Bystander Resources

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How To Help A Friend After A Sexual Assault

Remember Sexual Assault is not the survivor’s fault.

Keep in mind 3 things:  Support. Listen. Believe.

Your friend may reveal some graphic information. It is important not to overreact. Believe your friend. Tell them that you believe them. People rarely lie about rape, sexual assault, harassment, stalking, or dating and relationship violence. Most survivors fear retaliation and are already worried that others won’t believe them.

Give your friend the space (silence) to talk about the experience and her, his, or their feelings. You should be doing more listening than talking. Be thoughtful in how you respond: there are some things that we can say that unintentionally send the wrong message, and unintentionally cause the victim​​ to feel blamed for what happened.

Often survivors of sexual assault and harassment, stalking, and dating and relationship violence​ feel that their experiences are not valid because they are not "bad enough." Many people hold stereotypical ideas about rape (strangers abducting women in parking lots or jumping out of bushes). These mental images do not fit what many types of sexual assault look like. Many times sexual assault happen in a familiar setting (i.e. at a party or in someone’s dorm room). If your friend shares with you about experiencing sexual assault and harassment, stalking, or dating and relationship violence​, remember to validate his or her feelings and experience and allow your friend to express them. Remember that any of these experiences can create extreme​ fear and trauma for a survivor, and they need your reassurance, support and understanding.

Communicate to your friend that any feelings she or he may have are normal and understandable. Supporting a friend means validating (let them know these fears are common among survivors and reasonable. Do not try to minimize or reduce his or her feelings.

What To Do When Helping​ A Friend

Show interest, but do not ask for lots specific details, which may make the survivor relive the experience. Allow your friend to be silent. You do not have to speak when she or he stops talking. Ask open ended questions: “Tell me about what happened? What are you feeling?"

Regaining some sense of control is often helpful to survivors. Support your friend in making decisions about whom to tell and how to proceed. Give them options and choices.

Recognize your own limitations. No one expects you to be an expert in counseling or sexual assault; therefore, avoid making definite recommendations to the survivor or giving advice. Others often think they would know what they would do if an assault happened to them, but unless one actually has, none of us truly knows.

Realize that as a friend you may need to seek support or counseling to cope with the events your friend may have shared. Those in a helping position may experience vicarious trauma (sometimes referred​ to as "secondary trauma.”) This is the process of change that happens because you care about other people who have been hurt, and feel committed or responsible to help them. Over time this process can lead to changes in your own psychological and physical well-being. You can seek services for yourself through McKendree University Counseling Service.

What NOT To Do When Helping A Friend

Avoid making decisions for the survivor. Instead, listen and then ask how you can help Ask “Do you know what you need?”

Do not touch or hug your friend - Ask permission first.

Avoid making statements or asking judgmental questions like the ones below, which, even if meant to be helpful, can cause the survivor to have increased feelings of guilt or shame. Do not express judgment about the survivor’s behavior, or imply that it is somehow their fault.

Nothing the survivor did or did not do is responsible for the assault. Some statements to avoid include:

“Why didn’t you fight?,” “You shouldn’t have gone to their room,” or anything else that questions the actions of the survivor. These types of statements send the message that the survivor could have done something to avoid the attack and that it is her or his fault. One should not question a survivor’s actions. Freezing, submitting, and fighting are all natural responses to being attacked.

"Were you drunk?” This sends the message that the survivor is partially responsible for the attack. Intoxication does not excuse a perpetrator’s actions, nor does it make the survivor responsible for being assaulted.

Friends and family members often react with anger and want to protect the survivor. Don’t say, “I’ll kill the person who did this to you!” While anger is a natural reaction, it can be very harmful. The victim has faced one person whose anger was out of control and must now try to calm down another person so that there won’t be more violence. He, she, or they may feel responsible for upsetting you, thus discouraging them from being able to talk about what happened to them. Talk to someone else about your anger.

“You should go to the police.” Although going to the police might be a step in the healing process for the survivor, it must be their decision to do so. Allowing them to make decisions to disclose to others or seek services will help the survivor gain back control that was taken away.

Your Reaction

There are some common reactions you may experience when learning that someone you know has been sexually assaulted. These feelings are natural responses to a trauma.

Disbelief: Family and friends may react to the sexual assault of a loved one with shock and disbelief, especially if there are no visible signs of the attack. You may even doubt that the assault happened. This is called “denial” and it happens after a traumatic experience.

Fear: You may feel intense fear for yourself or for the survivor. You may want to protect him, her, or them​ from future assault. Your concern may be reassuring soon after the assault, but too much caution on your part can make it difficult for the survivor to feel capable and in control again.

Depression: It is normal to feel sad or depressed. Sexual assault can bring up feelings of powerlessness in victims and those who love them. You may feel that your life is out of control. If depression lasts longer than a few weeks or becomes overwhelming, seek support for yourself.

Guilt: Guilt is a common reaction when a loved one has been sexually assaulted. Those closest to the survivor may blame themselves. Whatever you did or did not do, you are not to blame. It is solely the fault of the perpetrator. Instead of blaming yourself, concentrate on the positive things you can do now.

Anger: Often loved ones experience anger after a sexual assault. Your first reaction may be to seek revenge against the attacker. This is a normal feeling, but you will not help yourself or the survivor if you are hurt or in jail. Sometimes you may feel anger towards the survivor, especially if they did something you warned them not to do. If you find yourself blaming the survivor for the assault, make sure that you have someone other than the survivor who can listen to your angry feelings. Remember, even if the survivor used poor judgment; it is the attacker who is responsible.