When someone has been sexually victimized, he or she almost always turns first to a friend for support and help. The emotional impact of abuse, harassment, or assault can be both immediate and long-lasting. A friend may confide in you 10 minutes or 10 years later—whenever it happens, it will be a difficult, important conversation. Listen well. Your friend may be experiencing any of a wide range of responses, including sadness, anger, shame, fear, self-blame, anxiety, shock, or feelings of helplessness. Often, people have trouble concentrating, eating, and/or sleeping; they may be plagued by intrusive thoughts and memories, even though they try to focus on other things.
The acceptance and support of friends are often vital steps in the healing process. Sexual violence is almost always a violation of trust; it often leaves survivors doubting their own judgment. By being understanding and supportive, you can help your friend begin to regain some of that trust and confidence.
Strategies for helping:
- Listen and demonstrate that you believe them. Be sure your friend knows you will be supportive. It is important for your friend to know they are believed and not judged. If you find yourself doubting your friend’s story or experience, don’t express it. Be aware that the trauma they experienced may make their account unclear or inconsistent. This is a common result of traumatic experiences, not a sign they are being dishonest.
- Let your friend lead the conversation. Allow your friend to determine the pace and focus of the conversation. Sexual victimization is almost always a profoundly disempowering experience. An essential part of support is allowing the survivor to maintain control over what happens next.
- Be reassuring. Your friend is not at fault. No one asks to be sexually victimized. Avoid judgmental questions and statements. Remember that your friend may be blaming themselves.
If you are supporting your friend, be sure to take care of yourself:
- Be aware of your own feelings. You may feel hurt, angry, guilty, anxious, or frightened. Such feelings are understandable but your reactions may feel surprising, confusing, or overwhelming.
- Know and respect your own limits. There is only so much you can do to help your friend. You can provide support and compassion. Try not to offer more than you can give, and encourage your friend to seek additional support.
- Remember that it was not your fault. You may feel guilty, thinking that you could have done something to prevent your friend from being hurt. Remind yourself that the blame lies only with the person(s) who committed the acts of sexual misconduct.
- Do not be afraid to ask for help. Find someone other than the survivor to talk with about your feelings. Talking with someone else can help you understand your own emotions and give you a clearer perspective on the situation. Campus resources are available to you, too.