It can be hard to know what to do to help a friend who has been sexually assaulted, but on behalf of the survivor in your life, thank you for taking the time to find more information. Your support is an enormous gift that will help your friend though a very challenging time.
Supporting your friend if the assault just occurred:
- Make sure that your friend is in a safe place.
- Whether or not your friend plans to make a report to law enforcement, they may need to receive medical attention to treat possible internal injuries, to protect against sexually transmitted infections, and to receive emergency contraception, if relevant or necessary. Dick’s House or Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC) can provide medical care, screening and treatment for STIs, and emergency contraception, and DHMC has staff that can conduct a full sexual trauma exam (i.e., evidence collection kit). Encourage your friend to seek medical attention, but remember that doing so is your friend’s choice: provide them with information, inform them of their options, and then allow them to decide what to do.
- Offer to stay with your friend or to call someone who can stay with them.
Supporting your friend at any time:
- Listen: Listening to your friend and being truly present for them is the most important thing that you can do. Oftentimes, when we listen to someone, we have an agenda, or we are trying so hard to “get it right” that we aren’t staying fully present. Don’t worry if you don’t know what to say (although there are some things that you definitely should not say), just be there and listen, without judgement. Avoid giving advice or opinions on the situation, and don’t be afraid of silence: your very presence will be comforting. Some survivors want to talk more than others, or may not want to talk at all initially. Give your friend time and space, and let them know that you’re available when they want to share.
- Believe and validate: Let your friend know that you believe them and that what happened was not their fault. It’s very likely that your friend is dealing with a lot of self-doubt, shame, or guilt, so affirm that nobody asks to be assaulted and that the blame lies squarely with the perpetrator. For example, if your friend makes a comment such as “I shouldn’t have been alone with him,” remind your friend that there’s nothing wrong with trusting someone to respect your boundaries and that that trust was violated. Avoid asking questions that could imply blame, such as “Were you drinking?” or “Why didn’t you scream?” In fact, try to avoid starting any questions with the word “why” as they often seem loaded with judgement.
- Honor your friend’s autonomy: Keep in mind that, when someone is sexually assaulted, their power and control is taken away from them. Respecting your friend’s choices is an important way to help help them regain a sense of control. You can help by providing information and options, but allow your friend to make their own decisions, even if you don’t agree with them.
- Protect your friend’s privacy: Dartmouth is a small community, and when someone is sexually assaulted, they may feel as though everyone knows what happened to them. Remember that whatever your friend has confided in you is their information to share, and telling someone else is a breach of trust unless you have concerns about their immediate safety. If you do need to talk to someone, there are resources available to support you, and you can get help in dealing with your own emotions without compromising your friend’s privacy.
- Get informed: Everyone experiences sexual assault in different ways, and your friend’s response is likely to be complex and non-linear. For example, your friend may seem fine in the weeks or months following the assault and then suddenly become devastated some time after the fact. That – and any number of other reactions – are completely normal, and the more you understand the social, cultural and political implications of sexual assault and what they mean for your friend, the better you will be able to support them. You can learn more about survivor’s common reactions to sexual assault, and there are many additional resources available on the internet for those who want to support a friend. There are also particular things to keep in mind if you are supporting a male survivor or someone who identifies as LGBTI.
Take care of yourself:
- It’s incredibly hard to see someone you care about in pain, and it’s normal to feel angry, helpless and sad. Self-care is an essential part of helping others, as you can’t show up fully for your friend if you’re not taking care of your own emotional needs. There are many Dartmouth and community resources available to support friends of survivors.