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No one wants to think that our friends or acquaintances might have been sexually assaulted or abused. Yet statistics suggest we all know survivors, whether or not we’re aware of it.

Sexual assault and abuse survivors who receive positive social support are less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or substance abuse issues, research shows.

“When a survivor of sexual violence chooses to disclose to a friend, this friend can help set the tone for the recovery process,” says Kelly Addington, founder of One Student, an advocacy organization addressing sexual assault in student communities. “Focusing on the survivor and how you can support them is much better than focusing on the attack.”

Your approach

Recognize your value

The friend of a sexual assault survivor can make a real difference to the survivor’s coping and recovery—whether in the immediate aftermath of an assault, in the short term, or over a lifetime.

Your friend’s reactions and emotions will vary, and you too may face new challenges and demands. Reassure yourself that you have what it takes.

  • Be present
  • Stay calm
  • Listen to what your friend tells you
  • Think about how you can offer support
  • Talk about the available options, and let your friend decide what’s best
  • Look after yourself too

“Don’t worry about being perfect, but do recognize the importance of your role.” - PACT5

For help managing your own feelings.

Listen and believe

Here’s what you can do right away after your friend is sexually assaulted or confides in you about a past assault or abuse:

  • Listen with compassion
  • Let your friend express her feelings (crying, screaming, or remaining silent)
  • Believe your friend
  • Don’t ask a lot of questions
  • Support your friend unconditionally: Don’t judge him or the circumstances

Sources include PACT5

Say it's not her fault

What to say

What not to say

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“You’d had a lot to drink.”

“I’m here for you.”

“Get over it.”

“If you need someone to come with you, I will.”

“Focus on moving on.”

“I’ll support whatever you choose to do.”

“Everything’s all right.”

“What can I do to support you?”

“He probably misunderstood you.”

“I’m sorry this happened to you.”

“It couldn’t have been that bad.”

“How do you want me to act when I see him?”

“I’ll go beat him up”


For more on what not to say

Respect her boundaries

  • Let your friend decide how much to talk with you about the assault
  • Let your friend decide who will know about the assault
  • Don’t talk about the incident with others without getting his or her permission
  • Ask before hugging. Your friend might not want to be physically touched

Sources include the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape

Learn about sexual assault

  • In most sexual assaults, the survivor knows the perpetrator
  • Most sexual assaults are not reported to the police
  • Alcohol is often used as a weapon; most sexual assaults on college students are associated with alcohol use
  • Sexual assault is premeditated; it is not a “misunderstanding”
  • People of any sexuality or gender can be sexually assaulted
  • False accusations of sexual assault are very rare; studies suggest 2—4 percent of accusations are false, about the same rate as for other violent crimes

Right after an assault

Allow him control

When your friend was sexually assaulted, he or she was not in control of the situation. For your friend to regain a sense of empowerment, it’s important to let him or her make decisions about what steps to take next. This includes:

  • Whether or not to report the assault
  • How to report the assault
  • Who to tell about the assault
  • Which coping resources to draw on

Sources include the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape

Help him to a safe place

You’ll want to make sure your friend is in a safe place.
Encourage him or her to stay with a trusted friend or acquaintance for emotional and practical support. For example:

  • Another friend’s residence hall or apartment
  • A relative’s home
  • A domestic violence shelter

Help him seek medical care

Whether or not your friend wants to report the incident, encourage him or her to seek medical care.

Health care providers can:

  • Provide emergency contraception
  • Test and treat your friend for possible sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  • Perform a rape exam and collect evidence in case your friend decides to prosecute, now or later
  • Treat any physical injuries

See Student Health 101 December 2014 for a guide to accessing professional services and support after sexual assault.

Suggest reporting (no pressure)

Most sexual assault survivors don’t report the incident to police.
Anticipate that your friend might tell you he or she wants this to go no further.

The possible reasons include:

  • He knew the perpetrator (boyfriend, girlfriend, friend, or classmate)
  • She’s afraid that no one will believe her
  • He’s afraid of getting in trouble for using alcohol or other substances illegally
  • Shame

Whatever the reason, it’s your friend’s decision. Support his decision and process. If he prefers not to, don’t pressurize him.

Sources include PACT5

See Student Health 101 December 2014 for a guide to accessing professional services and support after sexual assault.

