Survivors of sexual assault are more likely to tell a friend about the assault than anyone else. While fewer than five percent of sexual assaults of college students are reported, two-thirds of survivors tell a friend about the incident. When a friend confides in you, you may want to help but not know what to do. You may not know how to react or what to say. You are likely to be emotionally shaken and find yourself struggling with your own feelings of anger and helplessness.
While the experience of each survivor is unique, and therefore there are no set guidelines for how to help, there are some important points to keep in mind when offering support. First and foremost, sexual assault is not about sex — it is about power and control. The perpetrator of sexual assault is exerting power and control over another human being. The survivor is in no way responsible for the assault. Implying that your friend bears some responsibility for the assault will lead to distrust in your relationship.
It is very difficult for survivors to come forward and share their story, and your reaction could impact whether or not your friend chooses to continue to share this information with others and seek further help. Here are some guidelines for supporting your friend.
Believe your friend. Tell your friend you believe them and you want to support them in any way you can. Do not judge your friend, regardless of the circumstances.
Be a good listener. If you hear your own voice more than your friend's, you're talking too much and not listening enough. Listen non-judgmentally to what your friend is saying and hear the experience as your friend describes it. You may want to ask questions and get details about what happened, but remember your role is to support your friend, and it is best to allow them to decide what and how much they would like to tell you about the incident.
Validate your friend's feelings. Be empathetic, but do not let your own emotions get in the way of supporting your friend. It is not uncommon to feel intense anger toward the person who did this but what your friend needs right now is calm and caring support. Expressing your own emotions only adds to the emotional burden your friend is already carrying. Keep the focus on your friend's emotional and physical well-being.
Know that each experience is unique. If you've had other friends who experienced a sexual assault, avoid making comparisons.
Assure your friend that it is not their fault. Self-blame is common among victims of sexual violence. It is important that, as their friend, you help the survivor understand that no matter what happened-it was not their fault.
Do not make judgmental comments. Do not comment on what could have been done differently or make statements that imply your friend could have avoided the assault.
Discuss their options with them. Show them the sexual harassment and sexual misconduct policy. Don’t feel as though you have to have all the answers. That is not your role. Instead, help your friend to find out the answers by reaching out to university resource personnel.
Give your friend control. Let them choose the next steps. You may provide advice, guidance, and information about their options, but allow your friend to decide if, when, and how they will pursue these resources.
Offer continued support. If your friend is hesitant to get help, offer to accompany them in seeking medical attention, counseling, going to the police or to university resource personnel. Sometimes that's all it takes to help a friend begin to take action. Recognize that your friend's needs may change over time, so keep "checking in" to renew your offer of help and support.
Respect privacy and confidentiality. Do not share your friend's story with other people unless you have their permission to do so. At the same time, never hesitate to seek advice from individuals who are in a position to help you. It is not necessary to give names or provide details to get initial support and to learn more about options.
Do not forget to support yourself. Supporting a friend through a trauma can be a difficult and emotionally draining experience for those in the support role as well. Recognize this and don't hesitate to seek help and support for yourself.