Helping a Friend

The University encourages anyone who experiences or learns about an incident of sexual misconduct to file a report immediately so the University can respond accordingly. You can file a report by going to the Reporting Sexual Misconduct Form.

If Your Friend Has Been Sexually Assaulted or a Victim/Survivor of Other Sexual Misconduct

If a friend comes to you and says they have been sexually assaulted or the victim/survivor of other sexual misconduct, the MOST IMPORTANT thing you can do is believe them.

  • Thank them for trusting you and telling you about the assault and/or misconduct.
  • Encourage them to seek medical attention.
  • Remind them that you will be supportive whether they choose to report the sexual assault and/or misconduct or not.
  • Provide on-campus and/or off-campus resources.
  • If they come to you within 3 days (72 hours) of the sexual assault, suggest that they get a rape kit (forensic exam) done, and offer to go with them if possible. Getting a rape kit does not require your friend to file charges with the police.

Remember, your friend has just been victimized and had all their power taken away. It is important to empower the victim/survivor whenever possible, and let them make all decisions. Your role is to be supportive and help them if they ask. It may simply require that you sit quietly with them.

NEVER blame the victim.

Do not ask if they were drinking, what they were wearing, or anything that might indicate that it was their fault. They may already dealing with enough self-blame; it is vital for you to be unconditionally supportive.

Common Reactions to Sexual Assault and Other Types of Sexual Misconduct

Victims/survivors of sexual assault or other sexual misconduct may elicit a range of emotional, physical and mental reactions to the trauma of being sexually assaulted and/or the victim/survivor of sexual misconduct, including not having any reaction at all. It is imperative to understand that each victim/survivor will respond and react to the trauma in a different way. There is no prescribed method of healing from sexual assault and/or other sexual misconduct, because each person's experience will vary. It is common for a victim/survivor of sexual assault and/or other sexual misconduct, regardless of how long ago the incident occured, to possibly experience some of the following symptoms:

Fear Anger Sadness
Rage Guilt Embarrassment
Depression Helplessness Isolation
Tension Anxiety Numbness
Confusion Denial Hyper-vigilance
Inability to concentrate Intrusive memories of the incident Change in eating and sleeping habits
Increased alcohol consumption or the use of substances as a coping mechanism Nightmares or flashbacks of the incident Insomnia
Increase or decrease in sexual activity Low self-esteem Extreme paranoia
Suicidal thoughts Need to escape or forget Physical symptoms such as eating disorders, nausea, diarrhea, muscle-tension, anxiety, trouble breathing, gynecological problems, headaches and panic attacks

These are just a few of the reactions a person may have. Healing takes time and begins with compassionate support from loved ones and friends. These reactions are not unique to sexual assault and/or other sexual misconduct; anyone in crisis may show some of these behaviors. They can be understood as indicators that your friend's general ability to cope has been thrown way out of balance and your friend is now struggling to manage trauma. Many of these symptoms are common following any severe attack, loss, or injury. Your friend may have "flashbacks" (intrusive, vivid memories) about the sexual assault and/or other sexual misconduct. Your friend may have specific fears and anxiety reactions related to the appearance of the perpetrator or the location where the sexual assault and/or other sexual misconduct took place. Problems with your friend's ability to concentrate, changing sleep patterns, and changing relationships can disrupt their daily functioning. As a friend, you may also experience similar symptoms because your friend's difficulties may stress you directly and strike personal chords with crises you have had in your own life.

For some people, you will see no "visible" indications of crisis because all of their coping efforts are taking place inside of them. In fact, some people cope by making an extra effort to "look normal" and only gradually let on that something terrible has happened to them. This coping strategy may be adaptive as long as it does not go on long. Sexual assault experts have found that the best way of truly recovering from sexual assault and/or other sexual misconduct is by acknowledging it to oneself and opening up about it to trusted people.

Helpful Strategies

As a friend, you are a good judge of what emotions and behaviors are common for your friend. If your friend, for no apparent reason, begins to act in an atypical manner, don't be afraid to ask directly what is wrong. You may be the first person to respond to your friend's problem, and for a victim/survivor of sexual assault and/or other sexual misconduct, this is the starting point of recovery. You may find the following strategies useful in helping your friend recover from the trauma they have experienced.

Believe your friend. Studies have shown that the reaction of the first person to whom a victim/survivor disclosed their story, whether positive or negative, will affect the way in which healing occurs. Believing someone when the person tells you they have been sexually assaulted or the victim/survivor of other sexual misconduct, without question or hesitation, is the most important thing you can do for your friend.