Learn about short-term health risks

Panic attacks If your friend experiences a panic attack in your presence:

  • Ask her to sit down and place her feet on the floor
  • Tell her to take deep breaths
  • If she takes prescribed medication for panic attacks, remind her it’s available

Flashbacks During a flashback, survivors may relive the sexual assault in their mind. If your friend experiences a flashback in your presence:

  • Tell him you know it feels real, but it’s not really happening
  • Turn on a soft light
  • Turn off triggering music or television shows
  • Encourage him to take slow, gentle breaths
  • Reassure him that he is safe and the perpetrator isn’t there
  • Don’t press him to talk about it, which might trigger him further
  • Just be there for your friend during and after the flashback

Sources include Pandora’s Project

Reporting

Help her consider options

These resources are typically available to sexual assault survivors on campus:

  • Campus safety/security
  • Office of Residential Life
  • Campus judicial affairs or Dean of Students
  • Off-campus police
  • Sexual assault response coordinator
  • Student counseling center
  • Student health services
  • Rape crisis center or hotline
  • Resident advisors (RAs)
  • Online school notification form (some schools offer anonymous reporting online)
  • Trusted professors

If anonymity is a concern, ask the person first if he or she is required by law to report the sexual assault: “Are you a mandated reporter?”

See Student Health 101 December 2014 for a guide to accessing professional services and support after sexual assault.

Respect her decision

The decision about whether to report the sexual assault is entirely up to the survivor.

Most sexual assaults are not reported to the police. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • The perpetrator is well-known and was previously trusted (e.g., the perpetrator is or was a boyfriend, girlfriend, friend, or classmate)
  • Alcohol or drug use was involved
  • The survivor is afraid of not being believed
  • The survivor is afraid of peers or family finding out
  • The survivor fears a lengthy, stressful legal process
  • Shame

Remember, the most important thing you can do for your friend is to be there to listen and support her or him.

Sources include the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape

Provide emotional and practical support

Your friend’s world has just been turned upside down. Providing her or him with positive support is critical.

Emotional support

  • Let your friend know that the perpetrator bears sole responsibility for the assault
  • Don’t pressure your friend to talk about it
  • Be available to listen and just be there when he or she needs you
  • Ask your friend what would help

Practical support

  • Discuss the resources available on and off campus
  • Offer to accompany your friend to appointments with the police, campus authorities, and health care providers
  • Encourage self-care. Do some of these things with your friend if possible:
    • Meditating
    • Conscious relaxation exercises
    • Physical activity
    • Being with supportive, caring people
    • Keeping a journal

For more self-care suggestions.

Know your school's role

Campus Sexual Violence Elimination (SaVE) Act (2013)

  • Requires campuses to include incidents of domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault, and dating violence in their annual crime statistic reports
  • Students or employees reporting incidents must be informed of their rights (in writing) to:
    • Get help from campus authorities if they decide to report to the police
    • Change their living, work, transportation, or academic situation for safety, if necessary
    • Obtain a restraining order or no-contact directive against the perpetrator
    • Be given contact information for mental health, health victim advocacy, legal assistance, and any other relevant services on campus or in the community
    • Be given a clear description of the school’s disciplinary process and possible outcomes
  • Sets minimum requirements for disciplinary procedures

Clery Act (1990, with subsequent amendments)
Under the Clery Act, colleges and universities must:

  • Publish campus crime statistics and policies
  • Maintain a public crime log
  • Issue warnings when a crime poses a threat to students and faculty

Title IX (1972)

  • Title IX prohibits gender-based discrimination in education, and applies to all genders
  • Schools must establish procedures for handling sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual violence complaints
  • Schools must take immediate action to support and protect the person who brought the complaint
  • Schools cannot encourage mediation instead of a formal complaint in cases of sexual violence
  • Schools cannot encourage any student to discontinue his or her education

What not to do

Don't make rash promises

Don’t make any promises that you can’t keep or that aren’t realistic. For example:

  • Don’t promise that the victim will never be hurt again
  • Don’t promise that the offender will go to jail

Sources include the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape

Don't say what she "could" have done

Accusatory statements only place guilt and blame on a sexual assault survivor.
The only person to blame for sexual assault is the perpetrator.

What not to say:

  • “You shouldn’t have gotten drunk.”
  • “But you knew that guy was trouble.”
  • “Why didn’t you think about calling me for a ride?”
  • “Did you actually say ‘no’?”

Don't excuse the offender

Rule # 1 Don’t ever try to excuse the perpetrator’s behavior, even if it’s a boyfriend, friend, or acquaintance of the survivor. Perpetrators are responsible for their own behavior.

It doesn’t matter if the survivor was wearing sexy clothing or if alcohol or drugs were involved.

Key points:

  • “No” really does mean no
  • A person cannot give consent when incapacitated by alcohol or another drug
  • There are no “accidental” sexual assaults
  • “Submitting” to assault can be a survival tactic to avoid greater harm

Sources include the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape

Don't propose retaliation

As much as you may want to, don’t suggest retaliation or revenge
involving yourself or anyone else.

Such confrontations risk:

  • Placing you and/or others in danger
  • Generating additional trauma for your friend

Aftermath

Help figure out her needs

Various resources are available to help your friend. Your guidance and support is important during this difficult time. Helpful resources and strategies include:

  • Local rape crisis center
  • Medical providers
  • Counselors, on or off campus
  • Advocacy groups
  • Police 
  • Campus security
  • Office of the Dean of Students
  • Religious institutions
  • Friends
  • Shared, enjoyable activities

For further resources, see Not Alone.

