This article should help everyone to be there for when someone opens up to you about their sexual abuse or rape. I am writing this from my perspective, what I wish my friends would’ve known before I told them about my experience. Every rape case is different and all survivors have to go through their own journey, so some of the points in this article might not apply to your friend specifically. But I hope this article will help you understand what it feels like for a survivor and how act
There are horrible affects on victims of sexual assault. One of the less harmful coping mechanisms is weight gain. Survivors consciously or subconsciously gain weight to appear less attractive to be less of a target. This doesn’t mean that gaining weight is a bad thing, but it shows how sexual assault doesn’t just show mental but also physical effects. A more harmful effect is suicide and depression. One out of three rape survivors have suicidal thoughts. One of the first steps for survivors to not just overcome the attack but also the depression and trauma after is to share their experience. If the first person they share their story with makes them feel small, they might never open up to another person again. Hence it’s really important that you know what to do, so you can be there for a friend in need.
Rape happens every day, it’s probably happening right now. I hope that nobody of you has a friend who has been sexually assaulted or raped but chances are, you do. It seems like we all know a woman who was touched against her will but men don’t seem to know any men who assaulted a woman. I’m not saying women can’t be perpetrators but for the sake of the majority of the victims, I will use male pronouns for the rapist and female for the survivor.
Before getting into the way of how one should behave, it’s important to know what rape looks like. It is not just the walking down a dark alley with too short of a skirt or coming from a dinner party where you happen to be dressed nicely so a random stranger is so aroused that they attack you violently in the middle of the night. No, these cases only make up to 10% of all reported cases. In reality, rapists are boyfriends and husbands and friends of survivors. In some cases, the people involved had sex before. But just because two people had sex before doesn’t mean that one person is entitled to the other person’s body whenever they feel like it. Consent is important. Being a ‘friend’ or partner does not give you a free card for consent.
If I had known about this, I would’ve gone to the police right after my abuse. I did feel used, I did feel horrible, but I was in such shock, trying to make sense of the situation, that I didn’t think of going to the police straight away. This can have a negative effect on my claim against the perpetrator since it’s difficult to collect evidence afterwards. So if you hear your friend telling you about a sexual assault but seems confused, ask her if he slept with her against her will. Consent can be taken away at anytime, if your friend hasn’t given consent and he still forced himself on her, she has been raped. If you feel like she didn’t realise that, ask her if she thinks it was rape and see how she reacts. She might say no, even if it was, because she is ashamed or she doesn’t want to be associated with ‘being the victim’. If she has actually been raped, she will realise it once she can process what happened and will hopefully try to seek help.
12 ways to help
No matter what you do. Listen. To. Your. Friend. This is not about you, this is about her. She has to speak out loud what has happened to process it. It becomes real once she tells someone. Don’t interrupt her, don’t try to finish her sentences for her. Let her tell you whatever she feels save to tell you. It’s ok to be quiet, if you have no words, there’s no need to say anything.
Don’t ask for details
“What did you wear?” “Why didn’t you scream?” No matter how keen you are on finding out more, asking these questions is counter productive. These sort of questions make the victim feel like it was her fault. It makes her feel like she cannot trust her own judgement. Or as if, if she had done something different, it wouldn’t have happened. Only let her tell you what she feels comfortable sharing with you.
I remember when I opened up to my friends how some of them replied with “I’m so sorry this happened to you” and how others asked me “Why did you stay there?” “Why didn’t you go home?” Trust me, if I did know what was going to happen, I would have acted differently. But I didn’t know it before! What happened happened. I cannot change it anymore. I’m not angry or upset with my friends who asked me detailed questions about the act itself. My own sister who I love and trust has asked me a lot of questions - right before saying ‘it’s not your fault’ while making me feel like it was all my fault. But I don’t blame her, this is a natural psychological reaction. Women want to feel like they can control if someone rapes them or not. They don’t want to accept that this could happen to anyone at anytime. Unfortunately, it does. So stop making your friend feel like it was her fault.
Ask before you hug them
As in all situations where you see your friend upset, you might just want to hug them. But ask them first if it’s okay. In times of Corona asking for permission when touching someone should be a given anyway. But keep in mind that your friend has been through a traumatic experience which involved being touched. Sex should be something beautiful but once it turned abusive, any kind of touch can be triggering.
Don’t give advice
Unless you’ve been through a similar experience or are a professional therapist, don’t give advice. Your friend has to decide for herself what she wants to do next. It’s her decision to report it or who she wants to share her story with. Feel free to give her a nudge on what her options are. You can say things like “Have you thought about going to the police?” or “Who else have you told about this?” But don’t tell her who she should open up to about her experience..
