One part of learning to speak up is knowing how to listen and comfort survivors of sexual assault. It’s important that you teach yourself how to respond so that if a friend confides in you, you are ready to give them the support that they need. If a friend confides in you about a sexual assault, one of the most important things you can do is believe them. While many people believe that false rape allegations are common, in fact, the rate of false reports for sexual assault is the same as for any other crime. However, sexual assault can be much harder to “prove”—especially if the attacker and the survivor know one another.
As a friend, it is never your job to “get to the bottom of things” or try to “uncover the facts.” Investigation should always be left to trained professionals. In fact, your own attempts to interview people, gather evidence, or other fact-finding activities can actually compromise the evidence should your friend decide to move forward with a criminal investigation. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have an important role to play in helping your friend.
Survivors sometimes go weeks, months, or even years without telling anyone about what happened to them. Talking about the experience can be painful and may cause troubling symptoms such as “flashbacks,” during which a survivor re-lives their trauma after the fact. Because it is so hard to tell people, it’s very important that everyone know how they can support a friend who confides in them. You never know when someone might need your help.
Give the survivor your undivided attention. You want to be warm and approachable to help them understand that you are open and receptive to what they are telling you. If you seem distracted or in a hurry, they may feel like they are burdening you and shut down the conversation.
If the survivor chooses seek professional assistance, you can help by asking if they’d like your company. Whether they want a friend to go with them to the hospital, police station, or Title IX coordinator, you can offer to come along as moral support. Remember that seeking assistance is the survivor’s choice to make, and be supportive regardless of whether they choose to take additional action.
Be strong and care for yourself. Hearing about what has happened to a friend can make you angry, upset, or anxious—but it is important not to burden your friend with these feelings while they are trying to cope and process what has happened. Instead, seek out assistance from trained professionals, such as your school’s counseling center. Make sure to take time for yourself, get enough sleep, and find ways to manage your own stress so that you can be strong for your friend when you’re needed.
“Why didn’t you…?” or “But did you…?”
These kinds of questions imply that if the survivor had done something differently, the sexual assault wouldn’t have happened—which places blame on them. Sexual assault is never the victim’s fault. Instead, choose words that emphasize that what happened is the perpetrator’s fault—and only the perpetrator’s fault.
“But he’s such a great guy,” or “I just can’t see her doing it.”
Perpetrators of sexual assault don’t look a certain way, and someone’s social standing doesn’t determine whether or not they commit sexual violence. In fact, many perpetrators are charismatic, charming, and well-liked, and they use these personality traits to help target their victims. Just because you can’t imagine someone being a perpetrator doesn’t mean that your friend is mistaken or making it up.
“Are you sure it wasn’t a misunderstanding?” or “That doesn’t sound that bad.”
Minimizing sexual assault can be very damaging for survivors. If a friend is coming to you to talk about a traumatic experience, you should take it seriously.
“You need to…”
It’s important for the survivor to make their own decisions and maintain control of responses to sexual assault. Your friend may not be ready yet to report to your school’s Title IX coordinator or your local police department. Do not pressure or push your friend to take a particular action.
“Why are you telling me this now?”
It is common for survivors to wait a long time before telling anyone about a sexual assault. For many survivors, it is simply too traumatic to talk while the memories are fresh. A friend may come to you weeks, months, or even years after the assault takes place. This is common and should not be seen as something problematic or out of the ordinary.
Do not share the survivor’s story without the survivor’s permission. When someone is sexually assaulted, their rightful autonomy and control is taken away from them. Having control over information about the assault is important. Sharing the story without the survivor’s permission is invasive and a violation of their privacy.
Do not shoulder the burden alone. Supporting a survivor can be very challenging, and some friends experience what’s called “vicarious trauma,” where hearing about a traumatic event can induce stress-related symptoms in a support person. Talk to your campus counseling center or another trusted, confidential resource to make sure you have the help you need.