My friend was sexually assaulted. What do I do?

By Jamie Porter, health promotions analyst

Because one in five women and one in 16 men will be sexually assaulted in college, it’s highly likely you already know someone who has been sexually assaulted. If you don’t think you know anyone who has, they may not yet have told you about this very personal trauma they’ve experienced, or you will meet someone in the future.

If and when someone discloses to you that they’ve been sexually assaulted, it can be difficult to know what to do. Here’s how you can help a friend who has been sexually assaulted:

Believe them

It’s a myth that people often lie about being assaulted. Research shows reports of sexual assault are substantiated just as often as reports of any other crime. Since we don’t doubt someone when they say their car has been broken into, we shouldn’t doubt someone when they say they’ve been sexually assaulted.

Respond carefully

You may be the first person that your friend has told about this. How you respond may determine if and how they get help. Some good things to say are “I’m sorry this happened to you,” “It’s not your fault,” and “I believe you.”

Listen

When you hear that something so traumatic has happened to your friend, it can be easy to want to jump in and start making suggestions or asking specific questions. Instead, sit back and thank them for trusting you with this information. Don’t ask overly intrusive questions about the assault unless they tell you themselves. Some good open ended questions that will require you to listen more are “how are you feeling?”, “how can I help?”, “how would you like to go forward?”.

Familiarize yourself with resources available

No one expects to be sexually assaulted. However, knowing the resources available to survivors can be extremely helpful in a time of crisis. You can learn about resources available to survivors through the Victim Advocate. Don’t forget to check out reporting options and confidential support available on campus.

Offer them resources and options, but let them make the final decision

Someone who has experienced a sexual assault wasn’t allowed to make decisions about their body and their lives when they were assaulted. By following your friend’s lead, you’re helping to give them control over their lives.

Support them in their decisions

If they choose to speak with a Victim Advocate, offer to walk with them to the appointment. Drive them to the emergency room if they want a Sexual Assault Nurse Examination (SANE) kit completed to collect forensic evidence. Let them know that you are here to talk if they need.

Take care of yourself.

While you’re trying to address your friend’s needs, it can be easy to forget your own. Hearing the details of an assault can bring up lots of different feelings and reactions. Counseling and Psychological Services at the University Health Center is great resource to support you through this.

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There are some situations that may make knowing what to do more difficult or complex. Keep reading for some additional guidance in tricky situations: 

If you know the accused…

This is more likely than you think as 90 percent of sexual assaults in college are committed by someone that the victim knows. When you know both the victim and the perpetrator, strong and conflicting feelings can arise. It might help to speak with someone in CAPS or a victim advocate to help process these feelings and create a plan for moving forward. When responding to your friend who has disclosed this to you, recognize what your role is. It’s your job to support your friend in a time of need by offering options and a listening ear, not to confront another person or to investigate what has “really” happened.

If your role or position on campus requires you report the assault to the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance or a supervisor…

Let your friend know about this limit to confidentiality as soon as possible. When following your reporting procedures, give your friend as much control over the situation as possible. Ask if they would like to report themselves, with you as a support person, or if there is another option that works better for them.

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These tips are just some general ideas to help you help a friend. Every situation is different. If you’re unsure of what to do or the best way to proceed, the Victim Advocate also meets with people who are trying to support their friends who have experienced sexual assault. Email the Victim Advocate or call 402.472.0203.

Remember, you won’t be able to fix everything or maybe even anything, but you will be able to let your friend know you are there for them and will be with them through their journey of healing — however that may look.

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