Friends and Family
It's hard to know what to do when someone you care about tells you that they have been sexually assaulted. You likely have a lot feelings of your own, and may be worried about what to say. These feelings are normal. Here are some Do's and Don'ts for responding to someone who has told you they have been a victim of sexual assault.
- Believe them. While this may sound like a simple step, it was likely hard for your loved one to tell you about their assault. It may be appropriate to acknowledge their courage in coming forward, and to assure them that they are not alone.
- Express sincere empathy. Expressing empathy can be a powerful validation of a survivor's experience, and shows that you believe them and care about them.
- Validate the feelings your loved one is expressing. People react to sexual trauma in a variety of ways, some of which can appear strange to others. Your friend may be crying, yelling, laughing hysterically, or showing no emotions at all. All of these are normal reactions, and do not mean that your loved one hasn't experienced trauma.
- Provide referrals to support services, such as:
- Respect the person's decisions in regards to whether to report, go to the hospital, or take any other steps. Sexual assault takes the power of choice away from a person, and it is important that you empower them to make decisions involving their own situation, regardless of what you would like for them to do. Do not pressure them into taking actions they are not comfortable with, and make sure they are aware that they may change their minds at any time.
- Make sure that your friend or family member is safe. Do they have a place they can go where they know they will be safe from further harm? Do they need to go to the hospital for injuries? Do they need food or water? Be aware that if they choose to have a sexual assault evidence collection kit done at a hospital, it is preferable that they not eat or drink ahead of time, so that evidence can be gathered from the mouth. However, it is up to the survivor to make an educated decision about whether to eat or drink at the time.
- Educate yourself on myths about sexual assault, including that most sexual assaults are committed by strangers, that victims provoke sexual assaults, or that there is a certain way sexual assault survivors respond to their trauma.
- Relax. Try not to worry much about "saying the right thing." Being available to listen is far more important. Let the survivor know that you care.
- Take care of yourself! It's difficult to hear about someone you care about being hurt, particularly if you have experienced sexual violence in the past. It is okay to ensure that your loved one is cared for and take time to yourself in order to process and decompress. Self-care is vital at this time.
- Make assumptions about the gender of the people involved. Sexual assault occurs among all genders and sexual orientations.
- Tell the person what to do. While you may want to encourage them to report the assault, it is up to the survivor to make the decisions that are best for them.
- Blame the victim for their assault. Sexual violence is never the fault of the victim, regardless of their behaviors, words, or clothing.
- Tell the victim how they should feel. Survivors of sexual violence may feel numb, angry, depressed, ashamed, or a combination of many other feelings. These are all normal reactions to a traumatic event.
- Downplay the experience. While it can be easy to try to comfort someone by stating that their assault was not that bad, or that it could have been worse, this minimizes their experience and may make them feel that you are not concerned about them.
- Try to investigate the situation yourself. You can be most helpful by being present, believing, and listening.
- Tell others about the assault. While you may want to tell other friends, so that they can support the survivor, it is your friend's decision who they wish to tell or not tell about their assault.
- Similarly, do not make a report to the police or the University without asking your friend if they would like for you to do so. Again, it is important to empower your loved one to make their own decisions and have them respected.
- Force physical contact on your friend. Even if the victim is normally physically affectionate (such as hugging frequently, holding hands, etc.), they may not be comfortable with such closeness at this time. Show your care for your friend, family member, or partner by respecting the boundaries they set, even if those are different from past boundaries.