How to Support a Friend Who's Been Sexually Assaulted, According to Psychologists
Whether or not we realize it, everyone most likely knows someone who's been sexually assaulted. According to a study, 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men have reported experiencing sexual assault or sexual harassment. And people in minority groups 一 especially Native Americans and transgender individuals 一 are at an even higher risk. Statistics like these are terrifying, especially since they represent our loved ones.
While sexual assault is a widespread issue and the effects are long-lasting, friends can serve as amazing allies to survivors. As friends of people who have endured sexual violence, we play an important and powerful role; we can show our support and concern in a variety of effective, compassionate ways. However, since sexual assault is complex and a hard-to-process trauma, those aren't always as straightforward as we may think at first, and reacting in the right ways is critical.
Keep in mind that friends may not realize their experience was sexual assault right away, but be prepared for when they do. For advice on how to respond and be there for your friends in the best ways possible, POPSUGAR spoke with three psychologists. Keep reading for their biggest tips, and remember people of all genders can experience sexual assault, which is why you'll see "they/them/their" pronouns.
- Use plural pronouns like "we" when showing support. Experiencing sexual assault can feel isolating, and your friend may not be up for taking the next steps alone. You can support them through that by showing they don't have to do anything alone if they don't want to. "Comments like 'We will get through this' and 'We are safe now' can communicate that [they] experienced the attack by [themselves], but [they] will recover with support," La Keita Carter, PsyD, owner and CEO of the Institute for HEALing, LLC, told POPSUGAR.
- Let your friend decide how they want to respond. "Sexual assault is a trauma, and people deal with trauma in different ways," said Dr. Elizabeth Jeglic, licensed clinical psychologist, professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and sexual violence prevention researcher. "Some people may want to spring into action and seek therapy and support, while others are not ready for that. Let them know that you are there for them, and offer to help them when and if they [are] ready."
- Validate what they went through, and don't blame them. "Many times, victims will share their trauma, and their story is doubted or dismissed. This makes it more difficult for sexual-assault survivors to trust and open up to people," explained Jessica Popham, Ph.D., LMFT, and assistant professor and practicum coordinator at Albizu University. "For example, you could say, 'I am so sorry that you had to go through such a horrible event,' to convey that you acknowledge their experience. Also, friends can let the survivor know that the assault was not their fault. Reinforce that they are the victim and that they are not to blame."
- Start with close-ended questions, especially right after the assault. Dr. Carter explained that when someone asks a survivor an open-ended question, such as how they're feeling, the survivor may not know how to respond or their thoughts may race. Instead, ask a close-ended question to show support. "Try starting with simple questions like, 'Are you cold? I have a blanket.' 'Would you like water?' 'Do you want me to come over?' or 'Can I give you a hug?'" she said.
- Show empathy without bringing up your own experiences. If you've also experienced sexual assault, you may want to bring that up to help your friend feel less alone. However, according to Dr. Jeglic, it's best to focus on your friend's needs and let them drive the conversation. "Let them know with face, nonverbals, and words that you feel their pain," she said. "If you have also experienced trauma, make sure that you do not project your experiences onto them, as this is about them and not you. There may be an appropriate time to share, but let your friend guide you as to their needs."
- Encourage therapy, but don't push or shame your friend into it. While friends can definitely be helpful, professional help can also be vital. However, your friend may not be up for it, at least right away, and that's OK, too. "Encouraging or supporting a friend to get professional help could be needed; however, you do not want to force someone into therapy if they are not ready. This could have a negative impact on the healing process," Dr. Popham said. "Instead of saying, 'You should go to therapy' or 'You need to see a counselor,' you could say, 'Therapy might be helpful' or 'I noticed you seem to be struggling this week; have you thought about talking to a professional?'" She added you can share your experiences with therapy if you have any, but do so in a way that normalizes therapy rather than makes the conversation about you.
- Don't touch or hug them without getting their permission first. "Remember that someone has just violated [their] body. You don't want to just dive in for a hug," Dr. Carter said. "Ask if it's OK if you give [them] a hug before doing so. This will help to instill one simple idea: 'Your body . . . your call. I won't do anything that you don't want to do.'" Dr. Carter said this message is needed after an experience in which your friend probably felt as if they had no bodily autonomy.
If you or a loved one need mental health help or treatment, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has several resources, including a helpline at 1-800-950-6264. You can also text "NAMI" to 741741 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For sexual-assault resources, you or your friend can contact the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) by using the chatline at online.rainn.org or calling the hotline at 800-656-4673.