There are an incredible amount of thoughts that run through your head when someone you love tells you they’re been sexually assaulted. Concern, anger, empathy, the need to protect. And even with the best intentions, our first responses in these situations can be awkward and rash — especially if you don’t know much about sexual assault in general.
What you need to remember is this, your friend trusts you enough to share this story and what they really need at that moment is for you to listen. They probably haven’t wrapped their brains around the assault and in an attempt to gain back the control they’ve lost, they may be blaming themselves for what happened. Your response may be their first stepping stone on their path to healing.
While there is a desperate need for us to continue the conversation around sexual violence, there is also a need for us to talk about how to properly support survivors. In the hope that someday this list won’t even be necessary, here are four basic tips to help you best respond when a friend shares that they’ve been assaulted.
1. Listen without interruption.
Every survivor is going to have a different response to their assault and the best thing you can do when someone confides in you is to listen to their story from start to finish. By being a fully engaged listener, you’re reflecting to them that their story matters. The worst thing anyone can do is dismiss someone’s experience. That can lead to the survivor to blame themselves and never want to talk with anyone about this again. The second worst thing you can do? Victim blame.
2. DO NOT VICTIM BLAME.
Often times when people try to better understand a story of assault, they’ll start asking a bunch of victim blaming questions. It’s usually not meant to be cruel but from a survivor’s perspective, it can feel like you’re placing the blame on them. Questions such as: What were you wearing? How much did you have to drink that night? But aren’t you two dating? Did you try and fight him/her off? What did you do to provoke him/her?
These questions are not only insensitive but also imply the survivor had control over the situation when in fact they did not. Instead, when your friend has finished their story, all you need to say is: Thank you for sharing this with me, I know that wasn’t easy. Now, how can I be there for you?
3. Encourage but don’t pressure them to seek resources.
After your friend has shared their story, it is up to them what they’d like to do next. It can be incredibly valuable to present them with available resources to aid in their healing such as nearby counseling offices, support groups, hotline numbers, pamphlets on reporting, yoga programs for survivors. These are all incredibly valuable, but in the end, you cannot pressure your friend to seek out resources they’re not comfortable with.
This especially goes for reporting. Many survivors will choose not to report their perpetrator to the police for one reason or another. And that is their decision. As their friend, it is your job to help them gain control back over their life, not take more power away by pushing them to do something you think is right.
4. Respect their healing course of action.
Everyone responds to trauma in a different way and over a different period of time. While one friend might find solace in one-on-one counseling sessions, that might be the last thing another friend is comfortable with. Your only job now is to let them know how unconditionally they’re loved and that this experience is just a small part in the overall definition of who they are.
5. Take care of yourself.
No matter how much you’ve learned about supporting survivors of sexual violence, it’s a completely different — and more difficult — when it involves someone you love. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed and not have all the answers, you’re not a professional after all. And if helping your friend starts to take an emotional toil on you, seek help for yourself. Talk to a counselor or call a hotline to talk with a professional about the stress you’re feeling. There is never shame in asking for help in your quest to help save the world for the people you love.
For more resources and information on supporting survivors, please visit RAINN.
^^ Laci Green is an incredible educator and ally to the sexual assault prevention community. Have any questions about sex? Head over to her channel for frank discussions about sex, sexuality and body image. ^^