If a friend or loved one tells you that they have been sexually assaulted, it is likely one of the hardest things they have ever had to tell you. It may take weeks, months or even years to feel ready to talk about what has happened.
Most people have little experience helping someone through a traumatic event such as a sexual assault, so it is normal to be unsure of what to do. What is most important is that you care enough to want to help.
Sexual violence affects not only the survivor of the violence, but also those close to them such as friends, partners and family members. If someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you may experience some of the same emotions as the victim. Your love, support and understanding is what your friend needs.
Below is a list of supportive tips you can use to support a friend or loved one who has been sexually assaulted.
1. Express care and concern.
Let your friend know right away that you believe them, care and want to help. Four 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 them.
Make it clear to the survivor you believe the sexual assault happened and that it is not their fault. Never ask “why” questions which may make the survivor defensive such as “Why were you wearing that?” or “Why were you alone?” The percentage of false reports of sexual assault is no higher than for any other crime.
3. Give them the time and space that they need.
Let the survivor tell you how they feel. Do not ask about the particular details of the assault as they might not feel ready to share. Do not take it personally if your friend does not want to talk to you or to anyone all right now. Part of being a good listener is letting your friend know that you’ll be ready to listen if and when they are ready to talk.
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. 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 and peer support workers and as well as other health professionals are available to help. The toll-free Sexual Assault Crisis Line for Newfoundland and Labrador is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-726-2743.
Reassure the survivor that you care. Ask if you can help them contact the Sexual Assault Crisis Line and/or other supports to access medical attention, available resources, and information for you both to answer the many questions you may have. These supports are invaluable – do not hesitate to contact them, even for a consultation.
5. Encourage immediate medical attention.
It is important for sexual assault survivors to seek emergency medical care as soon as possible – within the first 24-36 hours is best. A person who has been sexually assaulted may not realize that they have sustained serious injuries (internal and/or external). In addition, hospital staff such as the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) are trained to collect, preserve and document physical evidence of the assault. Emergency Department staff can also provide counselling and treatment related to sexually transmitted infections (including HIV) and pregnancy which may have resulted from the 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 them to seek medical care.
6. Help them know their options.
There are many difficult decisions that may need to be made following an assault, including some that are time sensitive. The survivor may want to seek medical care for sexually transmitted infection testing, pregnancy testing/prevention, physical checkups, forensic evidence collection, etc. They may wish to talk to a counsellor, or report the assault to authorities. As a friend, you don’t need to be an expert on all the options that are available. The Newfoundland and Labrador Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre can be helpful in educating both you and the survivor on available options.
7. Give the survivor control.
All control has been taken away from the survivor during the assault. Help the survivor to empower themselves to make decisions about what steps to take next. However, it is important that you do not tell them what to do. For example, let your friend decide if she or he wants to notify the police or contact a sexual assault crisis centre. 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 information, if any, is okay for you to share with others. Ask how to manage questions and concerns from classmates, friends and club members. Should they be directed to ask your friend directly? Are there ways you can respond and still respect your friend’s privacy?
9. Take care of yourself and recognize your own limitations.
If someone you know is assaulted 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. Some of your feelings, like sadness and anger, may be similar to your friend’s. It is normal and okay for you to experience your own reactions. You may even feel confused or unsure about how to best support your friend. This is normal, and not a failure on your part. There is a reason we have trained professionals to work with survivors – it is very difficult to listen to trauma.
Even if your friend doesn’t want to talk to a counsellor, you can get support for yourself and find healthy ways to deal with your feelings. Talking to a counsellor can help you understand your own reactions to what has happened and enable you to support your friend more effectively.
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 may expect sexual assault victims to “get over it” in a few weeks. Understand that the pain the survivor feels, and the symptoms, may last for a long time.
Tips for What NOT to Do
- Do not pry for details about what happened.
- Remember to respect the survivor’s privacy.
- Do not insist that the survivor talk about the incident if they would rather not.
- Do not question the survivor’s account.
- Do not judge the survivor’s behavior before, during or after the assault.
- Remember that no one deserves to be violated or mistreated under any circumstances.
- Do not 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 the best way for them to heal.
- Do not become so emotionally involved that you cannot help the survivor.
- Do not assume that you know how someone else feels.
- Do not expect that you’ll be able to make the survivor feel better.
- Do not make the survivor deal with your own responses to the situation, such as anger or grief.
- Do not 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 . . .”