Last week, a friend approached me with an all too common problem. She said a friend of hers admitted that a close friend of theirs sexually assaulted her, and didn’t know what to do or say. Being the first person someone tells about a sexual assault can be overwhelming, and it can be hard to find the right words to say. Especially if it involves good friends.
Before you start talking, try to understand what your friend is going through:
- Remember that your friend has been through an emotionally painful, traumatic experience. Your friend may act differently after the assault. Some of your friend’s reactions may be hard to watch, but your “being there” for your friend can help a lot.
- Be patient and understanding. The trauma of a sexual assault does not go away quickly. It may take a while for your friend to recover. Sometimes friends and family members expect sexual assault victims to be “over it” in a few weeks. Understand that the pain the victim feels, and the symptoms, may last for a long time.
Here are some important tips for helping a friend if they have recently experienced a rape or sexual assault:
Be aware of your own feelings about sexual abuse.
If you are uncomfortable talking about this issue, it is okay. Helping the survivor identify who might be able to talk with them about the issue can also be supportive.
Try to respond calmly and openly.
Hearing about sexual abuse can be difficult. It can be very helpful to a survivor if you remain calm and non-judgmental. Also, provide a safe environment for discussion.
Refrain from negative comments about the perpetrator.
Keep in mind that most often, about 85% of the time, individuals who are sexually assaulted/abused are assaulted by someone they know. As a result they may have mixed feelings about the person.
Do not interrogate.
Let the individual tell you about the abuse on his/her terms. Do not pressure the person but let him/her talk when they are comfortable.
Let the individual know that you believe him/her.
Fear of not being believed is a concern expressed by many survivors. Being believed is important for people of all ages and helps eliminate feelings of guilt or shame.
Commend the survivor for talking and reaching out for help.
Talking about the abuse is often a big step. Acknowledge this.
Assure the survivors that they are not to blame for the assault.
Survivors often have deep feelings of guilt or shame about the abuse. Only sexual offenders are at fault for the abuse. No one asks to be raped or assaulted.
Respect the privacy of the survivor.
Do not share what was told in confidence. If you think another person would be better able to help, give the survivor that person’s name.
Provide information about supportive services.
Do not force the survivor to seek out supportive services. Survivors of sexual assault need to regain a sense of control over their lives. Instead, help them locate the correct information and, if appropriate, offer to accompany them.
Encourage the survivor to obtain a medical examination.
If he or she has not done so already, encourage them get a medical examination. But in other respects, resist your natural desire to give advice. Allow the survivor to make their own decision about their next steps.
[Sexual Assault Support Services - http://www.sassnh.org/find-help/how-to-help-a-friend.cfm]
Sometimes there are helpful things to say, but sometimes there aren’t. One thing I’ve learned while in my position as President of Students Active for Ending Rape at Ithaca College is that sometimes the best thing you can do is just unconditionally listen. Just listen to your friend, who may be trying to make sense of what happened to them. I found that a common obstacle for survivors of sexual assault is the inability to put his or her feelings into words. I believe that allowing them to talk without the fear or judgment or anger can help the survivor sort out their feelings. Also, accept their choice of solution to the assault even if you disagree with what they have chosen to do. It is more important that they feel empowered to make choices and take back control than it is to impose what you feel you think is the correct decision.
Last but not least, don’t forget, take care of yourself. If someone you know is assaulted or raped, you may feel upset. Even if your friend doesn’t want to talk to a counselor, you can get support for yourself. Talking to a counselor can help you understand your own reactions and what you and your friend are going through. A counselor can also give you ideas about how to help your friend.