A guide on how to help a victim of sexual harassment, assault or rape
The #MeToo movement has allowed many more people to open up about their experiences of sexual harassment, assault or rape, which is really important.
It can also feel overwhelming to hear about, especially if a friend has been the target.
So, how can we support them?
This is really important.
Many victims of sexual violence don’t say anything because they worry that they won’t be believed.
It can be incredibly difficult to share such personal trauma with someone else, so recognise that.
Tell them that you believe them and that they’re brave for sharing their experience.
Make sure that they feel they made the right decision in voicing what happened to them.
Do not blame them
They are not to blame for the sexual violence they experienced.
No one asks or deserves to be a victim of sexual violence. The perpetrator is to blame.
Make sure you don’t push the blame onto them. Victim-blaming culture is very prominent, so it’s easy to do it without even realising.
Avoid anything that makes them explain their situation or judges them.
Don’t ask what they were wearing, or if they were drunk, or why they were at that party, walking home at night, at a person’s house.
Don’t ask why they didn’t tell you sooner. If they didn’t yell or fight back, don’t ask why.
All these things are irrelevant.
Rather than asking questions that indicate blame, we can listen.
Listening to what they say is one of the best ways to support a victim of sexual violence.
Understandably, it may be difficult to listen to their story. But it’s more difficult for them to talk about their story and share it with you, so you are supporting them a lot by simply listening.
Try not to interrupt or ask questions. They may go into details, but they may not. Avoid pushing them to share more than they do voluntarily.
This is about meeting their comfort levels.
They may get confused and the story may jump back and forth. Try not to get impatient.
It’s common for there to be inconsistencies, and remember, this has nothing to do with the validity of their story. This is because sexual violence is such a traumatic experience.
Try to give them space to talk about their experience in their own time and their own words. Make encouraging sounds if you don’t want to leave silence.
Of course, you’re only human! Listening to a friend talk about a traumatic experience is difficult and emotional.
It’s very common to feel upset or angry for them and you don’t need to hide your emotions. Just remember not to let your emotions take over the conversation.
This is about your friend, and you don’t want them to feel guilty for offloading their experience onto you.
Don’t tell everyone
This is not your story to tell.
Your friend obviously trusts you by sharing their experience with you, so don’t betray this trust by sharing their story about.
This is unless your friend wants you to share their story, and explicitly tells you to do so. If they don’t, don’t share their story.
One of the reasons that sexual violence is so traumatic is the way it can take away the victim’s feeling of control.
You may feel angry and want to take revenge. You may want to contact the police, or book a doctor’s appointment for them.
These are all understandable feelings – you want to do the best for your friend. But this isn’t your decision to make. It’s your friend’s decision.
You don’t want to inadvertantly make them feel worse and lessen their feeling of control, even if your intentions are good.
You can offer advice but don’t be pushy. Your support and trust will help them more than revenge or decision-making.
Be aware that, after an experience of sexual violence, your friend may not want to be touched or be affectionate. Alternatively, they may desperately want your affection. Or they may swap between the two.
This is a normal response to such a traumatic experience.
It may be confusing for you, but try to be patient and understanding.
If you’re unsure, you can always ask them if they want a hug in that moment.
If they’re struggling with intimacy or affection for a while afterwards, you can advise them to visit a GP or a sexual assault referral centre (SARC). Here, they can get confidential support.
Tell them where to get further support and information
You’re not expected to know all the answers.
Your support will be crucial, but there are also professionals that can support your friend. There are resources for support here.
If they want to report the incident to the police, you can go to the local police station or a SARC. They will be guided through the process by specially trainer police officers or SARC staff.
There’s more information on reporting rape or sexual assault here.
If they want to talk to someone who can offer advice before making a decision on what to do next, they can ring the Rape Crisis helpline.
Look after yourself
Last, but most certainly not least, remember to look after yourself.
Supporting a friend who has experienced sexual violence can be incredibly difficult, overwhelming and painful.
It may leave you feeling very emotional and vulnerable. You may also have experienced sexual harassment, assault or rape as well, which can bring up some difficult memories.
Look after your mental health. Give yourself some self-love.
If you want to talk about it without betraying your friend, call the Rape Crisis helpline. They offer support for you too.