From the stories unearthed by the #MeToo movement started by Tarana Burke, to #TimesUp, to sexual harassment and assault scandals surrounding such high-profile figures as Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump, and Jeffrey Epstein, it’s important to consider the effects these highly publicized incidents may have on those of us who have experienced sexual assault, abuse, or harassment in the past.
For those of us who’ve experience sexual violence, these events might be re-triggering. There might be feelings of rage, hypervigilance, shame, anxiety, and general uneasiness mixed in with our reactions to the current events.
Some people are also inspired by the revelatory truth-telling we’ve been seeing and might find themselves ready to talk with a trusted friend about their own experiences of sexual violence.
When a friend comes to you seeking support after a sexual assault, it can be a pivotal moment in your relationship. It’s hard to know how the telling may unfold, but it’s important to be prepared with some awareness, understanding, and compassion. The following six tips will help you be the support system your friend needs in that moment.
1. Develop a basic understanding of sexual assault and the resources available to someone who’s experienced sexual assault.
Having a basic understanding of sexual assault is a good thing for all of us to have, regardless of whether or not a friend is coming to us to talk about their sexual assault. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), someone is sexually assaulted in the US every 98 seconds. The likelihood of a friend or a loved one being a survivor of sexual assault and/or rape is fairly high. And that friend or loved one could be a person of any gender, because all genders have experienced sexual assault and sexual violence.
We should all know that sexual assault and rape are about power and control. Understanding this will help us support survivors by assisting them in regaining a sense of their power and control.
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We should all recognize the variety of reasons that keep survivors of sexual assault from talking about what happened to them. From victim-blaming to the logistical complications involved with reporting a rape or sexual assault, to the emotional weight of managing trauma responses, the reasons for not talking about sexual assault are plenty.
We don’t all need to have the knowledge and skills of a trained sexual assault advocate, but we can educate ourselves so that we have a basic idea about what kinds of support services and resources are available for sexual assault survivors.
2. Recognize that your friend’s response to their experience may not be a straightforward process.
The path to healing from sexual trauma isn’t usually a journey that can be defined as always forward-moving. Your friend may come to you immediately after their experience and they may be cool, calm, and collected. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve already fully processed their experience and have come to terms with how it has affected their life or how it will affect their life in the future. They might wake up the next morning, or a week later, and be full of an entirely different set of emotions. You should first recognize this for yourself.
Come to terms with the possibility that, for years to come, your friend may vacillate between feeling healed from their trauma and feeling like the trauma of the experience is present and raw. You should also make sure that your friend is aware of this possibility.
If they’re feeling devastated in the moments they’re confiding in you, let them know that there’s a chance they won’t always feel the same level of devastation. If they’re feeling serene in the moment they’re confiding in you, let them know it’s possible that those feelings will shift as well. This is par for the course.
3. Listen without judgment.
When it comes to rape, sexual violence, and sexual assault, our culture still engages in victim-blaming and slut-shaming. Because these messages are so pervasive in our culture, it isn’t surprising that people who have been raped or sexually assaulted internalize these messages.
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Accordingly, if your friend comes to you after they’ve been sexually assaulted, it’s important to hear everything they tell you without judging what they did or didn’t do. It’s your job to remind your friend that what happened wasn’t their fault. It’s your job to remind them that however they responded during and after the assault was an okay and legitimate response.
If your friend is feeling particularly judgemental about how they responded to the assault/attack, you could talk to them about the “flight, fight, and freeze” responses, letting them know that all of these responses are our bodies’ natural responses to traumatic events.
If you’re able to listen and respond without judgement, you may be able to help your friend sort through any judgemental feelings they may be holding onto.
4. Assess their safety.
This means assessing both your friend’s physical/bodily safety and emotional/mental safety in the moment. It’s important to know if your friend needs or wants to seek medical attention as a result of the assault they experienced.
If your friend is interested in receiving medical attention, you may want to make this a priority. It’s important to remember that not all people will feel like medical attention will give them the feeling of safety and security they need in that moment.
It would be helpful to have a basic idea about what your friend might experience if she/he/they choose to receive medical attention. You should also check in with your friend to see if they’d like to talk with either a sexual assault advocate or, when they’re ready, a mental health provider.
Your friend can call a local sexual assault response hotline to speak to a trained advocate on the phone and, in some areas, may be able to meet with an advocate in person. That advocate will be able to connect them with mental health professionals who specialize in treating people who have experienced sexual trauma.
5. Make space for their agency and autonomy.
Not everyone will respond to their experience of sexual assault in the way you would respond or the way you think they should respond. Your friend may not want to talk to or seek solutions from the criminal justice system, and that’s fine – especially considering how few convictions occur on charges of rape and sexual assault and how the criminal justice system tends to further victimize people who have experienced sexual assault.
Your friend may not want to talk to a sexual assault or rape advocate about their experience, and that’s also fine. There’s no need to push your friend in one direction or the other.
It’s best to present them with a variety of options and allow them to make a choice that feels the best for them. In the moments of a sexual assault or rape, a person’s autonomy is taken away. Therefore, as a friend supporting someone who has just had their agency stripped from them, it’s crucial that you give them an opportunity to regain some of their autonomy by allowing them space to make decisions about the next steps they’d like to take.
6. Remain present.
If your friend trusts you enough to tell you about their experience, it’s important to try to remain present with them through all phases of their confiding process. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be their only support person throughout their entire healing and processing, but it means that you’re their person in that moment. Make sure you have what you need to ensure that you can be physically, mentally, and emotionally present for your friend.
If you need to take a break for whatever reason -– maybe their retelling is reminding you of your own sexual trauma -– then be clear with your friend. Let them know that you need to step out for a moment and that you’ll return. If it turns out that you’ve underestimated your ability to be present for them, be honest about your capacity and do your best to help them find the support that they need.
When it comes to the violence of rape culture, it’s important that we be there for each other to the best of our ability and capacity. In showing someone else that they can trust you to believe them and support them, you’re making the world a bit brighter, day by day.
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