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Student Affairs - Inspiring Student Success

Sexual Assault


My Friend Has Been Sexually Assaulted

If a friend comes to you and says that he/she has been sexually assaulted, the MOST IMPORTANT thing you can do is believe them.

  • Thank them for trusting you and telling you about the assault.
  • Encourage them to seek medical attention.
  • Remind them that you will be supportive whether they choose to report the attack or not.
  • Provide resources.
  • If they come to you within 3 days (72 hours) of the assault, suggest that they get a rape kit (forensic exam) done, and offer to go with them if possible. For directions click here. Getting a rape kit does not require the victim to file charges with the police.
  • Remember, your friend has just been victimized and had all their power taken away. It is important to empower the survivor whenever possible, and let him/her make all decisions. Your role is to be supportive and help them if they ask. It may simply require that you sit quietly with them.
  • NEVER blame the victim. Do not ask if he/she was drinking, what he/she was wearing, or anything that might indicate that it was the victim’s fault. He/she is already dealing with enough self-blame, it is vital for you to be unconditionally supportive.

 

Reactions to Sexual Assault

Survivors of sexual assault may elicit a range of emotional, physical and mental reactions to the trauma of being sexually assaulted, including not having any reaction at all. It is imperative to understand that each survivor will respond and react to the trauma in a different way. There is no prescribed method of healing from sexual assault, because each person's experience will vary. It is common for a survivor of sexual assault, regardless of how long ago the assault was committed, to possibly experience some of the following symptoms:

Fear, anger, sadness, rage, guilt, embarrassment, depression, helplessness, isolation, tension or anxiety, numbness, confusion, denial, hyper-vigilance, inability to concentrate, intrusive memories of the assault, change in eating and sleeping habits, increased alcohol consumption or the use of substances as a coping mechanism, avoidance of loved ones or activities that were enjoyable prior to the assault, lack of trust, need to regain control, nightmares or flashbacks of the incident, insomnia, increase or decrease in sexual activity, low self-esteem, extreme paranoia, suicidal thoughts, the need to escape or forget, or other physical symptoms such as eating disorders, nausea, diarrhea, muscle-tension, anxiety, trouble breathing, gynecological problems, headaches and panic attacks.

These are just a few of the reactions a person may have. Healing takes time and begins with compassionate support from loved ones and friends. These reactions are not unique to sexual assault; anyone in crisis may show some of these behaviors. They can be understood as indicators that your friend's general ability to cope has been thrown way out of balance and your friend is now struggling to manage trauma. Many of these symptoms are common following any severe attack, loss, or injury. Your friend may have "flashbacks" (intrusive, vivid memories) about the assault. Your friend may have specific fears and anxiety reactions related to the appearance of the assailant or the location where the attack took place. Problems with your friend's ability to concentrate, changing sleep patterns, and changing relationships can disrupt his or her daily functioning. As a friend, you may also experience similar symptoms because your friend's difficulties may stress you directly and strike personal chords with crises you have had in your own life.

For some people, you will see no "visible" indications of crisis because all of their coping efforts are taking place inside of them. In fact, some people cope by making an extra effort to "look normal" and only gradually let on that something terrible has happened to them. This coping strategy may be adaptive as long as it does not go on long. Sexual assault experts have found that the best way of truly recovering from an assault is by acknowledging it to oneself and opening up about it to trusted people.


Helpful Strategies

As a friend, you are a good judge of what emotions and behaviors are common for your friend. If your friend, for no apparent reason, begins to act in an atypical manner, don't be afraid to ask directly what is wrong. You may be the first person to respond to your friend's problem, and for a victim of sexual assault, this is the starting point of recovery. Here are some strategies that you may find useful in helping your friend recover from the trauma they have experienced.

  • Believe your friend. Studies have shown that the reaction of the first person to whom a survivor disclosed his or her story, whether positive or negative, will affect the way in which healing occurs. Believing someone when the person tells you he or she has been sexually assaulted, without question or hesitation, is the most important thing you can do for your friend.
  • Listen non-judgmentally. We all tend to analyze and question when someone tells us a story, whether we are trying to find a way in which to personally relate to what the person may be saying or we are just trying to understand. Active listening skills teach us to talk less. Never question a person's actions, details of the assault, why your friend feels the way he or she does. If you are having difficulty understanding what your friend may be saying, clarify. Paraphrase or relate feelings back to the person to ensure that you are not assuming that your friend's feelings reflect your own beliefs or judgments.
  • Assure your friend that it is not his or her fault and your friend is not to blame for the assault in any way. Survivors of sexual assault often blame themselves for what has happened. It is important that we help them understand that no matter what happened, it was not their fault.
  • Assure your friend she or he is not alone. Survivors of sexual assault often feel isolated, scared, and powerless. You can be the most helpful just by being there. Your presence can reassure the survivor and allow them to work out their feelings in a safe environment.
  • Empower your friend. Remember, it is always up to the survivor to make choices that will affect the healing process. Survivors may ask for guidance or advice. Providing resources and options for them to utilize will help them regain the control they have lost.

