You probably know someone who’s been a victim of sexual assault.
It’s an unsettling thought, yes, but the statistics bear it out. Somewhere between 17 and 28 percent of women* have been victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault. According to those same sources, the numbers range from 3 to 17 percent for men.* They increase further for members of particular populations or communities, including Native American and Alaskan women; gay, lesbian, and queer folk; people with disabilities; and trans* people.
There are many ways you can support a friend who has been sexually assaulted.
Nearly every victim, every survivor, has a first person they tell — someone they confide in to help make sense of what happened, to help begin the healing process. Unfortunately, I know too well that sometimes the first person told only compounds the hurt. So I’m writing this based on what I wish people had done for me.
How should you respond if a sexual assault survivor reaches out to you?
Believe the survivor. We live in a culture that regularly disbelieves, minimizes, and judges victims of sexual assault. Additionally, there’s a strong chance that the victim knew the attacker before the assault — and a reasonable chance that both are members of a mutual social circle or community. In this light, it can be incredibly stressful for a survivor to speak up about an assault. Simply telling that person, “I believe you,” can offer immense support and relief.
Don’t second guess the decisions a survivor made before the assault or the reactions your friend experienced during or afterward. You know the saying, “Hindsight is 20-20”? It applies here. Even if a survivor acted or reacted in a way that you personally wouldn’t have done, that doesn’t mean a particular behavior was wrong. Sexual assault can easily send someone into panic mode; therefore, responses like freezing and dissociating during an assault are very normal. Second guessing or criticizing those actions can undermine support when the survivor needs it most.
Help your friend regain as much control as is possible. Rape is a crime that seeks to assert power, dominance, and control over another. Helping a friend regain that control probably means advocating for that person to be able to make as many response- and recovery-related decisions as they can or would like to make for themselves. Again, even if the choices aren’t ones you would make for yourself, the important thing is that your friends get to prioritize according to what’s best for them. This may include choices such as:
- Whether to seek medical attention: Certainly, it’s good to make sure your friend has knowledge of and access to injury care, testing for sexually transmitted diseases, and emergency contraception if applicable. However, if and when to use these services needs to be the survivor’s call.
- Whether to seek crisis services or other support services: If you’re worried that your friend is in imminent danger of self-harming, calling 911 is in order. For less immediate issues, you can find contact information for Arizona sexual assault victims services here, here, and here. Again, having the information can be extremely valuable, but the decision to use it — now, later, or never — belongs to the survivor.
- Whether to report the crime to police or other authorities: Again, it’s great to have information on how to report. But since a person’s reasons both for and against reporting can be personal and complicated, it’s something that needs to remain your friend’s choice.
Understand that the path to recovery is individual. Some survivors cry, loudly or softly; some are visibly angry or upset; others are outwardly calm. Some wish to seek professional counseling services; some don’t. Some want to pursue criminal charges or, if applicable, other disciplinary options; others don’t. Still others are undecided and want time to weigh their options. Some want to talk about their assault a lot, either as a way of educating others or of processing it themselves; some never want to talk about it. Some survivors withdraw. Some surround themselves with others, never wanting to be alone. Still others want to resume their normal lives as quickly and fully as possible. Not only are all of these reactions normal, but it’s also common for any individual survivor to experience multiple reactions — even apparently conflicting ones — as they go through the healing process.
Understand that healing can take time. To the extent that you can, be there for your friend not just today — but weeks, months, maybe even years from now.
* Stats on these are kind of tricky because some sources may not include responses from participants who do not identify as one of these two genders on the survey instrument.