Listen non-judgmentally. We all tend to analyze and question when someone tells us a story, whether we are trying to find a way in which to personally relate to what the person may be saying or we are just trying to understand. Active listening skills teach us to talk less. Never question a person's actions, details of the sexual assault and/or other sexual misconduct, why your friend feels the way they do. If you are having difficulty understanding what your friend may be saying, clarify. Paraphrase or relate feelings back to the person to ensure that you are not assuming that your friend's feelings reflect your own beliefs or judgments.

Assure your friend that it is not their fault and your friend is not to blame for the assault in any way. Victims/survivors of sexual assault and/or other sexual misconduct often blame themselves for what has happened. It is important that we help them understand that no matter what happened, it was not their fault.

Assure your friend they are not alone. Victims/survivors of sexual assault and/or other sexual misconduct often feel isolated, scared, and powerless. You can be the most helpful just by being there. Your presence can reassure the victim/survivor and allow them to work out their feelings in a safe environment.

Empower your friend. Remember, it is always up to the victim/survivor to make choices that will affect the healing process. Victims/survivors may ask for guidance or advice. Providing resources and options for them to utilize will help them regain the control they have lost. It is often in our nature to want to rush in and fix the problems of those we love by taking on their burdens ourselves. Unfortunately, this does not solve any problems but could potentially create a co-dependent relationship which is damaging to someone who needs more than anything to regain the control they have lost by being sexually assaulted or the victim/survivor of other sexual misconduct.

Behaviors to avoid when helping a victim/survivor of sexual assault and/or other sexual misconduct:

  • NO MORE VIOLENCE!! We often want to respond to violence with aggressive action. This is not helpful for your friend who has been victimized and could make things worse. Respect their right to make their own choices.
  • Evaluating: you shouldn't, you ought to, you're wrong.
  • Interpreting, analyzing: you're doing that because...
  • Ridiculing, shaming: What were you thinking? Why did you do such a thing?
  • Interrupting or dominating the conversation: Yeah, that happened to me once, I never would have done that!
  • Warning, ordering, threatening: If you don't do _____, you'll regret it.
  • Criticizing, blaming: This wouldn't have happened if you hadn't...
  • Interrogating, cross examining: When did it happen, where did it happen, why did you do that?
  • Advising, offering solutions: I think you should ____...
  • Giving too positive evaluations: I'm sure you'll be fine, it will all work out.
  • Distracting, diverting: It isn't that bad, let's talk about something more pleasant.

If Your Friend Has Been Accused of Sexual Assault or Other Sexual Misconduct

If a friend or someone you know is accused of sexual assault and/or other sexual misconduct, it is likely that you have questions and may be struggling to understand what has happened. You may be experiencing a range of emotions such as helplessness, anger, confusion or betrayal and are unsure how to respond to your friend or the situation. Chances are if your friend has told you they have been accused of a sexual assault and/or other sexual misconduct, they may be turning to you for help and support.

Here are a few ways you can help your friend through this experience:

Direct your friend to resources. There are individuals on campus who are available to talk with a person accused of sexual assault and/or other sexual misconduct. These professionals can help that person understand what may happen next. Helping your friend access these resources is a step you can take to provide support in what may be a confusing and emotional time for both of you. Confidential and non-confidential resources are available.

Recommend that your friend seek counseling to deal with the emotions that she or he may be experiencing. It may also be helpful for you to seek counseling to help you process any emotions and trauma you may be experiencing as a result of this situation. Counseling services are offered for students at Counseling, Health and Wellness and employees may contact E4Health.

Get educated on the issue of sexual assault and other types of sexual misconduct. The information on this website can be of help in answering some of the questions you may have.

Be available to listen. They may not feel comfortable talking about the matter, but let your friend know you will listen.

Avoid judging. Remember, being a friend does NOT mean approving of all your friend's actions and/or choices. You can help your friend without making a judgment as to whether or not sexual assault and/or other sexual misconduct occurred. Determining if a crime or a violation of the Policy on Sexual Misconduct is the responsibility of campus administrators and/or the legal system.

Taking action. Violence or retaliation is not the answer to helping your friend. Remember, harassing and threatening behaviors are not helpful, are prohibited by Suffolk University and could undermine any court or conduct proceeding.

Printed with permission from Tulane University.