Your support as a friend can make a big difference to someone who has experienced sexual violence.
If someone discloses their experience with sexual violence to you and you don’t know what to say or do, it can help to explore this resource on Knowing What to Say to a Trauma Survivor.
Sexual violence is an issue that is already surrounded by silence, stigma, and shame. If a friend tells you that they have experienced sexual violence, it’s important to say something. Saying nothing increases the sense of silence and isolation, but saying something can help that person feel seen and heard, and remind them that they are not alone.
You can simply say, “I’m sorry you experienced that.” This statement is validating, and communicates with compassion that what they experienced was real. As their friend, it’s not your job to figure out if it really happened, or exactly what happened, or who is responsible, or how to fix it. Your job in this moment is to support your friend.
Listen without judgment
Let your friend share whatever they are comfortable with, and really listen, without judgment or probing questions. Don’t interrupt, and don’t compare their experience with anything you or anyone else has experienced. Don’t offer advice or tell them what they “should” do, unless they specifically ask for it. If you don’t know what to say, you can simply say, “I am sorry this happened to you, but I’m so glad you told me. Thank you for trusting me.”
Consider their safety
One of the first things you need to ensure is that your friend is safe from harm. You also need to ensure that they are not going to hurt themselves or somebody else. If you are worried about anybody’s safety, you must get help, even if your friend doesn’t want you to tell anyone. Immediately contact the Title IX Coordinator (651-696-6258), Campus Security (651-696-6555), or Office of Student Affairs (651-696-6220).
Believe your friend. Statistics show that there is no reason to think that they are lying about having experienced sexual violence. More than almost anything, your friend needs your trust. Additionally, be sure not to blame your friend for suffering the abuse or ask probing questions that might imply blame. No one asks or deserves to be assaulted.
Let them make the decisions
In having experienced sexual violence, your friend has had all their power and agency taken away. Throughout the healing process, you must let your friend make all their own decisions. They may want to be taken care of, but it is important that you only present options and give your friend the power to make their own decisions. Unless they specifically ask you for advice, you can simply say, “I trust you to know what is best for you and to do whatever you need to do to heal and remain safe.”
Don’t define their experience
As part of giving the survivor the ability to make their own decisions, it is important that they be allowed to define the experience. Do not label the experience “rape” or “abuse” before the survivor is willing or able to do so. Do not compare their experience to anything you have experienced or someone else’s experiences–this can feel minimizing and invalidating. Do not assume the person who assaulted your friend is of the opposite sex. Same-sex sexual violence is seldom talked about but is just as painful and real, regardless of the gender or sexual orientation of those involved.
Take care of yourself
It is very difficult to hear stories about sexual violence. Throughout this process, remember to take care of yourself, to find someone to talk to, and to get counseling if necessary. It can help to establish clear boundaries about what you are realistically able and willing to do to support your friend. Attend to your own needs. Any of the resources available to survivors are also available to you as a friend of a survivor.