Supporting Survivors

When a friend tells you they’ve been assaulted: Dos and Don’ts

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Trauma
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The Quickie
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First and foremost,
Don’t freak out. Becoming upset or angry on your friend’s behalf could intensify any emotional distress they may be experiencing.  

Do gauge your friend’s current emotional state and needs. Did the assault occur last night, or did it happen months or years ago? Is your friend in crisis, or are they simply sharing a story with you in context of current events? As a friend, and not a trained crisis counselor, your job is going to be, more often than not, to listen and affirm. If your friend is in crisis, you can help them access the right resources. See hotlines and resources below.

Don’t shy away from discomfort. It can be hard to know how to respond, but if your friend is sharing a difficult story with you, stay there with them. You don’t need to pry for details or freak out on their behalf to be present, open and attentive.

Do believe them. Make sure they know it.

Do mirror their language. If a friend uses the term “rape,” use the term “rape.” On the flip side, if a friend shares a story about an incident that you might label “assault,” but doesn’t use that term, you should use whatever language they’re using instead.

Do follow their lead. Similar to mirroring language, let your friend direct the conversation. They might start sharing a story about assault, and then change the subject. You can ask if they want to continue to talk about the assault, or offer to talk about it at a later time, but don’t push them to talk about it.

Don’t pass judgment or ask questions that imply judgment. Refrain from asking questions like, “Were you drinking?” or “Are you sure that’s what happened?” Studies show that responding to trauma with blame or shame can actually re-traumatize a survivor. This phenomenon is known as “secondary victimization” and it can have a silencing effect. (1)

Don’t use this as an opportunity to tell your own story.You might have a story of your own, and you might want to share it as a way to show your friend is not alone. Keep these thoughts to yourself! Do your best to focus on your friend, and keep your tone positive-neutral.

Do ask open-ended questions. Open-ended questions are a useful way into the conversation, and they can also offer a form of “permission”. Some survivors may worry that no one wants to hear about what happened, or even feel guilty for sharing the story. You can ask: “Do you want to tell me more about what happened?” or  “What would be most useful right now?” You can even offer options: “I could ask you questions about what happened, or I could distract you by talking about something else… what do you think would be most useful?”

Do remind your friend that whatever happened is not their fault. It is common for survivors of sexual violence to experience feelings of guilt or shame. For many people, being reminded that whatever happened is “not their fault” can be a huge relief. Remind them more than once!

Don’t pressure them to report. Unless your friend is specifically asking for your opinion, follow their lead. Reporting can potentially be emotionally and functionally disruptive (investigations take a lot of time and energy). It’s a personal decision.  

Do support your friend’s decisions. As long as your friend is not at risk of harming themselves or others, be supportive of whatever choice your friend makes regarding reporting, going to the hospital, etc.

Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Listening to and supporting other people during traumatic experiences can induce a form of secondary trauma, called vicarious trauma. You can’t be someone’s emotional support person 100% of the time, nor should you be. (That’s what a therapist is for!) Make yourself available to your friend at certain times, but it’s also important to draw boundaries when you don’t have the emotional capacity to be available for them. Being honest about your limits will help you avoid burnout.

Resources for Survivors of Sexual Assault:

Resources for Friends and Loved ones of Survivors:

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References

(1) "Being Silenced: The Impact of Negative Social Reactions on the Disclosure of Rape" American Journal of Community Psychology 2006, Ahrens, C https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1705531/#CR7