How to be a supportive friend to a sexual assault survivor
National Sexual Assault
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DO listen to and believe your friend. Be mindful of your tone when your friend tells you about the assault–if you sound doubtful or like you do not believe your friend when (s)he discloses things related to the rape/sexual assault, your friend will feel unsupported and may be less likely to seek help from other sources.
DO validate your friend’s feelings about the assault. Tell your friend that what happened was not his/her fault, and that (s)he did not deserve it. When your friend says something to you that sounds like (s)he is blaming her/himself, remind him/her that (s)he did not deserve what happened.
DO help your friend find resources in case (s)he wants to report the assault or press charges. Looking up your school’s sexual assault policy and the legal protections offered through Title IX and the Clery Act, for example, can help your friend decide on what options to pursue. Some cities and states have victim compensation funds, which would help your friend pay for any medications (such as HIV prophylaxis, Plan B, etc.).
DO help your friend find your school’s victims advocte services which may be able to provide an array of support to your friend, including assistance with school and other problems arising from the assault.
DO offer to spend time with your friend, and try to engage her/him in activities that are enjoyable and not related to assault. If these activities include watching movies or television together, be mindful of things that may trigger a memory from the assault (i.e. it may be best to avoid entertainment featuring graphic scenes of sexual assault or violence for a while.)
DO ask if your friend needs somewhere to stay. Offer to share your room or couch if it is feasible for you to do so. It is not recommended that someone who has just been assaulted stay alone, both for safety and mental health reasons, but your friend may not recognize that being in close proximity to the perpetrator is a threat to her/his safety and health. If your friend lives in close proximity to the perpetrator (such as the same dorm, for example), help her/him find another short-term place to stay while (s)he figures out what options or actions to take.
DO offer to walk your friend to her/his room/apartment and help pack necessary items, like clean clothes and toothbrushes, if she/he is going to be staying somewhere else. Your friend may be disoriented, have difficulty focusing on tasks, and/or be fearful of running into the perpetrator—having someone with them who knows about the assault can help your friend feel more safe.
DO continue to show your friend that you support and care about her/him. Small things can be really meaningful–cooking dinner together, picking up a favorite dessert or snack item, sending funny articles or YouTube videos. If your friend finds out something upsetting that reminds her/him about the assault, taking a couple of hours to spend time with her/him can make a big difference.
DO encourage your friend to be patient with her/himself in moving past the assault. It can take time, and expecting her/himself to move past it quickly ignores the level of trauma that sexual assault causes.
DO remind your friend that (s)he is intelligent, strong, and has people in her/his corner who love and support her/him. This may seem obvious to you, but your friend may feel a combination of emotions that are linked to self-blame, such as feeling stupid or weak.
DO tell your friend that (s)he is not crazy, and that (s)he isn’t alone. Adjusting to having a disorder such as PTSD and reacting to things or events in a way that (s)he didn’t used to before can be really confusing and make your friend feel as if something is wrong with her/him. It is important to tell your friend that her/his reactions are perfectly normal after what (s)he has been through.
DO warn your friend in advance if you suspect or know that the perpetrator will be in the same room or building (i.e. a party of a mutual friend or campus event). This will allow your friend the opportunity to decide whether or not to attend, and allow for your friend to plan a strategy for how to feel safe during the event or how to exit if feeling unsafe. Plan to be at any event with your friend if you think the perpetrator may be there, or coordinate with other friends who know about the assault so that someone else can be there.
DO understand your own limits. As much as you want to be there for your friend, licensed psychologists, counselors, and psychiatrists have the training to offer long-term support. Take care of yourself and your own mental health, and encourage your friend to see a counselor.
DO NOT push for explicit details about what happened, what your friend was wearing, what (s)he did to encourage or discourage the assault, or how much alcohol/substances were used.
DO NOT ask whether it was "violent." All acts of sexual assault are violent, regardless of how they look from the outside. Asking this question can invalidate the trauma that your friend experienced and make her/him feel unsupported.
DO NOT minimize what happened to your friend. Saying things like "Well, (s)he didn’t hold you down, right?" make it seem as if your friend did not survive a vicious crime (see previous point). Making rape jokes, especially if your friend identifies as a male, can minimize the assault, enhance feelings of self-blame, or make your friend feel that something is wrong with him/her for not “wanting” the assault. Media portrayals of men can lead to the assumption that all men want sex all of the time, but this is far from true.
DO NOT force your friend to report the assault or go to the hospital. It is important for your friend to regain a sense of self-control--offering options and respecting the decision your friend makes can help him/her regain a sense of control over her/his life.
DO NOT tell other people without the permission of your friend. Your friend may want and need privacy at this time, and having her/his name thrown into a rumor mill can cause more anxiety and trauma. If in doubt, you can always ask—“Is it okay if I talk to my mom about this?” or “Do you want to also tell X and Y friend? I think they would want to support you through this too.”
DO NOT set a timeline for when (s)he should be "over it." Sexual assault is traumatizing, and everyone handles it differently. It can take years for someone to process the violation that happened to them and their body, and PTSD can be a life-long disorder. Saying “You have to stop acting like this” or “Don’t you think that’s enough?” can be very damaging to someone struggling to fully recover from a traumatic event.
DO NOT let your anger about what happened to your friend get the best of you. You may want to physically harm the perpetrator, but you can protect your friend and other members of your campus in other ways. Channel your anger creatively—use it to help your friend get justice through legal channels or to educate your peers and help create a campus environment that is supportive of survivors and intolerant of rape.
DO NOT walk on eggshells around your friend. You need to be sensitive, but your friend may want more than anything to feel a sense of normalcy and routine. Being yourself may help your friend feel more like her/himself.