Your friend tells you that someone has sexually assaulted them. You’re angry, shocked, sad, and confused. Even worse, you have no clue how to help your friend. What should you say? What should you do? What should you not say or do? You want to help, but you have no idea how.
Supporting a friend after a sexual assault can seem intimidating. This post provides advice for being supportive when someone close to you discloses that they survived a sexual assault.
Sexual Assault in the U.S.
Sexual assault is sexual contact or behavior that occurs without a person’s consent. Sexual assault includes attempted rape, unwanted sexual touching, forced sex acts, and rape. While rape is a form of sexual assault, not all sexual assault is rape.
With such a widespread presence, you likely know someone who experienced some form of sexual violence. Perhaps you also are a survivor of sexual violence or sexual assault.
Identifying the Stigma Surrounding Sexual Assault
Because there is a stigma surrounding sexual violence, it might be more difficult for people to talk about their own experiences of sexual assault. For some people, sexual violence is to remain private. This expectation might mean that some people feel ashamed or guilty about what happened to them. These feelings make it more difficult for them to reach out for help.
Understanding the Effects of Sexual Assault
The effects of sexual assault vary widely among individuals. Generally, those who experience sexual violence have at least some degree of distress afterward. Mental health concerns are common after someone experiences a sexual assault. Some of the most common mental health concerns among sexual assault survivors are depression, anxiety, substance use, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Someone the survivor knows perpetrates the majority of sexual assaults. Experiencing an act of violence at the hands of someone you know can be incredibly damaging to the psyche.
Choosing to Speak Out
There has been an increase in platforms for people to speak out about sexual violence, including social media. Some people might feel more comfortable sharing their experiences anonymously on an online platform. Others may find more comfort in reaching out to close family or friends. Know that if a friend has chosen to reach out to you, they are most likely feeling vulnerable. You’re right to think you should handle the situation carefully.
Ways to Support a Friend After a Sexual Assault
There is no one right way to support a friend after a sexual assault. You know your friend and your relationship best. Below are guidelines to consider if you find yourself in this situation and want to be a supportive friend.
If a friend discloses to you that they experienced a sexual assault, try your best to keep calm. While you might experience a whirlwind of emotions, it is best to take some deep breaths and not be reactive as your friend tells their story. This way, the focus remains on the survivor.
Sometimes, the most supportive thing you can do for someone is listen to their words without judgment. Make eye contact and be open with your body language to convey to your friend that you are listening to them and are there for support.
Ask Permission Before Touching
If someone has been through a sexual assault, they experienced a loss of bodily autonomy. As their friend, make sure that you ask permission before going in for a big hug or wiping a tear away. A simple “May I give you a hug?” can go a long way in beginning to build back your friend’s sense of autonomy.
The disclosure of a sexual assault is most likely not an easy conversation. Due to the topic’s sensitivity, it is safe to assume you should not give details about what your friend revealed to you to others. Instead, allow your friend to determine, on their terms, if and how they want to share with others.
Encourage Seeking Help
As a friend, it is not your job to be a therapist. A gentle encouragement to seek help can go a long way for someone who experienced a sexual assault. Assure them that they are not alone in this situation. They deserve to heal. And their friends, loved ones, and mental health professionals can support their healing.
Things to Avoid when Supporting a Friend After a Sexual Assault
As this is a sensitive moment, you might find yourself searching for the right words to say to make your friend feel better. Try to avoid the following, as they can be hurtful to the survivor.
Asking for Specific Details
Your friend might give you some details about the sexual assault, but it is not your job to play detective. If your friend wants to go to the authorities and pursue legal action, you can offer to go with them to the police station or hold their hand when they call an investigator. Recounting details of a sexual assault can retraumatize the person. Allow your friend to give you as much or as little detail as they decide to, without requesting more.
After something as traumatizing as a sexual assault, your friend most likely does not want to hear that it’s “not that big of a deal.” While you may have good intentions in minimizing the damage done, saying “It could have been worse,” or “You’ll get over it soon” can be exceedingly hurtful and dismissive.
Asking “Why” Questions
Asking “why” questions to your friend who revealed a sexual assault can be retraumatizing. It can also perpetuate victim-blaming. Although you might wonder why they made certain choices at the time of the assault, asking “why did you drink so much?” or “why did you go home with them?” can lead the survivor to wonder if they are to blame. You may wonder why the survivor didn’t flee, or their responses after the assault may not make sense. But everyone responds to traumatic situations differently. In cases of sexual assault, it’s critical to remember that the fault is always on the perpetrator. It’s never the survivor’s fault.
Support is Ongoing
As a friend, your role is to support someone who has experienced sexual assault. This role doesn’t necessarily end after they share their story. It can be beneficial to remind survivors of sexual violence that they have people who care about them. Reaching out to see if they want to do an activity, talk, or just be with another person can be comforting.
Educate yourself on the impact of sexual violence on individuals, communities, and society as a whole. The more knowledge you have about it, the more you can provide appropriate support to your loved one.
How Integrative Life Center Helps Sexual Assault Survivors
The professionals at Integrative Life Center are well-versed in various therapeutic techniques proven to assist those dealing with the repercussions of sexual violence.
With a focus on healing trauma, ILC works with each individual to create a path to healing that serves them most thoroughly. The impacts of sexual violence on mental health can be damaging, but each survivor deserves adequate care that best serves them as an individual. Reach out to ILC today to begin that journey of healing.