How to Be a Supportive Friend to a Sexual Assault Survivor
By Ashley Edwards Walker
It can be difficult knowing what to do when a friend comes to you with something they’re struggling with. Our protective instincts kick in, and all we want to do is jump to action and help them come up with a solution. But not every problem is fixable. And with something like sexual assault, the healing process isn’t linear.
With 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men reportedly experiencing sexual harassment and/or assault at some point in their life, there’s a chance someone you’re close with may be a survivor of these experiences. Since you already have a closeness and history with your friend, there’s a built-in trust that will aid you as you help them move forward. And, as a trusted member of their inner circle, you want to be ready if they turn to you for support. Read on for advice from experts on how best to support a friend through their healing journey.
Practice compassionate listening
Any time a sexual assault survivor opens up to you about their experience—especially when it’s a friend—it can be tempting to let your own emotions lead when it comes to your reaction. But it’s not your place to take action, be it involving the police or calling out the perpetrator on social media. Instead, acknowledge how hard the situation must be for your friend and let them lead the conversation. “The most important thing is to believe them, listen, and don’t minimize what’s happened,” says Louise Curtis, therapist partner for online trauma support platform Bloom.
Don’t ask unnecessary questions…
It’s natural to want to learn all the details about your friend’s sexual assault; that curiosity actually serves the greater purpose of helping us understand and hopefully learn to avoid dangerous situations. (It may be that you’re a survivor yourself, and this conversation could be triggering. Take care of yourself too.) In this case it’s important to let go of that urge to know everything, says Jake Crowther, communications associate for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. “You really only need to know, ‘How can I support you? How do you feel? Do you need to talk to someone?’” Crowther explains. “How it happened, what the situation was, those details are not needed to be a supportive friend.” In fact, the less you say, the better, adds Curtis. “A majority of people who get assaulted at some point blame themselves or take the responsibility,” she says. So don’t ask questions or make comments like, “they always gave me a bad feeling,” or “I never take that street when it’s late at night.” You could be inadvertently victim blaming.
…with one exception
The majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone the survivor knows. Since this is your friend you’re supporting, it’s possible that you may know the perpetrator or be in the same circle of friends or social groups. If that’s the case, Crowther says it’s okay to ask questions and have an honest conversation about how to support your friend if they run into the person who assaulted them. “Creating a plan before that happens is really helpful because, in the moment, it can be overwhelming for the survivor, especially if they aren’t expecting to see that person,” explains Crowther. Does your friend want you to pull them into another room? Remove them from the situation? If they’re non-confrontational, Crowther says they may prefer for you not to react at all, especially if the other person is part of a larger friend group. “Of course we want to protect our friends,” Crowther says. “But it’s their situation, not yours. So ask them how they want to be supported and do that.” Don’t take any additional action that could cause further stress or trauma for the survivor.
Avoid offering advice
You might feel helpless after a friend tells you about their sexual assault, but “don’t try to take control and fix things,” says Curtis. “That is usually the last thing the person wants because they’ve already had a choice taken away.” Instead, listen, ask them what they would like to do, and remind them that they have a choice now. If they specifically ask you what they should do, “help them talk through their options, but don’t make the decision for them,” Curtis continues. This will help them rebuild their confidence and sense of autonomy, while avoiding the risk that they’ll blame you if they follow your advice and are unhappy with the results.
Help them come up with a plan
Again, you don’t want to take control of the situation; let your friend make all final decisions about how to proceed. But because this is a friend, you have a little more leeway to make suggestions or express any concerns. If the assault was recent and they haven’t already done so, suggest that they seek medical care. Even if they decide against filing a police report for now, it’s in their best interest to document the evidence of what happened. That part “can be really scary and hard,” acknowledges Curtis, so offer to research where to go and, if they’d like, accompany them to the appointment. Crowther notes that your position as a friend also gives you more freedom to suggest they talk to a therapist or support group. If they seem reluctant or overwhelmed, offer to research options and to drive or ride with them to their first appointment. “That’s a really big way to help someone—to take some of that burden off of them and help them with that work,” he says.
Continue to check in
Healing from a sexual assault takes time, and the ongoing emotional impact will vary. “This has a long-lasting impact on people,” says Crowther. “So don’t just check in a week later, also check in six months later.” Bringing up their sexual assault may feel awkward especially if they seem to be doing well, but “you will need to push through your own discomfort and awkwardness around the subject to make sure they’re okay,” he says. When you do bring it up, make sure you have some privacy, and be direct and concise: “Hey, it’s been a while since we talked about what happened and I wanted to check in to see how you are feeling.” Then, respect whatever they choose to share. “Be aware that just because your friend shared this with you, that doesn’t mean that a month later everything is good and fine,” says Crowther. “This is something where support is going to be needed for a significant amount of time, not just a blip.”
Take care of yourself
Just as it’s important for your friend to get the care they need, it’s equally important for their support system—including you—to take time for self-care, advises Curtis. “That person might be very dependent on you,” she points out. “And you can’t be there for your friend if you aren’t in a good place yourself.” Part of that is encouraging them to seek professional support from a therapist or support group so you’re not taking on 100 percent of the responsibility. Curtis also suggests doing some research to see what other resources are available for sexual assault survivors online and elsewhere. “You may also want to get some counseling or therapy yourself because supporting someone through this can be very stressful,” she adds.
Supporting a friend who’s a survivor of sexual assault can feel like a big responsibility. Make sure to be patient with them and with yourself as this may be new territory for you both. Give them time, and seek out professional help if you’re able.
If you or someone you know needs support, Bumble has partnered with Chayn to offer courses that support survivors of sexual assault and relationship abuse on their healing journey, through online platform Bloom. You can access the free self-guided courses and 1:1 chat with Bloom’s gender-based violence experts here. For more information and support, we encourage you to reach out to the National Domestic Abuse Hotline, which has advocates available 24/7 via call and text. For organizations and resources outside of the United States, see here.