With Sexual Assault Awareness Month now upon us, I thought it would be important to help answer this question…especially since it is one of the most frequently asked by students.
Below are 7 things that you can do to support someone who tells you that they have been assaulted, raped, or abused…and, most importantly things that you can SAY or DO, and questions you can ASK that will help you communicate this support.
- Listen without judging. Being told that someone has been assaulted can be an extremely emotional, scary, confusing, and possibly shocking experience for both you and the other person.
One of the best things that you can do is to listen. Surprisingly, listening is not the easiest thing to do. Often we want to ask questions, show outrage, or offer advice. Though you may have the best intentions, any or all of these could come across to the victim as judgment (e.g., that the assault was their fault, that they did something wrong, etc.). In addition, these shift the focus away from the person who is telling you about their assault.
Effective and supportive listening includes nonverbal communication such as nodding, engaging in eye contact with the other person, shifting your body to face them, leaning toward them, etc. Refrain from touching the other person unless they give you permission. Following a traumatic experience, this gesture of comfort could be upsetting or unwanted by the other person.
- Let the person know that the assault/rape or abuse was not their fault. Nobody deserves to be sexually assaulted/raped or abused…no matter what they were wearing, how much they drank, how they were dancing, even if they were flirting or went to his/her room with them, if they had a previous romantic or sexual relationship, how late they stayed out, who they got a ride from, etc. etc. etc. Being sexual assaulted, raped, or abused is never the victim’s fault.
Some things that you could say include, “This was not your fault,” “You did not do anything wrong,” or “Nothing you did caused this to happen to you.”
- Reassure the person that they are cared for and loved, and that you will do your best to provide unconditional support. This could include helping the person find and get access to campus resources such as counseling, medical attention or reporting. Your campus website is a good place to start. Try using key words such as, “Health Services,” Health Promotion,” “Title IX,” or “sexual assault support.”
Communicating your support can be as simple as saying, “I care about you,” “I love you, and want to help you in any way that I can,” or “I am here for you no matter what you need.”
- Encourage the person to seek medical attention. Your friend’s safety should be a primary concern. Regardless of whether they want to report the assault, they can (and should) still receive a medical exam. This might include physical injuries, STI/STD tests, emergency contraception, post exposure prophylaxis (if they think they may have been exposed to HIV), pelvic, anal or oral exams, or a sexual assault forensic exam. Most colleges and universities offer medical resources to students, or you can encourage them to go to the hospital or local Planned Parenthood health center (or a local rape crisis center).
Here are some things you can say to your friend: “I am worried about your health and safety, why don’t we figure out how to get you checked out by a doctor,” “I feel like it is important to make sure that you are okay physically. Would you like me to go with you to see a doctor?” or “I don’t want anything bad to happen to you. How about we figure out how to get you in to see a doctor just to make sure you are okay?”
- If the assault just happened, help the person preserve evidence. They do not have to decide right away if they want to talk to the police or press charges against the person who assaulted them, but just in case they do, it is important for them to take precautions to preserve any evidence that may have been left behind after the assault. This includes not showering or brushing their teeth. If possible, they should not go to the bathroom, eat, drink, smoke, or comb their hair. If they want to change their clothes, be sure not to wash the clothes, and put them in a brown paper bag and bring them with you when you see a nurse or doctor.
Don’t know how to bring this up? Try these: “I know all you want to do is shower, but perhaps you should wait until we see a doctor. There might be evidence that could be used later if you decide to report,” or “I know you said you aren’t sure if you want to report, and that’s fine. I encourage you to consider not showering and bringing the clothes you were wearing with you when we see a doctor. This could help preserve evidence if you decide to report later.”
- Encourage (do not force) the person to report the assault. Sexual assault is a crime, and they have the right to report what happened to them to the police—but only if they want to. If they do decide to report, you can offer to be there with them when they do.
What do you say? Try: “What happened to you is a crime, and you can report this to the police if you want to,” “If you want to report what happened to you to the police, I will be here with you every step of the way,” or “ If is up to you if you want to report this to the police. Do you want to talk about how you feel about this?”
- BELIEVE them! If you do nothing else, you can do this—you can believe your friend. The blame for what happened is on the person who committed the assault, NOT on the victim.
Some simple things that you can say include: “I believe you, and I want to help you,” “I am so sorry this happened to you,” or “I have no idea what to say, but I want to help you through this. What can I do?”