How to Help A Friend
If someone has told you that they have been sexually assaulted, it’s likely to have been one of the hardest things they have ever had to tell you. It may have taken them weeks or even years to feel able to talk to anyone about what has happened. Respect the huge step they've taken and the trust they have put in you.
Most people have little experience of helping someone through a traumatic event such as a sexual assault, so it’s normal to feel unsure what to do. What is important is that you care enough about that person to want to help.
Sexual violence affects not only the survivor of the violence, but also those close to her/him – friends, family members, co-workers. If someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you may experience many of the same emotions as the victim. What your friend or loved one needs most right now is your love, support and understanding.
1. Express care and concern.
Let your friend know right away that you believe them, care and want to help. Three of the most important and basic messages that sexual assault survivors most need to hear from you are:
I believe you.
The assault was not your fault.
Help is available. You are not alone.
Listen to your friend without judging them. The survivor likely came to you because they consider you to be a person of they can trust. Remember to reassure them and validate their feelings. Tell them that you believe them and reinforce that they are not to blame for what happened.
2. Believe the survivor.
Make it clear to the survivor you believe the assault happened and that the assault is not her/his fault. Do not ask “why” questions which may make the survivor defensive, such as “Why were you wearing that?” and “Why were you alone?”
3. Give them the time and space that they need.
Let the survivor tell you how they feel. Try to resist asking them about the details of the experience as they might not feel ready, and therefore may feel pressured. Don’t take it personally if your friend doesn’t want to talk to you or to talk right now. Part of being a good listener is letting them know that you’ll be ready to listen if and when they are ready to talk.
Remember, it takes courage to talk about a sexual assault with other people. Many survivors remain silent because they feel ashamed and/or they fear that they will be disbelieved or blamed if they tell other people about what happened to them. Allow the survivor to cry, scream, and express themselves however they need to in that moment. Remember, the survivor is angry with the assailant and the situation, not at you. Just be there to listen.
4. Let them know that they do not have to go through this alone.
Crisis Intervention Counselors as well as other mental health professionals are available in the community 24/7. Reassure the survivor that they are cared for. Ask them if you can help them contact your local Rape Crisis Center’s 24 hour hotline and trained professionals can help you access local medical attention, resources available, and support you both in the many questions you may have. These professionals are INVALUABLE! Do not hesitate to contact them, even for a "consultation".
Bay Area & National Rape Crisis Hotline & Centers
|Oakland||Bay Area Women Against Rape (BAWAR)
24/7 Hotline: 510-845-7273
Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Center of Yolo County
Women Escaping A Violent Environment (WEAVE)
|SF Peninsula||YWCA of Silicon Valley Rape Crisis Center
24/7 Hotline at (408) 287-3000 or (650) 493-7273
*Counselors here can connect you with other centers in your area
5. Help to educate them about their options.
There are many difficult decisions that may need to be made following an assault, some that are time sensitive. The survivor may want to seek medical care (STD testing, pregnancy testing/prevention, physical checkup, evidence collection, etc.), talk to a counselor, or report the assault to authorities. As a friend, you don’t need to be an expert on all the options that are available. Again, this is where the Rape Crisis professionals can be indispensible in helping educate both you and the survivor.
6. Encourage immediate medical attention.
It is vital that sexual assault survivors seek emergency medical care at a local hospital as soon as possible, within the first 24-36 hours is best. A person who has been sexually assaulted may not realize that s/he has sustained serious injuries (including closed head injury). In addition, hospital staff are trained to collect, preserve and document physical evidence of the assault. Emergency Department staff can also provide counseling and treatment related to sexually transmitted infections (including HIV) and pregnancy which may have resulted from the sexual assault.
Even if the assault happened a while ago and even if your friend does not appear to have any physical injuries it is important to encourage that they seek medical care. The SMU Health & Counseling Center can also provide medical care and follow up.
7. Give the survivor control.
All control has been stripped from the survivor during the assault. Empower the survivor to make decisions about what steps to take next, but do not tell the her/him what to do. For example, let your friend decide if she or he wants to notify the police or contact a rape crisis center. But, do what you can to assist your friend in getting information about these and other options so she or he can make informed decisions.
8. Maintain confidentiality.
Respect your friend’s privacy. Ask your friend what, if any, information it is OK for you to share with others. Ask how to manage others’- floor mates, classmates, club members, friends- questions and concerns. Should they be directed to ask your friend directly or are there ways you can respond and still respect your friend’s privacy?
9. Taking care of yourself and recognizing your own limitations.
If someone you know is raped, you may feel upset and overwhelmed. Recognize that hearing about a sexual assault can be difficult and that you are going to have your own feelings about what has happened to your friend, and some of them like sadness and anger may even be similar. It is normal and okay for you to experience your own reactions. You may even feel confused about how to best support your friend. This is not a failure on your part, there is a reason we have trained professionals to work with survivors – it is very hard to listen to trauma.
Even if your friend doesn't want to talk to a counselor, you can get support for yourself and find healthy ways to deal with your feelings. Talking to a counselor can help you understand your own reactions to what has happened and enable you to support your friend more effectively. You can contact the SMU Counseling Center for support at 510-869-6629.
10. 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 survivor feels, and the symptoms, may last for a long time.
Some Tips on What NOT to do
Don’t pry for details about what happened.
- Remember to respect the survivor's privacy.
- Don’t insist that the survivor talk about the incident if she or he would rather not.
Don’t question the survivor's account.
- Don’t judge the survivor's behavior before, during, or after the assault.
- Remember that no one deserves to be violated or mistreated under any circumstances.
Don’t disagree with the course of action the survivor chooses to follow.
- Allow the survivor to take control of her or his own life.
- While your advice may be sound, the survivor knows what is the best way for her or him to heal.
Don’t become so emotionally involved that you can’t help the survivor.
- Don’t assume that you know how someone else feels.
- Don’t expect that you’ll be able to make the survivor feel better.
- Don’t make the survivor deal with your own responses to the situation, such as anger or grief.
Don’t use words or comments like these, which blame or impose your own feelings on the survivor.
- "You're lucky that nothing else happened. You could have been killed!"
- “Why were you . . .? Why did you . . .?"
- "You shouldn’t have . . ."
- "It’s not a big deal."
- "Calm down!"
- "I know how you feel."
- “If I were you . . ."
Adapted from: College of the Holy Cross