Supporting a friend through a difficult time can be both challenging and rewarding. Most of us have supported our friends when they’ve experienced hardships, such as a death in the family, a mental health issue, or a breakup. We know that being present for our friends can make a difference.
If one of your friends experiences sexual harassment, assault, or violence, it’s equally important for you to be there. Research shows that when people who have experienced sexual violence receive positive social support, they’re less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or substance abuse issues.
“When a survivor of sexual violence chooses to disclose to a friend, this friend can help set the tone for the recovery process,” says Kelly Addington, founder of One Student, an advocacy organization in Florida addressing sexual assault in student communities.
Supporting friends in marginalized groups
As you support your friend, it’s important to keep their identity in mind. Does your friend experience marginalization based on their race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, class, sexual orientation, gender, or something else? “Taking an intersectional approach when responding to a friend who has disclosed is crucial. An individual’s multiple identities—racial, socioeconomic, geographic, religious—all intersect and can inform how easy or difficult it may be to navigate the services and information to help them,” says Nadiah Mohajir, founder and executive director of HEART Women & Girls, an organization that promotes sexual health and sexual violence awareness in Muslim communities.
Remember that people of all backgrounds experience sexual violence, and don’t make assumptions about the details of your friend’s experience. Cultural stereotypes about which kinds of people are likely to commit or experience sexual violence may make it more challenging for your friend to share what happened. For example, a 2005 study published in the Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services found that lesbians worried about reporting experiences of intimate partner violence, as they were concerned that people might not believe that women can commit intimate partner violence. By demonstrating to your friend that you believe and trust them, you make it easier for them to get support.
“As a person of color and a woman, I feel as if those of us within these two communities tend to brush off people’s words as not being examples of sexual harassment even when they are. It’s almost as if we brush it off to show that we’re strong enough to not let these things affect us. I’ve personally done this before. I’d like others to know that it’s important to assure women of color that speaking out against someone who sexually assaults, abuses, or harasses them shows strength—not weakness. It’s important to share these life events with a counselor, trusted family member, or friend.”
—First-year graduate student, University of South Carolina
“I’m asexual, and I think something a lot of people with my identity worry about is sexual assault in relationships. I think it’s important for any asexual person who has gone through this to be reminded by their loved ones that their identity is still valid; they can still be asexual after what happened to them.”
—Second-year student, Rowan University, New Jersey
“Supporting LGBTQ+ survivors means not sticking to traditional, heteronormative definitions of sex. Please keep in mind that assault can take many forms.”
—Second-year student, Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri
3 things you can do if a friend tells you about an experience of sexual harassment, assault, or violence
When a friend opens up about an experience of sexual violence, it’s normal to feel a wide range of emotions, such as fear, anger, shock, detachment, or confusion. While you’re talking to your friend, do your best to stay calm and keep the conversation focused on your friend’s emotions.
As with any challenging situation, every person responds to sexual violence differently and will need different kinds of support. Your friend might want to talk all about the experience, or they might not want to get into details. They might want you to stay with them, or they might prefer time alone. Keep an open mind about your friend’s needs and remember the following considerations as you offer your support.
Avoid assumptions based on stereotypes.
“Sex, gender identity, and race can all influence how an experience like this affects someone, but it’s very important you have no presumption about what it feels like to your friend,” says Dr. Melanie Boyd, assistant dean of student affairs and lecturer in women, gender, and sexuality studies at Yale University in Connecticut. Therefore, don’t assume the perpetrator’s gender or anything else about their identity, such as their sexual orientation or race.
“As a bisexual woman in the LGBTQ community, there was a tendency in my circle to assume that everyone in the LGBTQ community was promiscuous. This then led to an overall minimizing and normalization of sexual assault in my community. I wish there was a less dismissive attitude towards LGBTQ peoples’ experiences of assault.”
—Second-year graduate student, Portland State University, Oregon
“It took me almost two years to come to terms with it, and I still feel like the few that I told sort of wrote it off because I’m a male.”
—Second-year student, University of Kansas
“As a black woman, I think the best thing people can do is listen to what we have to say. The stories that are usually told are those of white women, but not of people of color or members of the LGBTQ community, even though those people are especially impacted by these systems.”
—Fourth-year student, Hofstra University, New York
Let your friend share their own experience.
Use open-ended questions that leave space for your friend to share their own experiences. Avoid questions or statements that may feel blaming (e.g., “How much did you drink?” or “What were you wearing?”) or that reinforce stereotypes (e.g., “I didn’t think you went to parties—you’re so religious” or “How could a tiny girl do that to a big guy like you?”).
Try saying . . .
- I’m so sorry that happened.
- What happened to you is so disheartening.
- Thank you for sharing this with me.
- Do you want to talk more about this?
- How are you feeling?
- How can I be supportive?
- I understand if you don’t want to talk about it anymore, but I’m here for you if you ever do.
“Listen more than you speak. Don’t generalize someone’s feelings, but normalize the possibility of discomfort in the discussion. Tell them you appreciate their openness with you and that you’re there to support them in any way that you can.”
