The conversation about sexual assault usually centers around frightening statistics and failed responses from college institutions. Those stories need to be told, and loudly. But as we discuss the pain of sexual assault and how we can prevent future violence, we also need to talk about the other side of the narrative: helping survivors heal.
Despite increased awareness about sexual assault, it remains an understandably difficult topic to discuss. So many people simply don't know what to say when they find out a friend has been sexually assaulted.
But helping a friend who is a survivor of sexual assault isn't really about words. It's about listening without judgement and providing sensitive emotional support. It's about understanding that survivors can heal -- and that having the right allies to support them is critical to helping their recovery process. Here are the most important things you need to know in order to be one of those allies:
1. Believe them.
As Working Against Violence, Inc. puts it: "The greatest fear of rape survivors is that they will not be believed." That fear is part of what keeps so many survivors silent. It follows that one of the best statements of support you can offer is a simple, "I believe you."
2. Be supportive, and help them seek out the right resources.
Encourage your friend to take control of his or her physical and mental health. Jill Mayer, a licensed professional counselor and former clinical director of Women Organized Against Rape told The Huffington Post that, in the aftermath of a sexual assault, she recommends locating a local rape crisis center on the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) database.
She said that it's important to encourage your friend to seek immediate medical attention, have a rape kit done and be tested for STIs and pregnancy. A rape kit exam is used to gather forensic evidence within the 96 hours after an assault. If possible, Mayer recommends having a rape kit exam done regardless of whether the survivor definitively intends to report the crime, as doing so keeps future options open, and a rape crisis center can provide a list of local hospitals that offer that service. Rape crisis centers also typically have counselors on staff who can provide psychological help to survivors and court advocates on staff who can provide information about their legal options.
3. Assure them that what happened is not their fault.
It's all too common for victims to blame themselves. "There's also a level of shame and embarrassment surrounding being sexually violated... Survivors may feel like the assault was their fault, but the blame is solely on perpetrators," said Mayer.
Survivors may be more apt to blame themselves if drugs or alcohol were involved, or if their perpetrator was a friend or intimate partner. (Loveisrespect.org has excellent resources for helping a friend being sexually abused by a partner.)
Further, if your friend is a man, he faces the painful, enduring societal myth that men cannot be raped or sexually abused. As an ally, you can do survivors a great service simply by reaffirming that their trauma and pain is valid, no matter the circumstances. Mayer also suggested urging survivors struggling with self-blame or internalized rape myths to seek counseling.
4. Listen, and don’t press for details.
Opening up about these experiences can be scary and painful, and it’s important not to pressure survivors into divulging memories that may be upsetting. As The Healing Center puts it: "Listen, listen, listen." Resist the impulse to gather all the facts; and let your friend decide what information he or she wants to disclose. Focus on being a supportive sounding board as your friend works through his or her feelings.
5. Respect the decisions they make in the aftermath.
The unfortunate truth is that many sexual assault survivors are further traumatized when they choose to report their assault to the authorities. You don't have to look far to find examples of victim-blaming during police interrogations or slut-shaming in the court room. Given these realities, it's upsetting, but not surprising, that only 36 percent of survivors report their assault to the police, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Ultimately, each survivor deserves to make an independent decision without external pressure. If your friend does choose to go forward, your support will be meaningful. If not, it's critical to reserve your judgment.
6. Respect their recovery process and encourage them to heal constructively.
After sexual assault, survivors may experience a wide range of emotional and physical reactions as they recover and heal. Community Crisis Center, Inc. outlines some of the most common reactions to sexual assault, which include emotional withdrawal, disturbance of sleep and eating habits, and avoiding activities that may trigger traumatic memories. Mayer warned against telling your friend to "Just get over it" or suggesting potentially destructive coping mechanisms, like a night out of drinking. Respect that your friend may need alone time, but let him or her know that you're there if they need company.
7. Help them seek other lifelines.
According to Mayer, the most important thing a survivor needs is a healthy support system of allies. But you can't provide that on your own. Mayer cautioned against taking on the responsibility of being a sole lifeline or playing the role of therapist. "It's very important to lay down a boundary line," she said. She also recommended helping your friend identify people in their lives who can offer that support, and encouraging your friend to seek counseling or support groups. (You can find these local resources through the RAINN network.) Ensuring that your friend has other shoulders to lean on makes it easier to keep your own boundaries in place.
8. Take care of yourself and don’t be afraid to seek out support.
Being a good ally can be emotionally draining. Mayer told The Huffington Post that allies "could be getting traumatized or burnt out by the information that they're hearing and can start to feel hopeless and depressed themselves." Don't dismiss those feelings. If you become overwhelmed, seek support from friends, family or professional counselors. RAINN has excellent resources about self-care for friends and allies. You can't be part of your friend's support system if you aren't taking care of yourself.
Ultimately, being a good ally isn't about saying "the perfect thing" that makes everything better. It's about offering compassion and understanding as your friend heals.