Responding to a Disclosure of Sexual Violence

It takes a great deal of courage for someone who has experienced sexual violence to disclose their experiences to someone else. 

We know – from survivors, lived experience and research – that an initial supportive and non-judgmental response to a disclosure of sexual violence can make a significant difference on the survivor’s desire and ability to seek out further, ongoing supports.  

In other words, when survivors experience negative, victim-blaming, minimizing and/or dismissive responses when disclosing their experiences for the first time, their fears around not being believed and not being supported come true, and they often decide to remain silent.  

Many survivors never talk about their experience with a counselor or other professional support; instead, they seek someone they trust and are familiar with – a friend, work colleague, residence don, teaching assistant, family member, and so on.   

You do not need to be an expert at responding! And it is okay to be nervous!  

Everyone on campus can:

  • Listen, and be supportive
  • Assure survivors that it was not their fault
  • Be non-judgmental about the survivor's reactions and decisions, during and after, their experience of violence
  • Explain what supports are available on campus and refer to the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office (SVPRO)

Everyone on campus should be prepared to respond to a disclosure. The more we keep practicing our response skills, the better and more comfortable we will be doing it.  

The following information offers some best practices for responding to disclosures.

What is a disclosure? And how does it differ from a complaint or report?

There are many reasons why someone who has experienced sexual violence would disclose and these might include: 

  • seeking assistance or emotional support
  • seeking justice and accountability
  • wanting to raise awareness about sexual violence in the community
  • wanting to protect themselves or others from future violence

Disclosing does not automatically mean that a survivor needs to file a Complaint or Report.  

Should someone wish to file a Complaint or Report, we recommend they be connected with SVPRO for further information. 

Best Practices for Responding to a Disclosure of Sexual Violence

Best Practices for Responding to a Disclosure of Sexual Violence

Review our tips for Best Practices for Responding to a Disclosure of Sexual Violence below:

Jump to:

Responding to a disclosure of Sexual Violence

Communicate the Limits of your Confidentiality

To whatever degree is possible, communicate your limits to confidentiality as soon as you can – understanding that in many cases, you will not be anticipating a disclosure. 

It is also important to maintain as much confidentiality as possible after receiving a disclosure. If none of the following limits apply, you do not need to share any information disclosed.

Limits to Confidentiality Apply When:

1. An individual is at immediate risk of suicide

2. An identified individual is at immediate risk of harm

3.Campus safety may be compromised

4. A child or youth under the age of 16 has experienced or witnessed abuse

If you have any questions about your limits to confidentiality, please consult with SVPRO – you will not need to share any identifying information, unless any of the above 4 limits have arisen. 

You may also want and need to consult with your supervisor to ensure you are following the protocols within your department or unit. We encourage “sharing up, not out” - meaning that you can share up the line of supervision or management, but not broadly with peers or colleagues.

Further information can be found within Policy 42: Prevention of, and Response to, Sexual Violence

Confidentiality for University of Waterloo Health Care Professionals and Police Services 

It is important to note that Regulated Health Care Professionals (e.g. doctors, nurses, social workers, psychiatrists, etc.) working on campus have Limits to Confidentiality to which they abide as directed by their Regulatory College or body. 

If you are:

  • A regulated Health Care Professional - please connect directly with your Regulatory College or body for information
  • The patient or client of a Regulated Health Care Professional on campus - please connect directly with your health care professional if you have questions about their limits to confidentiality

It is also important to note that University of Waterloo Police Services have Limits to Confidentiality to which they abide as Police Officers.  For example, Campus Police are obligated to inform Waterloo Regional Police of a Disclosure or Report of Sexual Violence that is brought to their attention, when intimate partner violence is occurring, there are public safety concerns or the matter relates to an ongoing charge or investigation. 

Please connect with Police Services or SVPRO if you have questions about disclosing or reporting to Campus Police.  

