Working with Sexual Assault Survivors: Practical Suggestions for Advisers

  • April 27, 2011

Krista L. Prince, University of South Carolina


One of the most common, pervasive, and violent crimes on college campuses is rape. Female college students are more likely than those in the general population or those of comparable age to experience rape or other forms of sexual assault (Fisher, Cullen, & Turner, 2000). This is because perpetrators target high-density areas like campuses that are in close proximity to potential victims. In addition, alcohol use is widespread on college campuses, and it often is a catalyst for rape. Most studies indicate that alcohol or other drugs are involved in 90 percent of sexual assault cases (Sampson, 2003). Despite the prevalence of sexual assault, 42 percent of all survivors never tell anyone about their experience (Warshaw, 1994). Of those who do tell someone about their sexual assault, less than 5 percent report it to the police (Fisher et al., 2000). The pervasiveness of these crimes is startling, but understanding the realities concerning rape and sexual assault on college campuses is crucial to working effectively with students who may be survivors.

Whether academic advisers know it or not, they have most likely worked with a student who is a survivor of some sort of interpersonal violence: sexual assault, rape, sexual battery, relationship violence, or stalking. By the time the student graduates from college, nearly one in four women will be a survivor of rape or attempted rape (Warshaw, 1994). Approximately 3.5 percent of female students on a college campus will be raped each academic year (Fisher et al., 2000). Further, one in eight men will be sexually assaulted in his lifetime. For this reason, it is pertinent that advisers become educated about this this issue and trained to respond if a student discloses that she or he survived a sexual assault. The intention of this paper is to define terms related to interpersonal violence, dispel common myths about sexual assault that may negatively impact an adviser’s response to a survivor, identify common responses of a survivor, and educate advisers about how to respond if students disclose that they have survived a sexual assault.

Definitions of Terms

To understand how to help a survivor, it is important that advisers know what sexual assault, rape, consent, and coercion are. Sexual assault is an overarching term referring to sexual contact that occurs without consent. This term also includes rape. Although definitions vary by state, the generally accepted definition of rape is nonconsensual penetration of the mouth, anus, or vagina by any penis, object, or finger using physical force or psychological coercion (Fisher et al., 2000). In addition to knowing the definitions of these offenses, it is equally important to understand what consent is and when it is or is not given.

In order for a sexual act to be consensual, consent must be given freely and willingly. Consent must be explicit either verbally or by overt action. The individuals involved must be physically free and capable to act. Individuals with diminished mental capacity or those who are incapacitated cannot give consent. It is important to remember that past consent to sexual activities does not mean that consent is given for all future activities, and consent to one activity does not indicate consent for other sexual activities. If a person is physically restrained or threatened, even saying yes does not classify as consent, because the person is neither free nor willing. In addition to saying no, several nonverbal behaviors such as silence, pushing someone away, moving one’s own body away, crying, and many others indicate consent has not been given (NCSU Women’s Center, 2007). Most survivors do try to stop the rape by saying no, using force, screaming, begging, or even running away (Fisher et al., 2000). However, a lack of active resistance does not indicate that consent has been given.

Coercion involves manipulating or pressuring someone into sexual activity. Coercion is illegal and does not qualify as consent (NCSU Women’s Center, 2007). A partner in a relationship might be guilty of this manipulation strategy. Many people do not realize that if coercion exists, consent is not implied. When an individual says, “If you loved me, you would have sex with me” or “please, come on, we’ve done it before” or “if you don’t have sex with me, I will…,” he or she is coercing the other individual into sexual activity. Wearing down others’ mental abilities to the point where they give in to constant begging or pressure does not qualify as obtaining consent.

Myths About Sexual Assaults

Once one understands exactly what sexual assault is, it is important to learn about the myths that surround the issue. These myths are powerful, because they often influence how people respond when someone discloses she or he is a survivor. One common myth surrounding rape in particular is the assertion that women lie about it to get revenge or because they feel guilty about having sex. In reality, most survivors do not share their experience with anyone, and the FBI reports only 2–8 percent of reported rapes are unfounded each year (Sampson, 2003; Warshaw, 1994). When a survivor discloses an assault, it is not likely to be a faulty report.

Another familiar myth is that strangers commit most sexual assaults. In fact, non-strangers commit 90 percent of rapes on college campuses. On average, perpetrators know their victims for a period of one year (Fisher et al., 2000). This often makes it challenging for survivors to come forward, since they are confused about why someone they know, and maybe even love, would commit this act against them.

Some people believe rape would not occur if women were to dress less provocatively, carry pepper spray, and walk with others at night. This misconception often leads survivors to feel they are at fault and should have done something differently to prevent the assault. For years women have taken self-defense courses, carried pepper spray, and utilized these other “prevention”techniques, yet the rates of rape have not decreased (NCSU Women’s Center, 2007). More often than not, the perpetrator is someone the victim knows and may even be the one walking her home at night. Individuals do not deserve to be violated regardless of their behavior or clothing. Rather than focusing on what survivors could have done differently, society should focus on a cultural shift in which perpetrators are held accountable, bystanders intervene, and survivors are not made to feel responsible for their own assault.

Despite popular belief, perpetrators do not rape because they are sexually unfulfilled. Rape is about power and control. This motivation explains why heterosexual men in prison rape new inmates. It is why men in their twenties often rape elderly women, and it is also why adults perpetrate against children. People who rape are often well liked, and they are usually in consensual sexual relationships already (NCSU Women’s Center, 2007). Only a small minority of men and women ever commit this violent crime in their lifetime; however, those who do tend to start young and perpetrate often (Sampson, 2003; Warshaw, 1994).

