Help a Friend Who Survived Sexual Assault
Dealing with sexual assault is difficult for both the survivor and those they turn to for support. Remember, it is okay if you don't know exactly what to say or how to help. It may be that your friend just needs somebody to listen and empathize.
Be honest and let your friend know if you're not sure how to respond. Don’t be afraid to ask for guidance. Refer to the guidelines below.
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- Be Patient
- Let the Survivor Make the Decisions
- Believe the Survivor
- Keep it Confidential
- Address Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms
- Know the Resources
- Take Care of Yourself
Keep in mind that the healing process takes time. There is no right or wrong process or timeline, and each survivor is different. In order to begin healing, the survivor needs to feel like s/he is in a safe and supportive place. It is important to let the survivor know that you will be there, and it is okay to take as much time as needed.
Supporting a survivor means being a good listener. Let your friend know that you are there whenever s/he needs to talk. Remember:
- Do not be judgmental
- Validate feelings of fear and anger
- Reiterate that sexual assault is never the survivor's fault
If the survivor is minimizing the experience, affirm that the desire to move on is reasonable. But remind your friend that it is okay to feel negative effects in several aspects of her/his life.
Let the survivor make her/his own decisions after an assault regarding what action to take, whom to tell, etc. Even if you do not agree, keep in mind that your friend knows what is best for her/him. This is an important part of re-establishing control. Feeling shame or guilt around supporters will not help the healing process.
Many sexual assaults go unreported because survivors experience a tremendous amount of blame and disbelief when they tell people about the incident. A large portion of survivor-blame comes from friends, family and partners that are generally supportive, but make unintentional survivor-blaming comments.
Questioning a survivor about how s/he tried to resist the assault:
- "Did you fight back?”
- “Did you say no?”
Or questioning actions leading up to the assault:
- "What were you wearing?“
- “Had you been drinking?”
Can come off as blaming even when you are just trying to get the facts straight.
Let the survivor decide whom to tell about the assault. Don’t tell others without your friend’s permission, even if it seems best (i.e. a professor is giving her/him a hard time for doing poorly on a test, or you know the perpetrator). Talking to people about the assault violates trust and leaves the survivor feeling powerless. It is a better idea to suggest they talk to a professional on their own.
An exception to the confidentiality guideline occurs when a survivor talks to a Campus Security Authority (CSA) -- Northwestern staff and faculty who have "significant responsibility" for students and campus activities. They are required by law to report incidences of sexual assault.
Identifying information about the survivor does not have to be included in the report, and no police or university action will be taken without the survivor's knowledge. The purpose of CSA reports is to collect accurate statistics about crimes occurring on campus, not to compel the survivor to do anything s/he does not want to do.
CSAs include: Community Assistants and other Residence Life staff, student group advisors, student activities coordinators, athletic coaches and many more. If you are a CSA, you can make a confidential report of a sexual assault through University Police.
See the University Police website for additional information on CSAs and the requirement to report this information.
It is not uncommon for survivors to engage in unhealthy coping mechanisms during the healing process. Some examples of unhealthy coping mechanisms include:
- Alcohol use
- Drug use
- Disordered eating
- Risky sexual behavior
If you believe your friend is engaging in these behaviors, it is important to express your concern. Let the survivor know that s/he is not alone and identify possible healthy coping alternatives:
- Writing, journaling
- Pursuing art, music, poetry
- Spending time on a new hobby
- Physical exercise
Get information about resources on campus and in the community, and research what to expect in the aftermath of a sexual assault. Talk to an advocate if you have any questions.
Supporting a survivor of sexual assault can be stressful and draining. Don’t hesitate to seek help for yourself. Our services are intended for both survivors and their supporters. Contact a CARE advocate if would like to talk to someone about your experiences.