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Sexual assault has been prevalent in the news lately. And despite the controversy over the details of the Rolling Stone article about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia or the war of words between Bill Cosby’s PR team and the women accusing him of assault, the fact remains: sexual assault is a tremendously large problem. Whether the victim is male or female, whether they were drunk or sober, or whether they were assaulted by a stranger or a close friend or partner, it’s often their friends who have the chance to offer the first round of help.
Here are some steps to help you do that in the healthiest way possible.
Check that they are immediately safe. If they have concerns that they are being followed or stalked, help them take action by getting to a secure place and considering getting the authorities involved.
Listen and validate their story and their feelings. More than anything, you can provide an empathetic ear. It is not your job to cross-examine or do anything but support. Be an engaged listener, empathize, and earn their trust as well as give your own trust to their words. If in doubt about what to say, keep emphasizing that you are there, you want to listen, and you will not abandon them.
Help them understand their options. From considering emergency contraception to having evidence (including evidence of being drugged) collected at a hospital, from filing a police report to calling an anonymous hotline, there are several legal options and support resources to be considered in the aftermath of a sexual assault. (More resources are below.) Help your friend become aware of them without pressure. Let your friend know that you can accompany them to an appointment, wait with them at a hospital, or whatever it is that they would most want. But make sure they– and you– understand that ultimately these decisions are theirs alone to make, and coercing someone who has just been the survivor of sexual assault is only one more way of taking away their power.
Respect their reaction, even if it’s not “normal“. You may have a picture in your head of how someone is supposed to act, look, or feel, after suffering from a sexual assault. Let it go. There really is no ‘normal.’ The more you expect them to align with a preconceived notion you have, the less accepting and supportive and engaged you will be as a listener.
Be careful with probing questions. You may think that you are gathering information to help better understand what happened, but it could very well come across as judgment or blame– or it could even retraumatize them. Let them go at their own pace and talk– or not– in a way that feels okay to them. Forceful interrogations immediately following a trauma can do far more harm than good.
Help them maintain their autonomy. A survivor of sexual assault might feel like innumerable aspects of their physical and emotional selves have been violated or stripped away. The small ways that you can help them rebuild their autonomy in the immediate aftermath can make a huge difference. Follow their lead and help support them in making the decisions that are right for them– even if it’s just about what to have for dinner or whether to stay in the house all weekend or take a walk in the fresh air.
Educate yourself and encourage them to get further help if they want it. It’s not your job to push them into counseling, but rather to lay it out as an option. Read up and educate yourself on the resources available. RAINN is a great place to start. Again, offer to help them research options, or to help them make an appointment or even just get to one. You can be everything from a visible advocate to a chauffeur– and the more you know, the more you can help them.
Protect their privacy and validate their trust in you. If they’ve come to you with their story, chances are you are someone in whom they have placed a great deal of trust. Even saying the words of what has happened can be incredibly difficult for some survivors. Give them reason to know that their trust was well-placed. Respect and protect the confidentiality of their experience and the fact that they are the owners of it. And don’t share it with others unless it is something they actively want– even if you are trying to help them.
Be mindful of your own health. Watching someone you care about going through the aftermath of a trauma, or even just listening to the details of it, can bring up some very difficult emotions. Whether you have been personally affected by sexual assault in your own past or not, you may experience some emotional upheaval– from shock to anger to fear togrief to confusion– when trying to support a friend. Some of your emotions may even surprise you. Keep an eye on yourself for symptoms of depression or anxiety, and know the limits of what you can do to help your friend: you are not their therapist. Be kind to yourself, and show yourself the same understanding and care that you show your friend; it will help both of you in the long run.
Author: Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., author of The Friendship Fix and teaches at Georgetown University