When a friend confides in you about a sexual assault, it means they feel safe enough with you to open up about their pain and ask for help. Sexual assault is a hard topic to tackle, but it is one that should never go ignored. Violent crimes such as rape and sexual abuse actually happen more often than we think. It's a terrifying thought that every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted, it can happen to anyone at any age, of any gender, by any person. So if a friend says they've been sexually assaulted, here's how to help.
You need to listen to them with an open heart and open mind before you speak. Try to understand not only what happened but how it affected them on more levels than you can fathom. You may feel overwhelmed with sadness, panicked, or scared, but it’s also totally normal to feel nothing at all. Just keep in mind that their pain and fear is unimaginable and coming from a place of hurt. They’re coming to you for help because you are their friend and they trust you to comfort and support them, which could end up to be life-saving. Before you start asking questions, make sure you know what to say and especially what not to say to a victim of sexual assault. What they need right now is to know someone believes them and can provide a space that is free from judgment and doubt for them to speak in.
The emotions your friend expresses may vary, so above all else be their sounding board as they heal. The fact that your friend came to you seeking help about their sexual assault means they’re on the road to recovery after this violent crime. But it is an incredibly long road filled with twists and turns so it’s imperative that you stick with your friend through their emotional rollercoaster. It’s not uncommon if they feel an overwhelming amount of shame and guilt but it can never be said enough that it’s not their fault. At times your friend may even blame themselves or become depressed but keep reminding them nobody deserves to be violated in any physical way, no matter what the situation is. Most people don't feel comfortable reporting their sexual assault. And when it comes to men, what happens after men get raped is much different than women. Men who are raped are typically met with dismissal and disbelief, which makes it even more important to know how to support male survivors if they come to you with their story. A whopping 10% of all rape victims are men raped by women and/ or other men, and transgendered individuals are at a higher risk for sexual violence as well.
In such a sensitive moment, it’s reassuring to know all of the options they have moving forward from immediate procedures to begin the healing process. Respect their boundaries by approaching these crucial questions with care: Did they call the police? Do they know what happens when they get a rape kit exam? Has she reached out to someone who is qualified to help them recover and continue on in their life? No matter what they have or may not have done since coming to you, try to understand that what they’re going through is extremely hurtful and scary. Your empathy and compassion are the first steps to their healing. You could encourage them to check out RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) for lists of the statistics that surround sexual assault victims, what to do after the situation occurs, as well as prevention and help for victims. Title IX protects students academically from their perpetrator, and is extremely important information for someone to heal and move on from a sexual assault.
Let your friend know that if they decide to press charges or decide to say nothing, both are okay and completely their decision. Pressing charges and criminalizing the perpetrator is crucial to prevent further sexual assaults, but sometimes victims fear takes over and it becomes too much. Your friend may feel like they won’t win in court or the event that happened may be too traumatizing to have to stand in front of a jury and speak about their assault. Either way, reassure them they are a survivor no matter which route they decide to take and they are strong for coming to this decision. Whether or not they decide to agree to see a therapist is ultimately up to them, but there are countless ways therapy can help.
Offer support in whatever you need to, to help them. Even if you can’t completely understand, know that everyone responds to sexual assault differently, especially something sexual without consent. Also, understand that your own self-care is important as well. In your process of helping someone else, it is crucial that you continue to love and care for yourself in whatever way you define that.
What is important about helping your friend, is your sensitivity and support throughout the entire process. Help them make the best decisions they can to heal, but also respect that everything is their decision to make. If they decide to go the police but not seek help through therapy, that’s okay too. You shouldn’t get in the way of their life decisions, even despite your best intentions. Your love and support will ease the pain of your friend, who is going through some of the worst pain physically, emotionally, and mentally.
The truth is, rape culture is everywhere and needs to be addressed no matter how difficult it is to talk about. It’s terrifying to speak up about the pain, both physical and emotional, about the fear of being slut-shamed, discredited, or being accused of seeking attention, but it’s so imperative that we do. Suddenly we’ve become accustomed to assuming college means partying and drinking, allowing campus response to sexual assault to rely on bad science to protect the perpetrator's shot at a bright future. But what about the ones who feel broken inside because they were victims of sexual abuse or rape? What about your friend with tears running down their face desperately grasping at a “normal” life they used to know? This isn’t okay and this stigma around sexual assault needs to change and you being there to help your friend is one step closer to ending this battle.
For more like this, check out our Facebook Page!