Sexual assault affects a lot of people. 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men experience sexual assault at some point in their lives. It’s important to know that any abuse, including sexual abuse, is never the victim’s fault. Even when you know that, sexual assault can still be difficult to talk about.
It can be really hard to hear that someone you know has been assaulted. It can be even harder to know what to do about it, especially if it’s someone you care about a lot.
Talking about sexual assault takes courage.
If someone you know tells you they were assaulted, it means they trust you with something really personal. Whatever happens next, it’s important to listen to what they tell you, and respect their wishes. That includes:
- Not telling other people, unless they specifically ask you to
- Accepting how they feel, even if you don’t agree
- Not blaming them, or trying to make them feel bad
- Understanding that they’re going through something really hard
- Not assuming you know what’s best for them without asking
There’s no wrong way to feel after a sexual assault. People can feel angry, sad, anxious, or a lot of things all at once. Just because one person reacts to being assaulted one way, doesn’t mean anyone else will react the same way. How your friend reacts might not make sense to you, and that’s okay. It might not make sense to them either! It doesn’t mean they’re not being honest with you.
It’s also okay for you to have feelings about your friend’s assault. You might feel scared, sad, or angry. Seeing someone you care about in pain can be a really hard thing to have to deal with. It might not be appropriate for you to share these feelings with your friend, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t care how you feel. It just means they’re dealing with their own feelings! If you need to, you can try writing your feelings down, or talking to a therapist or someone you trust. If you need to talk to someone else about your feelings, make sure you don’t tell them anything about your friend that your friend might not want them to know.
When it comes to sexual assault, bystander reactions matter
Often, survivors of sexual assault are affected by the reactions of their friends and family. This can be helpful if the people around them are supportive! It can also be traumatic or really painful if the people around them blame them, or are otherwise not supportive. There might not be a perfect way to respond to learning that someone you know has been sexually assaulted. You can, however, still think about how they might be feeling, and do your best to be a good friend.
Try to be mindful of how you talk about sexual assault, even if you don’t know anyone who’s been assaulted. You might know someone who has been, and they just haven’t told you. And even if that’s not the case, it’s good to be thoughtful about things that can cause a lot of pain. Jokes about rape, mean comments about survivors, and other dismissive remarks are part of a culture that makes it hard for people to find support. It can also send the message that sexual assault is okay, or not that big a deal.
What do they need?
Sometimes, sexual assault makes people feel like they’ve lost control. You might feel like telling them what to do is helpful, but it can be just as important to not push them into anything. If you’re not sure what they want, you can always ask! You could say:
- Can I do anything to help?
- What do you need right now?
- How are you feeling?
What a person does after a sexual assault can be a big decision. Some people want to report their assault to the police. Some people want to find other ways to hold the person who assaulted them responsible. Maybe there is a process for reporting assaults at their school or work. Maybe they don’t want to do anything at all. They might worry that other people will judge them for what they do or don’t do. It can be helpful to let them know that what you care most about is their health and safety.
Your friend might need you to do any number of things. These might include:
- Going with them to a clinic, or to talk to the police
- Hanging out with them and doing something fun to take their mind off things
- Listening to them talk about how they feel
- Helping them figure out what to say to other people about the assault
… or they could want something completely different! It’s okay to have boundaries and set limits about what you can and can’t do. If your friend needs something you can’t help them with, you can say no. But try to be respectful of what they need help with, even if you can’t give it to them.
Taking care of yourself and others
People who take care of others during times of crisis also deserve support! Maybe you’ve also experienced sexual assault, and it’s triggering to see someone you care about going through it themselves. Maybe you’re taking care of other people, too. Or maybe you just have too much on your plate! That doesn’t mean your friend’s needs are unreasonable or wrong. It also doesn’t mean either of you are bad friends. It just means that you can’t do everything! It’s okay to have limits.
Ideally, if someone is sexually assaulted, they have people around them to be supportive and help them through. Their survival and recovery don’t have to rely on you alone. Humans are social animals, and we all need support from the people in our lives! Your ability to ask for help and to care for yourself is important, too. It’s harder to be there for people who need it when you’re burned out and not getting the help you need.