It is often in our nature to want to rush in and fix the problems of those we love by taking on their burdens ourselves. Unfortunately, this does not solve any problems but could potentially create a co-dependent relationship which is damaging to someone who needs more than anything to regain the control they have lost by being assaulted.


Helpful Phrases

Helpful phrases when empowering a survivor of sexual assault or encouraging your friend to talk:

  • What do you want to do?
  • How do you feel about that?
  • Tell me more about __________?
  • What have you tried so far?
  • What does he/she/they think about that?
  • What does that mean to you?
  • What do you think about that?
  • What is it that bothers you about that?
  • In what way?
  • Do you want to?
  • What would you like?
  • What would you like to see happen?
  • What I'm hearing you say is _______.
  • What is the best thing that could happen?
  • What is the worst thing that could happen?


Things to Avoid

Things to try to avoid when helping a survivor of sexual assault:

  • NO MORE VIOLENCE!! We often want to respond to violence with aggressive action. This is not helpful for your friend who has been assaulted and could make things worse. Respect their right to make their own choices.
  • Evaluating: you shouldn't, you ought to, you're wrong.
  • Interpreting, analyzing, diagnosing: you're doing that because...
  • Ridiculing, shaming: What were you thinking? Why did you do such a thing?
  • Interrupting or Dominating Conversation: Yeah, that happened to me once, I never would have done that!
  • Warning, ordering, threatening: If you don't do _____, you'll regret it.
  • Criticizing, blaming: This wouldn't have happened if you hadn't...
  • Interrogating, cross examining: When did it happen, where did it happen, why did you do that?
  • Advising, offering solutions: I think you should ____...
  • Giving too positive evaluations: I'm sure you'll be fine, it will all work out.
  • Distracting, diverting: It isn't that bad, let's talk about something more pleasant.


My Friend Has Been Accused of Sexual Assault

If a friend or someone you know is accused of sexual assault, it is likely that you have questions and may be struggling to understand what has happened. You may be experiencing a range of emotions such as helplessness, anger, confusion or betrayal and are unsure how to respond to your friend or the situation. Chances are if your friend has told you that he/she has been accused of a sexual assault, he/she may be turning to you for help and support.

Here are a few ways you can help your friend through this experience:

  • Direct your friend to resources. There are individuals on campus who are available to talk with a person accused of sexual assault. These professionals can help that person understand what may happen next. Helping your friend access these resources is a step you can take to provide support in what may be a confusing and emotional time for both of you. Encourage your friend to speak with the Assistant Dean of Students, Erica Woodley, with Student Resources & Support Services.
  • Recommend that your friend seek counseling to deal with the emotions that he/she may be experiencing. It may also be helpful for you to seek counseling to help you process any emotions and trauma you may be experiencing as a result of this situation. Counseling services are offered at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) (504) 314-2277.
  • Get educated on the issue of sexual assault. The information in this website can be of help in answering some of the questions you may have. If you are seeking additional information on sexual assault, please contact the Coordinator of the Office of Violence Prevention at (504) 314-2161.
  • Be available to listen. He/she may not feel comfortable talking about the matter, but let your friend know you will listen.
  • Avoid judging.

Remember, being a friend does NOT mean:

  • Approving of all your friend's actions and/or choices. You can help your friend without making a judgment as to whether or not a sexual assault occurred. Determining if a crime or judicial violation took place is the responsibility of campus administrators and/or the legal system.
  • Taking action. Violence or retaliation is not the answer to helping your friend. Remember, harassing and threatening behaviors are not helpful and could undermine any court or judicial proceeding taking place.

Helpful phrases to encourage your friend to talk:

  • What do you want to do?
  • How do you feel about that?
  • Tell me more about __________?
  • What have you tried so far?
  • What do(es) he/she/they think about that?
  • What does that mean to you?
  • What do you think about that?
  • What is it that bothers you about that?
  • In what way?
  • Do you want to?
  • What would you like?
  • What would you like to see happen?
  • What I'm hearing you say is _______.
  • What is the best thing that could happen?
  • What is the worst thing that could happen?
We thank the College of William & Mary, their Sexual Assault Education Program and Sexual Assault Services Office for permission to reproduce much of the content used for this section on sexual assault.

Division of Student Affairs, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-314-2188 studnaff@tulane.edu