Originally written for the Her Campus national site; visit it here.
The topic of sexual assault has consumed the media for months now. From cases such as Emma Sulkowicz’s at Columbia University to the horribly short sentence of Brock Turner, assault on college campuses has never been as discussed as it seems to be now. Plus, with Donald Trump’s most recent comments regarding a female’s anatomy in such a lewd and degrading way, and the subsequent outpouring of sexual assault accusations, we can’t tell if the visibility on the important topic of sexual assault is helping the cause or doing nothing at all to reverse the toxic rape culture that permeates today’s society.
However unfortunate, rape happens. No matter how the assault occurs, where it happens or with whom it happens to, it is a very traumatic experience. If you’ve never gone through something like this, it’s hard to wrap your head around what to do or how to even go about thinking about it. Statistics do point to the fact that someone you know will experience this horribly barbaric breach of privacy. That person can very well be a friend, a family member or someone else you love and care for. If that were to happen, here are some things to keep in mind.
Don’t make assumptions
If you suspect your friend has been assaulted, there are definitely going to be many feelings and impulses coursing through your mind. Instead of acting on those, remember to not jump to conclusions. Everyone behaves and copes differently, but there are some signs that your friend was sexually assaulted. Sara K Walz, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and counselor at Northwestern University’s Women’s Center gave us a list of a few physical and emotional symptoms pointing to an assault.
- Suicide attempts
- Fear of intimacy or closeness
- Unhealthy coping mechanisms (disordered eating, alcohol use, risky sexual behavior)
If you strongly believe your friend has been assaulted, let her/him set the pace for the conversation surrounding the assault. “Sometimes [reaching out] can make all the difference in the world,” says Jennifer Wider, M.D., a nationally renowned women’s health expert, author and radio host. “You just need to approach compassionately and without judgment. Encourage your friend to seek medical attention, and offer to accompany her. Many sexual assault victims are bewildered, frightened and some are in shock…having a friend there can make a huge difference. Offer to help find resources on campus like a counselor and/or support group.”
Along with not making assumptions, it’s important to keep in mind that they need to make their own decisions as well. “Let the survivor make the decisions (about what action to take, who to tell) – even if you do not agree. Keep in mind that she/he knows what is best. Being able to make own decisions is an important part of re-establishing control in one’s life. Feeling shame or guilt around the supporters because of the decisions she makes will not help in the healing process,” Walz says.
The best tool you can provide as a friend is your ear. You need to make sure that once they have opened up to you that you give them a safe space to talk and vent their frustrations, fears and concerns. And if your friend isn’t ready to share, the next best thing you can do is to let them know you’re there for them, you’re thinking of them and you support them wholeheartedly.
Also make sure that you’re engaged when being their confidant. Laura Palumbo, Communications Director at The National Sexual Violence Resource Center notes a show of support and the want to listen is invaluable to the survivor. “Listening actively means staying with everything your friend is saying and not being distracted by what you will say next,” she says. “You don’t have to worry about giving the right advice; just let your friend know they are being heard. You can create a safe space by listening without judgment.” To some, just being there may seem inconsequential, but to the survivor it’ll mean the world.
A way that you can avoid, or try to avoid, making your friend uncomfortable is, again, to be sensitive. Mcgovern gave some key phrases to consider.
- “’I’m sorry this happened.’ Acknowledge the experience has affected their life.
- ‘It’s not your fault.’ Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind them that they are not to blame.
- ‘I believe you.’ It can be extremely difficult for survivors to come forward and share their story. They may feel ashamed, concerned they won’t be believed, or worried they’ll be blamed. The best thing you can do is believe them.”
These won’t work for every situation and certainly not every person, however, these are a great start if you’re ever stuck on what to say or how to respond appropriately.
Everyone reacts differently
As mentioned earlier, there isn’t just one way someone will act following an assault. Maybe you think he or she should be acting withdrawn or constantly want to be alone, but the survivor might be upbeat or try to engage in different activities. Palumbo says to not judge how they are dealing with their situation. “The research supports this by showing a spectrum of ways individuals deal with the distress of assault physically, psychologically, and emotionally,” she says. “For example, a survivor might seem withdrawn or lose interest in activities. However, a survivor might also start going out more and engaging in high-risk behaviors.” Just keep this in mind when trying to help your friend and don’t let this cloud your good intentions.
