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The Gift of Holding Space: How to support relatives, loved ones, and friends who experienced sexual assault

If you are a family member, partner, or friend of a survivor of sexual assault, it is important that you learn to hold space for your loved one. Holding space requires that we surrender the urge to fix or react to someone’s story. Holding space is a practice that allows you to be with someone fully and deeply without judgement. It means to give of your time without getting anything in return. Holding space is the ability to be fully present: open heart, open ears, open eyes, and with a relaxed and calm body (hint: deep cleansing breaths). Holding space is having the ability to express unconditional positive regard—no matter the challenge or difficulty.

Our founder and executive director Tarana Burke has often shared that everyone knows at least one survivor in their life. In fact, every 73 seconds1 a person is sexually assaulted in the United States of America. Therefore, it is unfortunately an inevitable truth that you will encounter a survivor. So what do we do when someone discloses to us that they are a survivor of sexual violence?

Here are tips to support your relative, friend or loved one:

  1. Practice active listening. Active listening is about being fully present with the survivor. It is about concentrating fully on what is being said rather than just passively hearing the message of the survivor. Consider these statements to say to a loved one: “I am so sorry this happened to you. Thank you for trusting me with your story. It means a lot to me that you shared with me.”
  2. Believe the survivor. Affirm their story and truth. Many times survivors can question or doubt whether the assault occurred or if it could have been prevented. It is common for some survivors to self-blame or wish they could have done something differently. It is important that you make it clear to them that you believe that the assault happened and that it was not their fault.
  3. Maintain confidentiality. Let them know that you will protect their confidentiality and that it is up to them to decide who to tell about the assault.
  4. Surrender the urge or the wish to fix it. Survivors need someone to be able to contain their emotions or reactions to what they are hearing. Survivors do not need to hear someone come up with solutions to these perceived issues. Sometimes our urge to respond or try to fix things comes from the discomfort we feel as to what we are hearing.
  5. Pay attention to your internal responses and reactions. Notice the sensations in your body. Where do you notice any tension in your body? Breathe deep and through it. Send yourself loving warmth and support. What thoughts come to mind? What feelings begin to surface? Don’t judge them, just allow them to rise (they will float on by) silently and do not share with your friend.
  6. Allow them to feel and express the full range of their emotions. Encourage them to speak openly and just allow them to share even if it may feel uncomfortable to you. It is important that survivors are urged to share all the feelings that are emerging for them. It is normal for feelings to be varied (or what is often perceived as contradictory), and it is of critical importance that they get to say what they feel aloud. Survivors will likely cry, express anger or rage, confusion, fear and other emotions. You can say something like: “Feel free to share what comes up for you. All parts of you are welcome here.”
  7. Sit with them, offer compassion and loving support. The concept of unconditional positive regard is the idea that we accept and support a person regardless of what they say and do. Remember that oftentimes words are not required to offer support to someone. The practice of utilizing non-verbal contact and connection (maintaining your full attention, direct eye contact, and touch with active consent), giving your full presence, sitting with them, and sitting in it can be a transformative and supportive experience for a survivor.

Here are some questions or statements to consider when holding space for a loved one/survivor:

  • Ask before offering physical support: “Can I give you a hug? Can I hold your hand? Or would something else be helpful at this time/moment?”
  • “I believe you. I see you. I hear you. I am so grateful that you trusted me with your story. I admire the courage that it took to share your story.”
  • “It is not your fault. You did nothing to deserve this.”
  • “I am sorry that this happened to you.”
  • “I want you to know that you are not alone. I care about you and I am here to listen or support you in whatever way feels good or appropriate to you.”
  • “You are not alone. I am here for you.”
  • Recommend that they seek counseling or utilize resources that are available to them. Such as the National Sexual Assault Hotline 800.656.HOPE (4673), ‘metoo.’ healing resource library , or

Here are some questions or reactions to avoid:

  • Avoid making threats against the perpetrator. This will not help the survivor feel safe about you, your livelihood, or their own.
  • Check in on a regular basis with the survivor. Sometimes it is hard for us to support survivors when we may feel helpless or unsure of what to do next. But it is important to commit to regular check-ins to remind them that someone still cares about them and their wellbeing.
  • Avoid using language that enforces the gender binary. Instead use inclusive language that affirms the survivor’s gender identity and sexual orientation. It is important not to assume someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation, it is best to use neutral language like “partner” or “date.” Also, it is best not to assume what someone’s preferred pronouns are. Let them tell you or you can ask what they prefer. And if you are unsure you can use “they.”
  • Set aside your curiosity about the events of the assault. Simply put, do not ask details about the sexual assault. Even if you feel that you want to (or need to) fully understand it, avoid asking any questions about the traumatic incident. Allow them to share their story on their time. Remember to listen actively, with compassion and non-judgment.

It is an honor to be able to hold space for survivors. Allow yourself to soak in the sacredness of this practice of holding and containing with love and compassion the voices and stories of survivors who embody courage and strength in the face of trauma.



Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape: A Guide for Friends and Family of Sexual Violence Survivors.

Tips for Talking with Survivors of Sexual Assault

How to Support a Friend or Loved One Who Has Been Sexually Abused.

LGBTQ Survivors of Sexual Violence

Additional resources:

Sexual Assault and the LGBTQ Community

Supporting Queer Survivors of Sexual Violence

National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs: A coalition of programs that document and advocate for victims of anti-LGBT and anti-HIV/AIDS violence/harassment, domestic violence, sexual assault, police misconduct and other forms of victimization. Site has a list of local anti-violence programs and publications. Hotline: 212.714.1141

The Trevor Project: Help and suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth. Hotline: 866.488.7386

LGBT National Hotline: Call center that refers to over 15,000 resources across the country that support LGBTQ individuals. Hotline: 888.THE.GLNH (843.4564) pen pals, weekly LQB and T chatrooms for youth.

Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Issues in Counseling: Directory of LGBT-friendly mental health specialists across the United States. Specialists listed are verified members of ALGBTIC, a division of the American Counseling Association.

FORGE (For Ourselves: Reworking Gender Expression): Home to the Transgender Sexual Violence Project. Provides services and publishes research for transgender persons experiencing violence and their loved ones.