Check in regularly

It’s important to check in regularly with your friend following a sexual assault or abuse. Keep in mind:

  • It’s okay to ask in private how she or he is doing
  • Talk about the assault only if your friend wants to
  • Respect and protect your friend’s privacy
  • Watch for behaviors that could indicate stress, depression, or trauma, e.g.,
    • Sleep disturbance
    • Changes in alcohol or other substance use
    • Volatility in mood
    • Unwillingness to participate in activities she or he previously enjoyed
  • Reiterate your willingness to support or assist in any way that is helpful
  • Balance being supportive with not being overbearing
  • Ask your friend what would help. For example:
    • A night out at the movies
    • Going for a run together
    • A chaperone at potentially stressful appointments
    • Some errands taken off her plate
    • Help liaising with professors, if he is struggling academically

Encourage counseling

Sexual assault is a traumatic experience. Your friend may need help with difficult emotions.

If he or she has tried counseling before and didn’t find it helpful, it’s worth another attempt with a provider who fully understands sexual assault and abuse.

Be alert for signs that your friend is struggling to cope. These can include avoidance—denying the assault and its implications—or self-blame.

For support, contact:

  • A rape or sexual assault crisis center
  • The college counseling center
  • Advocacy and support organizations that provide local referrals, e.g., RAINN

See Student Health 101 December 2014 for a guide to accessing professional services and support after sexual assault.

Ask how to behave towards offender

In most sexual assaults, the survivor knows the perpetrator.
If your friend knows the assailant, there’s a good chance that you may know this person too.

If you know both the survivor and the perpetrator:

  • Ask your friend how she’d like you to handle it
  • Respect her decision

Past assaults and abuse

Acknowledge his resilience

After a sexual assault, your friend is both suffering and surviving. Survivors deal with their emotions differently. They need to grieve and heal in their own way. Recognize that recovery varies and can take years. Don’t ask your friend if she is done dealing with it yet, or tell him to move on.

Here’s what can help promote resilience and the healing process:

  • Positive, supportive responses from others, including empathy, belief, and understanding
  • Practical support, including access to resources
  • Speaking out about sexual assault
  • Social acknowledgment of the impacts of sexual assault
  • Strong, supportive social networks

Sources include Pandora’s Project and the Australian Institute of Family Studies

Encourage counseling

Sexual assault and abuse is a traumatic experience. Your friend may be struggling, but might pretend that things aren’t that serious. Talk to him when you have concerns. Professional counseling can help survivors handle difficult emotions.

  • Encourage your friend to go to the student counseling center or rape crisis center
  • Let your friend know that you’ll go to the appointment if she wants you to
  • Let your friend decide whether or not to seek professional help

Ask your friend what kind of support he or she needs from you. This isn’t a one-time question. Your friend’s needs are likely to change over time. Unless your friend is putting himself at risk of harm, follow his wishes.

Sources include the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape

See Student Health 101 December 2014 for a guide to accessing professional services and support after sexual assault.

Watch for behavior change

It’s important to notice any behavior changes in your friend following a sexual assault. Let your friend know that she or he isn’t alone, and suggest professional counseling to help with difficult emotions.

Red flags include:

  • Persistent irritability
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Changes in energy level, e.g., exhaustion
  • Nightmares or flashbacks
  • Fears for her own safety
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Social withdrawal
  • Excessive guilt, self-blame, or feelings of worthlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • General mistrust
  • Thoughts of suicide

Sources include the College of William and Mary

Learn about long-term health risks

Possible long-term health and wellness issues:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Depression and/or anxiety disorders
  • Sexual distress
  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disorders or poor body image
  • Sleep disorders
  • Physical health problems, which can be chronic
  • Crisis of faith

The chances that a victim will develop post-traumatic stress disorder after an assault are between 50 and 95 percent—according to the Population Information Program (2000).

Other possible impacts:

  • Dropping out of college
  • Lower income
  • Higher health care costs

Sources include the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape

Get help or find out more

National Sexual Assault hotline/RAINN

National Domestic Violence hotline

Love is Respect

  • 1-866-331-9474
  • Text loveis to 22522 and click on Live Chat

School Violence Law

  • 1-877-WASHDC-1 (1-877-927-4321)
  • Skype DCLawFirm
  • Google+ WASHDCLawFIRM
  • Sexual assault, school violence, hazing, Title IX violations
  • Legal information, referrals, and advocacy services

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Erica Hersh is a writer in the communications department at Boston Medical Center, Massachusetts. She graduated with an MS in Health Communication from Tufts University in 2014, and from Vassar College in 2010.