Sexual assault and harassment, stalking, and dating and relationship violence can all traumatize not only the survivor, but also his, her, or their family and friends. One of the greatest hardships is not knowing how to help. Each survivor’s reaction to sexual assault and harassment, stalking, and dating and relationship violence is individual, as is each survivor’s recovery. It is important to keep this in mind when thinking about how to be most helpful.
Remember Sexual Assault is Never the Survivor’s Fault
- The three most important things are to SUPPORT, LISTEN and BELIEVE. Your friend may reveal some graphic information. It is important not to overreact. Believe your friend and let your friend know you do. People rarely lie about rape, sexual assault, harassment, stalking, or dating and relationship violence.
- Give your friend the chance to talk about the experience and her, his, or their feelings. Be thoughtful in your responses: there are some things that we can say that unintentionally convey the wrong message, and unintentionally cause the victim to feel blamed for what happened.
Often survivors of sexual assault and harassment, stalking, and dating and relationship violence feel that their experiences are not valid because they are not “bad enough,” or do not fit stereotypical ideas of what these kinds of violence look like. If your friend shares with you about experiencing sexual assault and harassment, stalking, or dating and relationship violence, remember to validate his or her feelings and experience and allow your friend to express them. Remember that any of these experiences can create extreme fear and trauma for a survivor, and they may need your support and understanding.
Communicate to your friend that any feelings she, he or they may have are normal and understandable. Supporting a friend means validating his, her or their feelings and emotions.
What to Do When Helping a Friend
- Show interest, but do not pry or ask for specific details, which may make the survivor relive the experience. Allow your friend to be silent. You do not have to speak when she, he, or they stops talking.
- Help your friend regain some sense of control. Support your friend in making decisions about whom to tell and how to proceed.
- Recognize your own limitations. No one expects you to be an expert in counseling or sexual assault; therefore, avoid making strong recommendations to the survivor.
- Realize that as a friend you may need counseling to cope with the events your friend may have shared with you. Those in a helping position may experience vicarious trauma (sometimes referred to as “secondary trauma.”) This is the process of change that happens because you care about other people who have been hurt, and feel committed or responsible to help them. Over time this process can lead to changes in your own psychological and physical well-being. You can seek services for yourself through Kim Webb at the RSVP Center or Student Health Services.
Tips on What Not to Do
- Avoid making decisions for the survivor. Instead, listen and then ask how you can help.
- Do not touch or hug your friend without permission.
- Avoid making judgment statements or asking judgmental questions like the ones below, which, while meant to be helpful, can cause the survivor to have increased feelings of guilt or shame. Do not express judgment about the survivor’s behavior, or imply that it is somehow their fault. Nothing the survivor did or did not do is responsible for the assault. Some statements to avoid include:“Why didn’t you fight?,” “You shouldn’t have gone to their room,” or anything else that questions the actions of the survivor. These types of statements send the message that the survivor could have done something to avoid the attack and it is their fault. One should not question a survivor’s actions. Freezing, submitting and fighting are all natural responses to being attacked.”Were you drunk?” This sends the message the survivor is partially responsible for the attack. Intoxication does not excuse a perpetrator’s actions, nor does it make the survivor responsible for being assaulted.“I’ll kill the person who did this to you!” While anger is a natural reaction, it can be very harmful. The victim needs to be the focus right now. They are seeking your support, not your anger and frustration. Anger puts the focus on the perpetrator rather than the victim and puts the victim in the place of being a caregiver, as opposed to one who is being supported.“You should go to the police.” Although going to the police might be a step in the healing process for the survivor, it must be their decision to do so. Allowing them to make decisions to disclose to others or seek services will help the survivor gain back control that was taken away.
There are some common reactions you may experience when learning someone you know has been sexually assaulted. These feelings are natural responses to a trauma.
Disbelief: Family and friends may react to the sexual assault of a loved one with shock and disbelief, especially if there are no visible signs of the attack. You may even doubt that the assault happened. This is called “denial” and it happens after a traumatic experience.
Fear: You may feel intense fear for yourself or for the survivor. You may want to protect him, her or them from future assault. Your concern may be reassuring soon after the assault, but too much caution on your part can make it difficult for the survivor to feel capable and in control again.
Depression: It is normal to feel sad or depressed. Sexual assault can bring up feelings of powerlessness in victims and those who love them. You may feel that your life is out of control. If depression lasts longer than a few weeks or becomes overwhelming, seek support for yourself.
Guilt: Guilt is a common reaction when a loved one has been sexually assaulted. Those closest to the survivor may blame themselves. Whatever you did or did not do, you are not to blame. It is solely the fault of the perpetrator. Instead of blaming yourself, concentrate on the positive things you can do now.
Anger: Often loved ones experience anger after a sexual assault. Your first reaction may be to seek revenge against the attacker. This is a normal feeling, but you will not help yourself or the survivor if you are hurt or in jail. Sometimes you may feel anger towards the survivor, especially if they did something you warned them not to do. If you find yourself blaming the survivor for the assault, make sure you have someone other than the survivor who can listen to your angry feelings. Remember, even if the survivor used poor judgment; it is the perpetrator who is responsible.
Reactions adapted from University of Missouri, RSVP office, 2010.