If your friend has been sexually assaulted, you can expect them to be experiencing some combination of fear, anger, guilt, shame, mistrust, and disconnection. They may have experienced the fear of losing their life and as a result be afraid of everything around them. Your friend may be angry at the perpetrator but also angry at her or himself and at friends and family. As most assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim knows, they certainly may be feeling a lack of trust for those around them. The extreme stress, anxiety, loss of sleep and loss of control makes many survivors feel as though they are disconnected from normal life.
You can help your friend. You can help them focus on their strengths and provide a place for them to vent their emotions, even anger. You can help them understand that no one is responsible for being raped and that they have the right to feel a lack of trust for others. You can help them understand that it is normal to feel unstable under such difficult circumstances. Here's how you can help.
Be a good listener
Let them know that they can talk with you. Listen carefully and respond to feelings as well as words. By reflecting what you are hearing back to the person, you can help them better understand their own emotions and thoughts during this difficult time. Some survivors will want to talk about their experiences. Keep their privacy. It is a survivor's decision when and whether to tell others about what happened. Don’t push them to reveal details about the incident or ask questions just because you're curious.
Survivors need to know that you believe what happened. It's rare that people make up stories about sexual assault. Don’t question details of the assault. If the perpetrator is someone you know, don't say, "I can't believe they would do that!" Important things to communicate to the survivor:
- "It's not your fault."
- "I'm glad you're safe now."
- "I'm sorry it happened."
Validate the survivor’s feelings
Acknowledge their sadness, anger, fear, or confusion. Let them know that all of these feelings are normal after a sexual assault. Assure them that they aren't alone. Also:
- If a survivor was drunk during the assault, assure them that they aren't to blame for what happened.
- If a survivor feels guilty because they didn't fight back, assure them that fear sometimes inhibits us.
- Tell them that they did the best they could to survive the situation and that no one deserves to be sexually assaulted.
- Don’t blame survivors for what happened by asking them things like why they were drinking, why they didn't fight back, what they were wearing, or by telling them what you would have done.
Let survivors control their own lives
Provide survivors with information about their options. If the survivor chooses one, support them by providing phone numbers or information. Allow them to make a decision for themselves and assure them that you will support whatever decision they make. Don’t try to take control of the situation. Let them make that decision for themselves. Don't threaten to hurt the perpetrator, the survivor has lived through one violent experience and does not need to be confronted with another.
Respect the survivor's privacy
Don't tell others what your friend tells you. Let the survivor decide who they will tell. Encourage them to seek support and assistance from others.
Stay with them through the healing process
Express your concern over the long run. Healing takes time. Talk about other aspects of survivors' lives. This reassures survivors that they have not become the sexual assault. Survivors will have good and difficult days. Stay with them through both.
Take care of yourself
Hearing about the sexual assault of a friend or family member is upsetting. You may feel scared, angry, helpless, sad or all of these emotions and more. You may want to talk about your feelings.