Coming out to a friend about experiencing sexual assault is nearly impossible. I know from first hand experience. But it’s also extremely cathartic and a pivotal moment when your friend responds in a way that is supportive and non-judgmental.
I also know how jarring it can be to learn that someone you love has experienced sexual violence. Getting that text, phone call or having the in person conversation can come with shock and also the uncertainty of how to respond.
You may feel intense anger towards the person who caused your friend harm, you might be feeling sad, maybe you feel fearful for your community, you might be hurt that they didn’t tell you sooner or you might feel nothing at all. There is no right way to feel about this news.
But there are definitely ways you can react that will show supportive love towards your friend.
This is a complex and critical time for them—especially if you’re the first person they’re disclosing this information to. Your response can help decrease isolation and future PTSD episodes. That’s a lot pressure for you to hold, but your friend needs you. It’s time to step up and show your love.
Here at 5 tips for supporting a friend who has experienced sexual trauma.
I mean really, really listen to them. Use your best active listening skills.
You know that thing that humans usually do where we’re half listening, half planning how we’re going to respond in our heads? Yeah, don’t do that right now. Allow yourself time to really take in what your friend is saying. Be present in whatever they’re telling you. Hold space for their words to exist and feel validated.
Then when it’s time for you to respond, pause for a moment and now allow yourself to think about how you want to respond to what they’ve just shared with you. There’s nothing wrong with silence and allowing their words to linger. It can be validating to feel like what you just said is still ruminating with someone else.
It’s important to allow your friend to disclose as much or as little as they’d like to about the details of the assault. Some survivors like to tell the whole thing from beginning to end and not leave a detail out. It helps them process and feel like they’ve released some of that energy. Others may only want to tell you that they were raped and nothing more. Not who the person who caused them harm was, or any details of where or when it happened. That’s okay! They have total control over what they disclose to you.
It’s not your job to decide whether what happened to them was really rape or how bad it was. Nope. You are there to believe them, support them and let them know they are loved.
2. Language matters.
Choose your words with intention right now. It’s okay to not know exactly what to say. You could even let your friend know that by saying something like “Wow, I don’t know what to say but I’m so glad that you shared this with me. I know how difficult that must have been. I’m here for you.”
Whatever you say, use compassionate communication and don’t ask them a lot of “why” questions. Why were you wearing that red dress? Why didn’t you walk home with a friend? Why didn’t you tell them to stop? Why didn’t you report this to the police? None of these questions will help them. In fact, they’ll make your friend feel like you think what happened to them is somehow their fault. Which it is not, in any way.
It can be empowering to let your friend know that they have the power to say no. Let them know this before you offer any sort of physical touch, like a hug or gentle hand on top of theirs. Allowing someone who has had their bodily consent taken away from them in a violent way the power to reclaim that, can do wonders. You may find that they respond with no, just because it feels good to say that word and feel respected.
Some other positive responses may be: I’m sorry this happened to you. It’s not your fault. You’re not alone. I believe you. You can trust me.
3. Let them know they have options. But don’t pressure them with your opinion.
There are so many options for medical support, reporting what happened and emotional support. I’ve found that people often carry strong opinions about what rape survivors should or should not do after they’re raped. Let all your opinions go out the window right now. They don’t matter, your friend does.
The first person I told about my assault guilted me for not filing a police report. She told me it was my fault if this man went out and raped another person. I felt horrible. I carried that around and thought about all the people I caused pain because I couldn’t make a report with the police. But that’s not true and I know that now (though it took years of self-work to unlearn what my friend had said to me).
The person who perpetrates sexual violence is the only one to blame. The survivor cannot change what happened or what that person will do in the future.
If you don’t know all the options there are to offer, then you can help your friend reach out to RAINN or National Sexual Violence Resource Center to better understand the resources that exist for them.
For example, if it’s been under 96 hours since the assault—they have the option to get a Sexual Assault Response Team exam, which can help collect evidence. They can also start a police report and not press charges and wait until they’re ready to come back to it. Or they can decide to not go through the criminal justice system and you can talk to them about community accountability models.
It’s important for them to know that they have options, they aren’t alone and they can’t be coerced into doing anything they don’t want to.
You can provide them options, but never tell your friend that they -need- to do anything. They are in healing mode, so whatever feels best to them is what’s going to work right now. If that means therapy, great! If it means hiding in their room for weeks on end, be sure to check in on them and continue to love them.
4. Help establish safety plans.
A safety plan can mean something different for every situation. Maybe your friend has been feeling triggered every time they walk by the building where the assault happened. How can you help them come up with an alternate route? It’s possible that they are afraid of seeing the person who caused them harm out at events (queer community is so small, babes). This might mean they’ve been isolating themselves out of fear. How can you help them figure out a safety plan of either figuring out through word of mouth if that person will be at an event or creating a plan for what to do if they see that person?
Remember that it’s okay to not have all the answers. Working through some more complex safety plans (i.e. getting out of housing quickly because they live with their abuser) may need an expert like a therapist or social worker.
5. Continued support makes a difference.
This isn’t a one and done conversation. Sexual violence is so pervasive. But do you know what’s equally pervasive? Rape culture.
Survivors face daily triggers and pressures from society—they’re constantly navigating a world where sexual violence is normalized. Conversations about rape cases in the news will come up at work. People will say things like Gosh, I think I’d kill myself if I ever went through that. People will say victim blaming things right in front of survivors like Yeah, but she was drinking all night. What did she expect?
Your friend is going to need you in these moments. Let them know that they can text or call you whenever they need to. But sometimes it might be nice if you send them a spontaneous text letting them know you love them and are thinking of them. It can be hard to reach out to people, even when you need them the most. Asking for help is difficult. But knowing that lifeline (you) is there, can be the reassurance they need to get through those tough moments.
Remember that healing is fluid. There is no end game with this work. Sexual assault survivors will have good months and bad months. Some may experience PTSD for the rest of their lives. Others may move through their healing to compartmentalize and leave this behind them. Your friend is navigating all these complicating situations and feelings right now. What they need most is simply knowing that they can count on you.
Remember to self-care for you too, babes. You can’t be a support system for someone when you aren’t supporting yourself.