When you’ve been through trauma, it’s easy to try and people please, even though they’re the one who needs the support. Show your friend that you are there for her. Don’t just say “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” This puts the work on your friend’s plate to find how you can help her. Instead, suggest things you want to do for her. “Do you want me to drive you to the police station?” or “Do you want me to find a list of therapists for you?”
Offer support but only if you’re actually going to support her. Nothing can hurt more than a friend who isn’t there for you in a time where you need them the most. Keep in mind that if your friend decides to report her case to the police that you might need to give a witness statement as one of the first people she told about the assault. This can be tough when you don’t just know the victim but also the rapist. Only 2-8% of cases reported to the police are made up cases, in the UK it’s only 0.62% which means that it’s very likely that your friend is telling the truth. Even when you know the rapist and see him as a good person, you might have to make a statement against him. So only offer support when you’re actually willing to.
Learn about rape and how you might be able to help your friend. It’s important for you to know what your friend is going through to be able to help her and what she might have to go through.
What I mean about education is that you look up how to act. Not just in front of her but in general to stop the patriarchy that pushes us through these situations. I know people often say “This outfit calls for it” or other nonsense like that. No single outfit in the world calls for it! A woman can be naked and still not call for it! It might be a call for attention, it might be an invite for someone to look at a her features, but it’s never an invitation to touch or rape someone, no matter what a woman is or isn’t wearing. Just take that sentence out of your vocabulary.
Pick the right words
Don’t call your friend a ‘victim’, she’s a ‘survivor’. She needs to be empowered. Going through such a traumatic experience can make you feel small, unloved, not human. Words have power so make sure you can help your friend reclaim her power. Send her affirmative quotes and check up on her.
Don’t protect the rapist
This sounds like an obvious point but it might not be that obvious for everyone. It’s a common reaction of victims to protect their abuser. They don’t want what has happened to them to be real and therefore belittle things because it makes them feel less true. If you notice that behaviour on her or even yourself because you know the perpetrator, call it out, make yourselves aware of it.
Make room for the topic
Most of my close friends know what has happened to me but I find it difficult to bring up the topic, especially when we’re in a group. I don’t want to be the one that brings the mood down and makes everyone feel uncomfortable. And I feel like my friends don’t want to bring up the topic when they think I seem fine. So there’s always this elephant in the room. Make sure you let your friend know that she can always talk to you and that she’s never a burden. Meet with her one-on-one if you have only seen her as part of a group recently. Create a safe space where you can talk about it, where she can cry or let out her anger. Don’t force the topic on her. Ask her how she is and trust me, we can tell that you want to know not how we are in general, but how we’re feeling about our trauma specifically. So if we’re ready to talk, we will talk once you open the door for us.
Be a friend
Show her that what happened to her doesn’t define her. You’re still friends, you’re still you, she’s still her. Often rape survivors can feel like they’re loosing their identity. Remind her of who she is but also see who she’s becoming. An experience like that cannot be forgotten, no matter how much we try. It will shape us, but don’t let us forget who we really are.
Give her time
There might be situations where your friend is being triggered. This can happen at anytime and doesn’t announce itself. If you’re around when it happens, give her time to breathe and digest. Tell her that she’s safe and go through some breathing exercises with her, but also let her do what she wants to do. If she says that she needs space, give her that space. If she wants a hug, hug her. She knows best what she needs at that moment but don’t forget to check up on her.
These are the points I can think of and again, I can only speak for myself and how I wish my friends would have behaved when I told them. I’m lucky enough to have amazing friends who are there for me and check up, some of who also made a statement at the police for me.
It’s okay if you don’t emphasise with your friend’s actions or reactions. While I’m going through my trauma, I feel really detached from my friends. I know they mean well, I know they’re there when I need them, but I also know they will never fully understand what I’m going through. And as much as I’d want them to understand, the only way they ever will is if they go through such an experience themselves, and I don’t wish that on anyone. I feel like the experience has put a line between me and my friends. Another thing to blame my rapist for.
If you take only one thing from this article, please never blame your friend or make them feel like it was her fault. It’s never the survivor’s fault. It’s the rapist’s fault.
It’s hard listening to your friend telling you a traumatic experience. Keep in mind that they’ve chosen to tell you which means they trust you. It’s your privilege to be her friend, so be there for her, even if the only thing you do is listen. You can make sure she is being heard.