Unless you are a trained advocate, the three best things you can do are to: 1) provide a place for your friend to vent their emotions, 2) validate their feelings, and 3) refer them to an advocacy organization such as SafeSpace for additional support. If your friend has been sexually assaulted or is experiencing relationship violence, you can expect them to be experiencing some combination of fear, anger, guilt, shame, mistrust, and disconnection. They may have experienced the fear of losing their lives and as a result be afraid of everything around them. Your friend may be angry at the perpetrator but also angry at her or himself and at friends and family. Even if the survivor seems to know it is not their fault, they may experience shame and guilt. So much of our society tells them they are at least partially responsible. As most assaults are perpetrated by someone the survivor knows, they certainly may be feeling a lack of trust for those around them and the extreme stress, anxiety, loss of sleep and feeling as though they have lost control makes many survivors feel as though they are disconnected from normal life. You can help your friend. You can help them focus on their strengths and provide a place for them to vent their emotions, even anger. You can help them understand that no one is responsible for being raped and that they have the right to feel a lack of trust for others. You can help them understand that it is normal to feel unstable under such difficult circumstances. Here’s how you can help.
REFER THEM TO AN ADVOCACY SERVICE
Advocacy services such as SafeSpace are the most complete resource for your friend at this difficult time. They can answer questions, provide a large number of options and be with your friend through medical and legal processes, not to mention the emotional recovery. These individuals are trained professionals who know what to expect. Most importantly, they are completely confidential and your friend will be left to make their own decisions. By referring to such a service, your friend can get the most complete care possible.
BE A GOOD LISTENER
Let them know that they can talk with you. Listen carefully and respond to feelings as well as words. By reflecting what you are hearing back to the person, you can help them better understand their own emotions and thoughts during this difficult time. Some survivors will want to talk about their experiences. Keep their privacy. It is a survivor’s decision when and whether to tell others about what happened. Don’t push them to reveal details about the incident or ask questions just because you’re curious.
Survivors need to know that you believe what happened. It’s rare that people make up stories about sexual assault or relationship violence. Don’t question details of the assault. If the perpetrator is someone you know, don’t say, “I can’t believe they would do that!” Important things to communicate with the survivor:
- “It’s not your fault.”
- “I’m glad you’re safe now.”
- “I’m sorry it happened.”
VALIDATE THE SURVIVOR’S FEELINGS
Acknowledge their sadness, anger, fear, or confusion. Let them know that all of these feelings are normal after a sexual assault or when experiencing relationship violence. Assure them that they aren’t alone. Also:
- If a survivor was drunk during the assault, assure them that they aren’t to blame for what happened.
- If a survivor feels guilty because they didn’t fight back, assure them that fear sometimes inhibits us.
- Tell them that they did the best they could to survive the situation and that no one deserves to be assaulted.
- Don’t blame survivors for what happened by asking them things like why they were drinking, why they didn’t fight back, what they were wearing, or by telling them what you would have done.
LET SURVIVORS CONTROL THEIR OWN LIVES
Provide survivors with information about their options. If they choose one, support them by providing phone numbers or information. Allow them to make a decision for themselves and assure them that you will support whatever decision they make. Don’t try to take control of the situation. Let them make that decision for themselves. Don’t threaten to hurt the perpetrator, the survivor has lived through one violent experience and does not need to be confronted with another.
RESPECT THE SURVIVOR’S PRIVACY
Don’t tell others what your friend tells you. Let the survivor decide who they will tell. Encourage them to seek support and assistance from others.
STAY WITH THEM THROUGH THE HEALING PROCESS
Express your concern over the long run. Healing takes time. Talk about other aspects of survivors’ lives. This reassures survivors that they have not become the sexual assault or the relationship violence. Survivors will have good and difficult days. Stay with them through both.
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
Hearing about the sexual assault or violent relationship of a friend or family member is upsetting. You may feel scared, angry, helpless, sad or all of these emotions and more. You may want to talk about your feelings. SafeSpace advocates are available to speak to friends of survivors, these services are completely confidential.
ADDITIONAL ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE TO END VIOLENCE
- Speak out against media images that sexualize violence, or perpetuate gender inequality and discrimination. Support media messages about healthy relationships and respect.
- Learn about community resources that are available to support survivors, and to hold offenders accountable, including SafeSpace, Hope Works, WHBW, the UVM Campus Advocacy Program, CUSI, and the SANE Nurse Program. Many resources are available that could help you, or a friend or family member, in a time of need. Check out our links section to learn more.
- Donate your time or your money to organizations that are working to end sexual and domestic violence.
- Be aware that any of your friends and family members could be survivors – don’t victim blame no matter who you are speaking to.
- Contact your local and state representatives to support adequate funding for community-based advocacy organizations.
- Write letters to the editors of local papers to show your commitment to a safe community, and to support survivors.
- Stop using violent images in your own speech (“I’m going to kill you,” “I was raped by the IRS this year”). Don’t participate in sexist jokes.
- During political campaigns, ask candidates what specific actions they will take to support advocacy organizations and end violence in our community.
- Model nonviolent, healthy behaviors and relationships, especially for children.
- Teach children that they are the owners of their own bodies.
- Teach children correct terms for body parts, and make it comfortable to talk about them.
- Speak up when you witness someone being treated with disrespect. Racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, ethnocentrism, and classism affect us all and create an environment where violence can happen.
- Call the police if you overhear or witness an act of violence in your neighborhood – you could be saving someone’s life
- Participate in local efforts to raise awareness about sexual and domestic violence. Come to the next Take Back the Night march and rally in April (Sexual Violence Awareness Month) or the Speak Out in October (Domestic Violence Awareness Month), organized by many community-based anti-violence organizations.
Adapted from a list by Celia Cuddy