Common Responses of Survivors

Throughout the healing process, survivors of sexual assault may experience a host of physical, psychological, and behavioral responses. Some psychological responses may include guilt, denial, shame, shock, mistrust, and depression (NCSU Women’s Center, 2007). Thirty percent of rape survivors have even contemplated suicide (Warshaw, 1994). Physical responses may include pelvic pain or gastrointestinal disorders. Forty percent of survivors contract a sexually transmitted disease, and 1–5 percent will become pregnant. Some behavioral responses after a sexual assault include turning to alcohol and other substances, engaging in risky sexual behaviors with high–risk partners, or developing an eating disorder (NCSU Women’s Center, 2007; Sampson, 2003). Every survivor responds differently; this is not an exhaustive list.

What Can Advisers Do To Help?

Advisers are not expected to be counselors or experts when working with sexual assault survivors; however, there are several keys to responding appropriately and helpfully if a student discloses a sexual assault. The most important response one can give if a student does disclose a sexual assault is to believe them. Many survivors never tell anyone, and the reaction of the first person they confide in will greatly impact their healing process (Warshaw, 1994). If a student identifies an adviser as a safe person to tell, it is important for the adviser to be prepared to react appropriately to the information. Advisers can show concern for the student and tell the student that they care. Advisers should validate the student’s experience by perhaps saying, “You are such a strong person for surviving that experience; I am here for you.” Acknowledging what happened and avoiding the tendency to try to “make it better” is very important. Advisers should permit the survivor to disclose what she or he feels comfortable sharing (NCSU Women’s Center, 2007). It is not necessary to get all of the details; just to listen.

If the incident occurred recently, advisers should address immediate health concerns and refer the student to a health care facility, if needed (Holmes, 2008). Many hospitals have safe centers with nursing staff trained in sexual assault care and can administer a rape kit at no cost. Knowing about these resources may increase the likelihood that the student seeks medical attention, but the decision to utilize the available resources ultimately belongs with the survivor.

Advisers should try to remember the myths outlined above and avoid blaming the survivor. No matter what a victim was drinking, wearing, or doing beforehand, they do not deserve to be assaulted. Advisers should not take control of the situation but should try to give back to the survivor the power lost because of the assault. They should let the student share at her or his own pace, and determine how to (or not to) utilize the resources provided. Advisers should not judge or critique the survivor’s decisions. For example, if the survivor does not want to report the incident to the police, advisers should support the student’s decision. Because of university policy, advisers may be required to fill out an anonymous report form if a student discloses to them, but that policy will vary by campus. Advisers should take care of themselves as well. It is possible for advisers to experience secondary trauma after hearing a survivor’s story (Holmes, 2008). While maintaining confidentiality, advisers should seek the support they may need themselves.

There are several valuable student resources on most campuses, including a women’s center or interpersonal violence office. If there are such offices, they may be appropriate places to refer students or advisers seeking advice and assistance. If the student wishes to report the assault to the police, the adviser may offer to accompany the student to the station or to bring an officer to the adviser’s office. A representative of the women’s center or similar office may be designated to serve as a survivor advocate during these processes. Further, there may also be an individual designated on campus to accompany survivors to the hospital for physical exams after an assault has occurred (Holmes, 2008). These are all important resources for the survivor.

It is crucial for advisers to show that they are available to assist the survivor, but advisers should also consider referring them to appropriate professional staff, such as those in the campus counseling or women’s center. If an adviser is able to help a student communicate with their instructors, this could greatly reduce the pressure the student may feel to meet academic demands while coping with such a traumatic event (Holmes, 2008). The adviser’s role is ultimately to provide resources, but students must decide how and if they want to use them. Each survivor will move through the healing process at his/her own pace. Advisers should not make decisions for students nor force an action plan upon them. For many survivors, just telling someone is a huge first step.


This article is intended to help advisers feel prepared to support students who disclose a sexual assault to them. Since most survivors never tell anyone about their assault, it is crucial that advisers prepare to react appropriately if students do disclose to them. Even if an adviser has not had a student disclose a sexual assault in the past, it is highly likely that he or she has worked with a student who has experienced this type of trauma. Being sensitive to the prevalence of this issue as well as the myths surrounding sexual assault will make advisers better resources for their students. Advisers do not need to be experts, but developing a basis of knowledge could make a significant difference to a student. Please consult the references below for more information.


Fisher, B. S., Cullen, F. T., & Turner, M. G. (2000). The sexual victimization of college women. (NCJ Report 182369). Retrieved from the National Criminal Justice Reference Service website:

Holmes, S. (2008, January 23). Academic advisers supporting students affected by relationship violence. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal, 10(1). Retrieved from

North Carolina State University (NCSU) Women’s Center. (2007). Sexual violence. Retrieved from

Sampson, R. (2003). Acquaintance rape of college students (Problem-Specific Guides Series No. 17). Retrieved from Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice website:

Warshaw, R. (1994). I never called it rape: The Ms. Report on recognizing, fighting and surviving date and acquaintance rape. New York, NY: Harper Perennial

About the Author(s)

Krista L. Prince, University of South Carolina

Krista Prince is a graduate student in the University of South Carolina's Higher Education and Student Affairs program. She is also a residence hall director for University Housing and the Department of Residence Life. She can be reached at

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