Jodie Layne, volunteer staff
There are only a small number things in this world that no one wants to hear, but few are as hard to stomach as someone you know disclosing their sexual assault to you.
We want to believe that things like this happen to other people – that we’re removed from the bad things we read in the papers and that the statistic that one in four women will be sexually assaulted doesn’t apply to our loved ones. But with statistics like that, the probability that you’ll find yourself on the receiving end of a disclosure is quite high.
It can be bewildering and confusing to hear, but how we react to a friend in these circumstances can hugely influence their ability to heal. You should always assume that you’re the first person they’ve told. Regardless of how many people they have actually told, it’s important to be gentle and supportive. It takes a lot of courage to come out as a survivor of sexual violence; being prepared is the best way to avoid re-victimizing someone who’s been through trauma.
Listen to them
Just sit and listen sincerely. No judging or fixating over what you’re going to say next. No freaking out – just listen to what they have to say and allow them to be truly heard. Most people who didn’t report their assaults didn’t do so because they “didn’t think it was important enough.” Let your friend know that both they and what they went through are important.
Don’t question their version of events or if what happened to them was a “legitimate” sexual assault.
Don’t comment about how it seems out of character for their assailant to do such a thing. Don’t tell them they were reading too much into it or being too sensitive. Tell them directly: “I believe you.”
From the police (should your friend choose to report the incident) to the court (if the case ever even gets there) to the media (and the way it handles rape and rape victims), your friend may already be in doubt. They will have their account of the assault repeatedly challenged and delegitimized throughout their life. Even if you have doubts, keep them to yourself. Leave the judging to judges; you’re a friend, so offer unconditional support.
The way that sexual assault is portrayed in our culture has misled us about how sexual assault occurs, so your friend’s experience may not be on par with what you perceive sexual assault to be. It isn’t always by a stranger, it doesn’t just happen to women, and not only men are rapists.
No coulda, shoulda, woulda
The fact is that sexual assault happens because people do it, not because of the length of a dress, the time of day they were out, or how much they were drinking. Don’t offer your friend suggestions on how they could have prevented being assaulted – the chances are that they’ve already replayed their assault in their head and wondered what they could have done differently. The reality is that the person who assaulted them should never have done it in the first place – full stop.
Tell them it’s not their fault and don’t chide them for waiting so long to tell someone or for not going to the police. Cases of sexual assault are convicted at a lower rate than almost all other violent crimes. Being forced into revisiting that trauma over and over again each time you have to testify is sometimes not worth the chance that your assailant will be among the only 42 per cent who actually end up convicted.
If they ask you not to say anything and to just listen: just listen. If they ask for a hug or other reassuring touch: offer it if you feel comfortable and don’t touch them in any way unless asked or permitted. Don’t try and help or offer suggestions if they don’t want any. React in the way they ask you to and, if they don’t offer a role for you to play, ask them how they’d like you to react.
Empower them moving forward
Put them in control of their own healing while being supportive. Finding resources is a very considerate and helpful gesture, as is offering help and a listening ear. Never put pressure on your friend to pursue these options or react in a certain way. Give them the tools to decide how to move forward and don’t judge their decisions. Being a survivor of sexual violence means they’re usually dealing with a loss of power, so do all that you can to help them restore their autonomy.
Take care of yourself
Sexual assault is more common and has more manifestations than we let ourselves believe. If you or someone else you know has experienced sexual assault, the disclosure of another friend may bring up uncomfortable feelings or reawaken trauma. Living in a rape culture means that those who have experienced sexual assault face threats and reminders all around them, which may act as triggers.
Make sure you get the support you need to be a good ally to your friend and to keep your own mental and emotional health in check.