Confidential Off-Campus Support

If someone wants to speak to a confidential support off campus, we encourage you to connect them with the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo

Listen without Judgement


  • Listen
    • Use all of your best active listening skills
  • Provide space for them to control the pace and content of what they share
    • Survivors have experienced a loss of their power and control, and a violation of their autonomy - you can allow them to take some control back as they disclose
  • Validate their feelings
    • Recognize that survivors will experience a range of feelings, some of which may seem conflicting to what you anticipate. All their feelings and reactions are valid
  • Be empathetic
    • Acknowledge that survivors experience many fears, barriers and stigma: fear of not being believed; fear they will be blamed or judged; beliefs and encouragement to keep silent about anything connected to sex, sexual violence, or mental health impacts; discrimination based on racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism, religious intolerance such as Islamaphobia, and more
  • Thank them for telling you
    • It takes a lot of courage to speak about such experiences. And they are demonstrating they trust you. It can be impactful for you to acknowledge both
  • Assure them it was not their fault
    • Nothing a survivor does or does not do justifies an act of sexual violence. But survivors have internalized rape culture myths, and often believe it is their fault and/or they should have done something differently. It can be impactful to refocus on the actions and behaviour of the person who caused harm
  • Remind them that consent is freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic and specific
    • There are many myths about consent, and survivors have internalized these, believing that they should have been ‘more communicative’. It can be impactful to refocus on the actions of the person initiating sexual activity and whether their behaviour met the definition of consent. Check out Planned Parenthood's helpful Consent Resource
  • Ask how you can help and if they would like information about resources
    • Recognize that each person will need different resources and that they may not be ready to seek further support
  • Model consent
    • Survivors have experienced a violation of their boundaries. Be self-aware: do not touch without consent, be aware of personal space


  • Dismissing them
  • Minimizing their experiences
  • Asking or pressing for further details
  • Making decisions for them
  • Invalidating them or their feelings
  • Telling them they "should..."
  • Blaming them
  • Being racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, albeist, Islamaphobic, etc.
  • Defending the person who has caused harm (even when it's difficult to believe that someone you care about or respect has caused harm)
  • Panicking or pulling the focus back to you or your reactions
  • Questioning the person who caused harm


We encourage you to refer anyone impacted by sexual violence (directly, or as a bystander, responder, support person or person who has caused harm) to SVPRO

We take direction from those impacted as to whether they wish to connect with us now, in the future, or not at all. Not everyone who discloses will want to speak with the SVPRO, and that is okay. It is important to us that our contact information is shared as an option available.

During regular campus business hours, it is most feasible for people to book appointments with us via email, though we can also be contacted by phone, and we will try to be as accommodating as possible. 

If you are connecting with someone after regular business hours, a timely resource you can refer them to is the Sexual Assault Centre of Waterloo Region’s 24-hour, confidential support line.

If you are connecting with someone in Ontario, but outside of the Kitchener-Waterloo area, you can find their local 24-hour Sexual Assault Support Centre run support line on our Crisis Support Services webpage.

Plan Ahead

You may be in the position where you and the person disclosing will see each other again on campus, and it can be helpful to agree on if, and how, you will interact when this happens.

Some survivors may prefer to pretend they have not had any in-depth discussions, some prefer that you both interact as if you know each other from something else (e.g. you are both on a committee together, or you have only spoken about academic matters, and so forth), whereas some survivors feel comfortable sharing their experiences of sexual violence and/or of seeking support.

Making an agreement for how you will relate to, or interact with, each other when you next see each other can reduce awkwardness and/or miscommunications later.  

Debrief and Consult

It can be difficult to hear a disclosure, and to know that someone has experienced such harm.

The Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office (SVPRO) is available to provide support and consultation with anyone on campus who has received a disclosure. Connecting with us after the disclosure allows us to ensure that you are doing okay; to debrief the experience (there is no need to disclose the identity of the person who disclosed if they have not consented,  and if the limits to confidentiality do not apply), and to ensure any necessary safety planning and support has been provided. It also helps give us a clearer understanding of the complex, overall picture of sexual violence on campus.

You may want to connect with a trusted friend, family member, colleague or professional support after a disclosure. Please do so confidentially – not sharing any identifying information and avoiding disclosing (as much as possible) to anyone involved in same communities as either the survivor or person who caused harm – in order to maintain the safety of the survivor and limit the spread of information the survivor did not want shared.

The Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region's 24-hour support lines are available for those who have received a disclosure, as is Counseling Services on campus (for students) and the Employee Family Assistance Program via Homewood (for employees).