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Helping a friend who has been sexually assaulted

When supporting a survivor of sexual violence it is important not to be judgmental and not to take control away from the survivor. If you analyze what happened or ask questions about the survivor's behavior, you may unintentionally cause your friend to blame themselves and shut down. If you can communicate the following four ideas to the survivor, it will greatly assist your friend's healing:

"I'm glad you're alive."          "It's not your fault."
"I'm sorry it happened."        "You did the best you could."

GUIDELINES

Validate and Believe

If your friend feels ashamed or guilty, reassure them that the incident was not their fault and that their feelings are normal. Often survivors feel that others will question or minimize what has happened. Let your friend know that you believe them. Your friend may not disclose the sexual assault for days, months, or years after it occurred. Limit the number of questions you ask as this can make a person feel as if you doubt them or that they need to prove what happened.

Avoid questions that could imply blame or question the survivor's actions, such as "Why did go back to their room?" "Why didn't you tell me sooner?" "Why didn't you fight them off?" You can be supportive without knowing the details of the incident. Use open-ended questions such as "How are feeling?" or "What can I do to help?" Give your friend time and space to share with you as they are ready to do so.

Be a good listener

One of the greatest gifts you can give a friend is your ability to listen. Avoid judgment, giving advice, and sharing your opinions. Just listen. Allow the survivor to make her/his own decisions. If the survivor asks what to do, offer a couple of options and let her/him choose. Some survivors will want to talk more than others. Let your friend know that you are available to listen when they are ready to talk.

Allow the survivor to make her/his own choices whenever possible.

Even the smallest choices that s/he makes can begin to restore their sense of power which was completely taken from them during the assault. Examples: allow the survivor to choose where you talk, if they sit or stand, if they want to call a crisis line, etc.

Do NOT touch the survivor without asking permission first.

While hugging a friend or holding their hand may be a natural inclination, it is important to ask the survivor if that would comfort them or if they want that. Physical intimacy that may have been fine before the assault may not be fine for a while after the assault. The right for the survivor to choose the type and timing of physical intimacy is integral to their feeling of safety.

Try to minimize the number of times the survivor must tell what happened.

You do not need to hear any details of the assault, unless the survivor wants to tell you.

Do not confront an alleged offender.

While it is normal to be angry at the person accused of hurting your friend, confronting this person could result in the offender escalating behavior (e.g. harassment, stalking) against your friend.

Protect your friend's privacy.

DU is a small campus and when someone is sexually assaulted they may feel like everyone knows what happened to them. It's important that you get permission from your friend before you talk to anyone about what they have shared with you. Your friend has confided in you because they trust you. If you talk to another person about the incident, your friend may feel betrayed.

Take care of yourself.

When someone you care about is hurt, it is normal to feel angry, sad and powerless. As a friend, it is also common to experience many of the same reactions a survivor does. Processing your feelings with the person who has been sexually assaulted can be overwhelming to them and may exacerbate how they are feeling. Consider getting your own support with how you are feeling about your friend's assault. The Center for Advocacy, Prevention, and Empowerment (CAPE) and the Health and Counseling Center (HCC) are two confidential resources on campus that are here to help.

Believe in the possibility of healing.

Let your friend know that you believe that they have the strength and the capacity to heal. People are resilient; they can and do recover from the trauma of sexual assault.

Information was adapted from the Brown University's "How to Help a Friend" publication (Brown University Health Education, 2013) and Tulane University's Sexual Aggression Peer Hotline and Education manual (Violence Prevention and Support Services, 2012).