A note: We’re in the middle of what appears to be a watershed moment as far as men’s sexual assault and sexual harassment against women. It seems like every week, we learn about a new barrage of accusations leveled against famous men in the media and entertainment industry. I’m not an optimist, so I don’t have faith that this is ushering in a new moment where men will now and forever be held accountable for their actions against women, femmes, and female identified people, but I have to say…I’m here for this current moment. Take Them All Down.
It’s important to consider the effects that these highly publicized incidents of men’s sexual assault 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, and there might be feelings of rage, hypervigilance, shame, anxiety, and general uneasiness mixed in with our reactions to the current events. Some people might be inspired by the all of the revelatory truth telling that we’ve been seeing as a part of the #MeToo movement started by Tarana Burke, 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 be prepared with some awareness, understanding, and compassion will help you be the support system your friend needs in that moment.
Have a basic understanding of sexual assault and the resources available to someone who’s experienced sexual assault.
I believe that having a basic understanding about 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 victim of sexual assault 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 is about power and control. Understanding this will help us support victims by assisting them in regaining a sense of their power and control.
We should all recognize the variety of reasons that keep victims of sexual assault from talking about what happened to them – from victim-blaming to the logistical complications involved with reporting a rape or a sexual assault to the emotional weight of managing trauma responses – the reasons for not talking about sexual assault are plenty.
We all don’t 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 victims of sexual assault.
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 integrated their experience; it doesn’t mean that they’ve already fully processed their experience and have come to terms with how it has affected their lives or how it will affect their life in the future. They make 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 that they’re confiding in you, let them know that there’s a chance that 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 that it’s possible that those feelings will shift as well. This is par for the course.
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. If your friends 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 themselves.
Assess their safety.
This means assessing both their 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, they 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’ve experienced sexual trauma.
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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 a sexual assault. Your friend may not want to talk to a sexual assault or rape advocate about their experience, and that’s 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 from them – 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.
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If your friend trusts you enough to tell you about their experience, it is 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 you 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 (or whatever), 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.
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