Most survivors of sexual and relationship violence disclose the assault or abuse to at least one other person, usually a friend. You can't rescue your friend or solve their problems. But being there to listen, believe and support your friend in a positive way can greatly influence their healing process. The following information can help you be a supportive friend.
Talking to Your Friend
Keep the following information in mind when you talk to your friend about the incident of sexual misconduct:
Believe Your Friend
The most common reason people choose not to tell anyone about sexual abuse is the fear that the listener won’t believe them. People rarely lie or exaggerate about abuse; if someone tells you, it’s because they trust you and need someone to talk to. People rarely make up stories of abuse. It is not necessary for you to decide if they were “really hurt.” If the survivor says they were hurt, that should be enough. Believe what your friend tells you. It may have been difficult for them to talk to you and trust you.
It’s tough to be prepared when a friend tells you that they have been the victim of sexual or relationship abuse. Faced with that situation, the worst thing you can do is nothing. Remember, you can’t rescue your friends or solve their problems. You can only provide support. Support and understanding are essential. It takes a lot of courage for a survivor to share their experience; Try to provide a safe/non-judgmental environment, emotional comfort and support for the survivor to express feelings. Let them know that they can talk with you. Listen. Don’t rush to provide solutions.
Sexual misconduct is not the survivor’s fault. No one asks to be sexually assaulted based on what they wear, say or do. Let the survivor know that only the person that caused the harm is to blame. The survivor needs to hear that fears, anxieties, guilt and anger are normal, understandable and acceptable emotions. Remember, no one ever deserves to be abused or harassed.
Don’t press for details. Let your friend decide how much to tell you. Ask them how you can help. Survivors have to struggle with complex decisions and feelings of powerlessness; trying to make decisions for them may only increase that sense of powerlessness. You can be supportive by helping your friend to identify all the available options and then help them by supporting their decision making process. The survivor can’t just “forget it” or just move on. Recovery is a long term process and each individual moves at their own pace.
Encourage the survivor to seek medical attention, report the assault, and or contact the Campus Advocacy Network (CAN). If possible, walk them over to CAN, located at to 1101 W. Taylor Street, Suite 310 (above Chicago Public Library) or help them place the call. It’s never too late to seek emotional support.
Remember, the survivor must ultimately make the decision as to what to do. They are the experts in their own lives. Don’t push. Support your friend’s choices no matter what they decide.
Don’t tell others what the survivor tells you. Let the individual decide who they will tell. It is important not to share information with others who are not involved. If you do need to share information for your friend’s safety, get permission by letting your friend know what you will share and with whom it will be shared. Don’t confront the person that caused the harm. Though you might want to fix the situation or get back at the abuser, this could make things worse, for you and your friend.
An important part of helping the survivor is to identify ways in which the survivor can re-establish their sense of physical and emotional safety. You are a step in the process. Ask your friend what would make them feel safe and how you can help them accomplish this. If the stalking or harassment is ongoing, help your friend to develop a plan of what to do if they are in immediate danger. Having a specific plan and preparing in advance can be important if the violence escalates. CAN assists survivors with creating safety plans that are specific to the situation and individuals involved.
What To Say
It is hard to know what to say to a friend when they confide in you. Refrain from asking a lot of questions, instead, support your friend with these phrases:
It’s not your fault.
I’m sorry this happened.
I believe you.
How can I help you?
I am glad you told me.
I’ll support your choices.
You’re not alone.
You may also find it helpful to share with your friend what you have learned about violence. This is also a good time to share with them your belief in the possibility to heal. Let your friend know that you believe that they have the strength and capacity to heal.
Getting Support For Yourself
Sometimes the friends of victims can also feel the impact of the crime, and experience emotional and physical reactions. This is called secondary victimization. Hearing about relationship abuse, sexual assault, and stalking can be upsetting. You may feel angry, sad, frustrated, and helpless. If you have experienced crime or other traumatic events in the past, your friend’s experience might bring up memories and feelings of that time. You may want to talk about your feelings but also respect your friend’s privacy. You can also contact CAN and speak to an advocate confidentially.