How To Support a Friend Through an Experience of Sexual Assault
In the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault, survivors can often turn inward, shutting down. You want to help, but what can you say? Is there anything you can do that will make it better? What can you do to let your friend know that you want to be there for her? First of all, take a moment and take a deep breath. Get yourself centered and know that this just sucks all the way around. It’s hard to have uncomfortable conversations, especially if you are accustomed to shrugging off awkward moments. She’s traumatized in a world that doesn’t understand trauma. She needs space and peace for recovery in a world that may tell her that she should just power through and get back to the party. She may not even understand herself why she can’t just “get over it.” She needs support and she may have no freaking idea what she needs or how to ask for it.
Obviously the first thing to do is to make sure that your friend is safe and has any medical attention that she might need if the event happened recently.
Be sure to use supporting language that reaffirms over and over that this wasn’t her fault. The fault lies firmly and solely with the perpetrator. It doesn’t matter what she was wearing, or how many drinks she had, or whether she wanted to when she started and then changed her mind, or whether Mercury was in retrograde, it…was…not…her…fault.
See “Cup of Tea” video (YOUTUBE “Tea and Consent” video).
See Tracey Ullman skit (YOUTUBE “What Were You Wearing?”)
Sometimes the need to fit in and be okay with all sexual behaviors (“don’t be a prude, everyone loves Anal!”) can breed an atmosphere of shame where she may minimize what happened to her and suffer silently. If there seems to be something wrong with her and with her description of a sexual encounter, don’t be afraid to gently ask more questions, including the important question: “Are you okay with what happened?” Give her space to explore whether she’s truly comfortable with what went down. We think of rape as a boogeyman with a knife jumping out of the bushes, but it can easily be the cute guy that didn’t take “no” for an answer. Perhaps she froze and was unable to even speak the word “no” and is now assuming that she deserves what she got because she didn’t clearly say “no” or she invited him in or had the drink.
In the weeks and months afterward, you may notice some changes in your friend and in the dynamics of your time together. Here are some things to be aware of that she might not be able to articulate:
She might not be okay with normal hugging or physical touch. Ask her if she feels comfortable hugging and let her be the one to engage first.
Understand that she might become more withdrawn and might not be up for going out and being social for a while. Offer to stay in with her and do minimal energy things like watching movies or hanging at the beach or the park. Allow her to sit in silence with you if that’s what she needs. Sometimes she may not be able to talk but will be greatly comforted by your presence.
Understand that she may get tired more easily and may have to leave early or avoid social occasions. Make it easy for her to do so without feeling like she’s letting the party down.
Offer to accompany or to drive her to any appointments or meetings or events.
Don’t be quick to relate to what she’s been through unless you have been through a similar situation. Even then be mindful to allow her to process her experience without making it about you. Just listening and offering empathy for her can be very healing and powerful. If her experience is triggering memories of a similar experience for you, take care of yourself. Get the support that you need.
Understand that it will take a lot of time for her to process what has happened. Never push her to “get over it already.” Definitely encourage her to seek professional help. If you feel like she’s depending solely on you for support, you will need to get support for yourself as well.
Your friend may choose to spend some time with others who have had similar experiences, perhaps a support group or another friend. Don’t take this personally or think that your friend does not value your friendship or care about you. Know that she still loves you and will return to normal activities when she’s feeling more secure, especially if the door to friendship is still open on your end.
Go to RAINN (www.rainn.com) for more detailed information about the aftereffects of sexual assault and how to support a friend, or loved one.