How can I help my friends who have experienced sexual assault?
When someone has been through an unwanted sexual experience, they are most likely to first turn to a friend for support. Remember that your friend trusts you enough to confide in you and that what they share with you is not to be turned into gossip but to be kept confidential. However, in circumstances where your friend’s personal safety is at stake, a member of the Dean of Students office should be informed.
Your friend may be experiencing some of these responses, including sadness, anger, shame, fear, self-blame, anxiety, shock, confusion, hopelessness or feelings of helplessness. Often, people have trouble concentrating, eating, and/or sleeping; they may be plagued by intrusive thoughts and memories, even though they try to focus on other things. Sometimes, one can provide the best support by simply listening well, not judging and just being there.
The acceptance and support of friends are often vital steps in the healing process. Sexual assault almost always involves a violation of trust; it often leaves an affected individual doubting their own judgment. By being understanding and supportive, you can help your friend begin to regain some of that trust and confidence.
Strategies for helping a friend
- Listen and demonstrate that you believe them. Be sure your friend knows you will be supportive. It is important for your friend to know they are believed and not judged. The best way to make this clear is to say it directly: “I believe what you are telling me, and I do not judge you for what you are going through.” Validate your friends’ experience- say “I believe you.” It isn’t up to you to understand or pass judgment on the details involved. Scepticism or labelling your friend’s experience is not helpful and can often be re-traumatising.
- Let your friend lead the conversation. Allow your friend to determine the pace and focus of the conversation instead of trying to define what the experience is for them. The most important support you can provide is to allow your friend to express their concerns and come to terms with their experience. Facing a sexual assault or harassment is a profoundly disempowering experience. An essential part of support is encouraging your friend to maintain control over what happens next.
- Be well informed about available resources. Spend some time reading through the resources on this website to learn what options your friend might have, and which might be relevant when speaking with your friend. But be sure to let your friend be the one to make the decisions about who to talk to, what services to access, and what actions to take next. You may disagree with some decisions but the important step is to listen and not judge. Help them understand the available options, and let them be the one to decide how to proceed.
- Be reassuring. It is not your place to determine or to cast fault on your friend. Avoid judgmental questions and statements. Remember that your friend may already be blaming themselves.
- Take care of yourself. Remember, you too can call/seek for support if you are overwhelmed. Reach out to a College Psychologist/Counsellor to talk through your concerns.
If you are supporting your friend, be sure to take care of yourself
- Be aware of your own feelings. In the process of helping your friend you may experience feelings of hurt, anger, guilt, anxiety, or may feel frightened. Such feelings are understandable but your reactions may feel surprising, confusing, or overwhelming.
- Know and respect your own limits. There is only so much you can do to help your friend. You may feel like you want to take action—for example, confront the accused person; however, this could exacerbate a situation and cause further issues for your friend. Remember that because the situation is potentially under investigation as a disciplinary or criminal case, your decision to intervene may result in interfering with the investigation process. More worthy of your attention is providing support and compassion to your friend. Try not to offer more than you can give, and encourage your friend to seek additional support.
- Remember that it was not your fault. You may feel guilty, wondering if you could have done something to prevent your friend from being hurt. Remind yourself that responsibility is held by the person(s) who committed the acts of sexual misconduct.
- Do not be afraid to ask for help. Find someone other than your friend to talk with about your feelings, for example, a College Psychologist/Counsellor. Talking with someone else can help you understand where you are emotionally and give you a clearer perspective on the situation.
- Keep the rest of your life on track. Do not forget to take care of yourself. This will help both you and your friend.