Sexual assault can traumatize not only the survivor, but also those closest to the victim. It is very difficult to know how to help. Each victims' reaction to sexual assault is unique, as is their process of recovery. It is important to bear this in mind when thinking about how to respond in a helpful way.
Remember that sexual assault is never the survivor's fault.
The three most important things are to SUPPORT, LISTEN, and BELIEVE. Your friend may reveal some graphic information. It is important not to overreact. Believe your friend and let your friend know you do. People rarely lie about rape or sexual assault. Give your friend the chance to talk about the experience and her or his feelings. Be thoughtful in your responses: there are some things that we can say that unintentionally convey the wrong message, and ultimately blame the victim for what happened.
Communicate to your friend that any feelings she or he may have are normal and understandable. Supporting a friend means validating her or his feelings and emotions.
What to do when helping a friend
- Show interest, but do not pry or ask for specific details, which may make the person relive the experience.
- Allow your friend to be silent. You do not have to speak when she or he stops talking.
- Help your friend regain some sense of control. Support your friend in making decisions about whom to tell and how to proceed.
- Recognize your own limitations. No one expects you to be an expert in counseling or sexual assault; therefore, avoid making strong recommendations to your friend. Realize that as a friend you may need counseling to cope with the events your friend may have shared with you.
- Those in a helping position may experience vicarious trauma or "secondary trauma." This is the process of change that happens because you care about other people who have been hurt, and feel committed or responsible t help them. Over time this process can lead to changes in your own psychological and physical well-being.
- You, too, can seek services for yourself through SLU's Student Health and Counseling Services. For information on how to schedule an appointment, click here.
What NOT to do when helping a friend
- Avoid making decisions for the victim. Instead, listen and then ask how you can help.
- Do not touch or hug your friend without permission.
- Statements like the ones below come across as blaming the victim and increase a sense of guilt, shame, or responsibility. Try not to judge the victim's behavior or imply that it is somehow their fault.
- "Why didn't you fight?," "You shouldn't have gone to their room," or anything else that questions the actions of the victim. These types of statements send the message that the person could have done something to avoid the attack and that it is her or his fault. One should not question a victim's actions. Freezing, submitting, and fighting are all natural responses to being attacked.
- "Were you drunk?" This sends the message that the person is partially responsible for the attack. Intoxication does not excuse a perpetrator's actions, nor does it make the victim responsible for being assaulted.
- "I'll kill the person who did this to you!" While anger is a natural reaction, it can be very harmful. The victim has faced one person whose anger was out of control and must now try to calm down another person so that there won't be more violence. He or she may feel responsible for upsetting you, thus discouraging them from being able to talk about what happened to them.
- "You should go to the police." Although going to the police might be a step in the healing process for the victim, it must be their decision to do so. Allowing them to make decisions to disclose to others or seek services will help the person gain back control that was taken away.
There are some common reactions you may experience when learning that someone you know has been sexually assaulted. These feelings are natural responses to a trauma.
- Disbelief: Family and friends may react to the sexual assault of a loved one with shock and disbelief, especially if there are no visible signs of the attack. You may even doubt that the assault happened. This is common after a traumatic experience.
- Fear: You may feel intense fear for yourself or for the attacked person. You may want to protect him or her from future assault. Your concern may be reassuring soon after the assault, but too much caution on your part can make it difficult for the victim to feel capable and in control again.
- Depression: It is normal to feel sad. Sexual assault can bring up feelings of powerlessness in victims and those who love them. You may feel that your life is out of control. If sadness is intensive, lasts longer than a few weeks, or becomes overwhelming, contact us for an appointment.
- Guilt: Guilt is a common reaction when a loved one has been sexually assaulted. Those closest to the victim may blame themselves. Whatever you did or did not do, you are not to blame. It is solely the fault of the perpetrator. Instead of blaming yourself, concentrate on the helping the victim in whatever way they may need.
- Anger: Often loved ones experience anger after a sexual assault. Your first reaction may be to seek revenge against the attacker. This is a normal feeling, but you will not help yourself or the victim if you are hurt or in jail. Sometimes you may feel anger towards the person who was attacked, especially if they did something you warned them not to do. If you find yourself blaming the victim for the assault, make sure that you have someone other than that person who can listen to your angry feelings (e.g. counseling). Remember, even if the victim used poor judgment; it is the attacker who is responsible.
If you have just become aware of a sexual assault or there is another mental health emergency, call the 24-hour on call counselor at 314-977-2323
Information on this page has been adapted from Washington University of Saint Louis' Student Health Services, 2013.