and raped during a night out. Following her complicated emotional journey as she attempts to piece together the events of her sexual assault alongside close friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), the series grapples with the fear, rage, guilt and shame that surrounds many survivors' search for accountability and justice.

As a semi-fictionalized depiction of Coel's own assault, the true power of I May Destroy You's narrative is rooted within its nuanced handling of recovery, as well as the resilience of survivors as they try to move forward in daily life with the help of others — whether they're trying to balance work, reckoning with intimacy and rethinking individual ideas of consent, or even just allowing themselves to laugh and lean on their friends for support. But it's this poignant representation of recovery that makes it one of the most realistic portrayals of this difficult process, all while highlighting the true importance of having a supportive community as one is healing.

We may have a long ways to go when it comes to widespread, prevalent change, but there are still several things you can do on an individual level to support survivors of sexual assault in their recovery process. Whether you suspect a friend has experienced a sexual assault or are a survivor yourself, you can help facilitate healing by following this guide, below.

Listen to People's Stories

Whether it comes from the legal system or fears surrounding their community's response, survivors face extensive silencing and a lack of support from existing institutional structures. Look no further than Kwame's heartbreaking experience trying to report his own assault. As such, one of the most direct ways you can help people trying to recover emotionally and mentally from an assault is by making yourself available to talk, even if it takes a while.

During these conversations, be mindful of the potential of a triggering touch and listen without interruption. Remember to choose your phrasing carefully in these moments as well, whether it be abstaining from judgment ("why did you XYZ"), avoiding minimization ("it's okay"), or staying away from catastrophization ("this is the worst thing ever") of the situation.

Both RAINN and Know Your IX have lists of helpful talking tips, which recommend using phrases that express unconditional support, acknowledgement and admiration of their bravery, such as "you're not alone," "it's not your fault," and "I'm sorry this happened."

Also, never pressure anyone into talking before they're ready. Let them tell you in their own time. And when they do, make sure the environment you're in is private, comfortable and secure.

Educate Yourself

Every sexual assault and subsequent recovery is different and complex, so being an effective support system means knowing how to recognize signs of trauma, as well as the most effective course of action to take. For this, experts recommend picking up books like Lizyvette Ramos's Sexual Assault [Rape]: Moving From Victim to Survivor or Laura Davis's Allies in Healing: When the Person You Love Was Sexually Abused as a Child. RAINN also provides a comprehensive list of recovery resources.

And while some won't want to relive the trauma by going to the authorities, pressing charges can be an essential part of the healing process for others. If the latter is true for your friend, offering to accompany them for support (like what Kwame does for Arabella) and being aware of some of the practicalities when it comes to things like filing a report, their medical rights, and procedures surrounding the collection of evidence is helpful, as it can help lessen the overwhelming burdens usually put upon the survivor. Laws and proceedings vary by state though, so your best bet is to find a local sexual assault service provider and research procedures ahead of time, per RAINN.

On a more general level, familiarizing yourself with the facts can also prove useful when it comes to calling out all the triggering, harmful misinformation we see every day. Through your everyday actions and conversations, you can show survivors that you're creating a safe space and are someone they can feel comfortable confiding in. So whenever possible, do things like correct misinformation, publicly support others who have shared their stories, or post resources — like the number to the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-HOPE) or RAINN's directory of local resources — to your own social media accounts. Every little bit counts and, sometimes, publicly passing on information is the most effective way to help someone coping with a private trauma.

Provide Continued Support

Continue to honor their recovery by being someone they know they can always talk to if needed, especially amid triggering events. Dealing with the aftermath of a sexual assault can be a long and harrowing journey, but by regularly voicing your support, asking if they need anything from you and always allowing them to feel their feelings, you let them know that they are not alone. And as seen with moments like Terry tucking Arabella in after realizing she hasn't slept since the assault, checking in and facilitating self-care routines — whether it be as small as joining them for a yoga class or spending an afternoon coloring — is also essential to recovery.

When you feel they are ready and receptive to further help, encourage them to seek out other avenues of support through therapy, crisis lines or survivor groups. Researching local resource providers who can help with advice surrounding medical care or reporting the assault — as well as remaining by their side during these processes — can also be helpful.


If you want to help survivors in a broader sense, you can find ways to support groups that directly work with survivors and help push for education, prevention and recovery. Monetary donations are always welcome, but if an organization needs volunteers, giving your time is also incredibly meaningful.

You can always check out the "take action" pages for large, national nonprofits such as RAINN, Planned Parenthood and NAMI, however keep in mind that supporting smaller and/or local organizations centering certain identities is also an option. Some of these groups include Therapy For Black Girls, the LGBTQIA+-focused NYC Anti-Violence Project and Native Son, an organization dedicated to Black gay male empowerment.

Watch I May Destroy You Mondays at 9 PM on HBO and stream it on HBO Max.

Photo courtesy of HBO