Sara Mcgovern, Press Secretary for RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), America’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, says that what some might perceive as “warning signs for sexual assault in college-age adults may be caused by events that are unrelated, such as being away from home for the first time.” It’s better to be safe than sorry in these situations, says Mcgovern. “You can ask questions that point to a specific person or time like, ‘Did something happen with the person you met at the party the other night?’ You can also simply reaffirm that you will believe them when they are ready to come forward, and that it’s not their fault.” Be vigilant of your friend during these times as well; realize if anything you ask is bothering them and don’t push too much in one direction if they are getting visibly upset.
Be the support
Just like reactions and aftermath looks different for every individual, recovery looks different as well. Don’t judge how they choose to heal. Even if it isn’t what you would do, even if you have experienced the same thing, letting them know you support and trust their decisions is the best thing you could give them as a friend.
Trust that your friend knows what she or he wants. “In some cases, your friend may have already considered all of their options,” Palumbo says. “At other times, they may not be aware of the supports available to them, so discussing these can be helpful.” If they are hesitant or uncomfortable with the next course of action, be their pillar of strength. Palumbo says to offer something as simple all as a ride to the hospital or waiting for them in the counseling office can be the support they need to follow through. Your support alone could empower them or at least make them feel more comfortable.
Another place where your friend may need support is when reporting and taking care of her/his health. “Medical attention is very important – STD testing, counseling, etc… If your friend wants to report the incident to campus authorities or the police, offer to accompany her,” says Wider. Carrie Wachter, Coordinator of Sexual Violence Response Services at Northwestern University, gave a great tip: “look up resources yourself, print them out and have them just in case.” In addition to being there for your friend, another part of being supportive is having concrete plans and sources to help yourself better help her/him. Having a plan is very important, and will make you feel better prepared when faced with this situation.
Never blame the victim
In today’s society, we have to deal with the repercussions of rape culture. This entails many things, but one huge aspect being the blame survivors often put on themselves. They believe they could have prevented it by changing something they wore or something they did. This is of course not true because the only person that is ever to blame for rape is the rapist.
However, these feelings of guilt are common in survivors, so it’s important to never say anything that would condemn them for what happened or hold them accountable for what happened. As a friend, this would most likely happen on accident, but just be aware of what your words sound like to the survivor. “One of the things that makes disclosing a sexual assault so difficult is that survivors fear they won’t be believed,” says Palumbo. “Even if the order of events or memories are fragmented, know that it’s not your role to understand the details of what happened or question the validity of their story.” Keep in mind that it isn’t your friends fault, no if, ands or buts about it.
Mcgovern from RAINN says that, in addition to shutting down the above stigmas related to sexual assault, thanks to rape culture, these items should be left off the table as well:
- “Leave any ‘why’ questions or investigations to the experts. Your job is to support this person.
- Be careful not to interpret calmness as a sign the event did not occur [going back to the fact that everyone behaves differently]
- Be patient. Remember, there is no time table to recovering from trauma. Avoid pressuring your friend to engage in activities they aren’t ready for yet.”
Sexual assault, no matter how unbelievably common, is still a sensitive subject and needs to be handled with care. As a friend, if you suspect that they have been a victim of assault, supporting them, not judging and listening to them is the best thing they could ask for. Laura points out the frequency of such crimes: “We know according to research from the Centers for Disease Control that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men have experienced sexual assault at some point in their lifetime.” She says, “Keeping these statistics in mind can be helpful, as it points to the fact you are often likely interacting with someone who has experienced some form of sexual assault or abuse.” And according to RAINN, college produces an environment that makes sexual violence more prevalent, in comparison to other crimes; college women are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted than be robbed and that’s only based on the 20 percent of college women that report their rape to law enforcement. Yes, this is daunting, but hopefully the aforementioned guidelines give at least a stepping stone to helping you and anyone that may have been sexually assaulted.
If you have been sexually assaulted, or if you need further help for a friend who has been, you can call:
- The RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
- The National Center for Victims of Crime Victim Service Helpline, 1-800-FYI-CALL or 1-800-211-7996 (TTY/TDD)
- NSVRC (The National Sexual Violence Resource Center) at 717-909-0710 (or request assistance here).