—First-year graduate student, Empire State College, New York
Avoid labeling the experience.
For instance, if a friend describes an experience as a “really bad hookup,” don’t label it a “rape.” Words such as “rape,” “assault,” and “abuse” have connotations that your friend may not be comfortable with. Follow your friend’s lead and use the same language that they use to describe the experience.
Focus on helping your friend feel empowered.
One reason that sexual violence has such a negative impact is that it can take away your friend’s agency or their ability to feel like they can make decisions for themselves. “Give them control back, as control was taken away from them when they were assaulted,” says Mohajir.
Ask your friend what would make them feel safe, comfortable, and empowered.
Everyone’s different, and your friend may feel like talking about their experience in detail—or they may want to go for a run, quietly do their homework, or attend a party.
Talk about their options.
There are many resources available to support people who have experienced sexual violence—on campus, in your community, nationally, and even internationally. Your friend might be interested in working with campus disciplinary resources, the police, a counselor, a chaplain, or someone else. While it’s not your job to push your friend toward any one course of action, offering to help research resources can be helpful. If you’re looking for resources on campus, talking to a Title IX coordinator can be a good place to start.
Your friend may feel most comfortable seeking out a resource that reflects their identity or experience. For instance, they might be interested in speaking with a religious professional, a counselor at an LGBTQ organization, or a counselor at a community organization that reflects their racial or ethnic background. Offer to help your friend connect with these resources as well and offer to go with them if they’d like the additional support.
“It meant the world to me when someone sat down with me at a coffee shop and helped me make a list of possible steps to reporting, healing, and staying safe. Some of those, for me, included talking to an investigator that was on our campus and seeing a professional counselor that specialized in PTSD and LGBTQIA+ issues.”
—Second-year student, Utah State University
“I’m part of the LGBTQ+ community, and am of a minority race at my school. I also have hidden disabilities that people generally don’t see just by looking at me. My best advice is to seek the resources that are available at your school if you or your friend has been harassed, assaulted, or abused. Sometimes you may have to see multiple counselors or talk to multiple professionals before you find one that’ll get you the help you need, but don’t give up trying if the first person you talk to isn’t helpful. The worst thing you can do is not tell anyone about it at all.”
—First-year graduate student, Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada
Maintain your friendship.
While it’s important to give your friend space to talk about their experience, it’s also important to remember that they’re still the same person. Give your friend opportunities to continue with activities you enjoy doing together.
“I think the best thing that my friends and family did was to continue to treat me like a normal person—like what had happened was something in the past and didn’t change my identity, although it was now a part of me. They didn’t walk on eggshells like I was a bomb about to go off at any moment. It helped me realize that they valued me as a person over this event that happened.”
—Second-year student, Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri
“Just a friendly text message, a tag in a post, and even a random Snapchat goes a long way! It’s enlightening to know that you’re thought of, despite hard times.”
—Fourth-year student, Northern Illinois University
Try saying . . .
- If you want, we could set up a time for you to meet with your rabbi or pastor about this.
- We can walk to the counseling center together, if and when you’re ready.
- Do you think you’d be more comfortable talking to someone who has worked with lesbian students before?
- There are lots of people you could talk to on campus and in the city. Do you want me to help you connect to them?
It’s okay to set limits and boundaries.
It can be difficult to talk about sexual violence, especially if you’ve experienced it yourself or someone close to you has. It’s okay to be clear with your friend about your needs.
Seek out support for yourself too.
Just as you help your friend connect to support resources, you may want to reach out to some yourself. “Self-care is important if you want to be capable of supporting your friend for a longer period of time. You’re not expected to be supportive 100 percent of the time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You’re allowed to take a break for your own good,” says Cristina Ayala, the executive director of the Asian American Task Force Against Domestic Violence in Massachusetts.
“As the supporter, you need to make sure you can handle it. If it’s too much for you to listen to what has happened and how your friend is feeling, it might be a good idea to see if the friend is willing to talk to someone else other than just you.”
—Fourth-year student, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada
There are many campus resources, such as Title IX coordinators and survivor advocates, that can help connect you to organizations that help those who are supporting people who’ve experienced sexual violence. You may also find it useful to connect to sources of support that reflect your identity, such as campus or community organizations representing your racial or ethnic group, religion, or sexuality.
“Self-care looks different to each person. Taking a nap, writing, having a meal, asking someone else (a professional or another friend) to support you are all great examples of self-care. There’s no ‘right or wrong’ way to care for yourself,” says Ayala.
Try saying . . .
- I really want to be here for you, but I’m finding this conversation a little overwhelming. Would you be interested in speaking with a professional on campus? I could walk you over.
- I want to be able to support you as well as I can, and I think that I can do that better if I take a break for a few minutes.
Considering your friend’s identity is a critical part of being a good supporter. “It’s important to take all aspects of their identities into account. It’s important to understand how their overlapping identities create their experience of surviving abuse and sexual violence,” says Ayala.
Remember how you’ve supported friends in other challenging situations, and how your friends have supported you. By simply being a good friend (e.g., listening with an open mind, helping connect them to resources, and maintaining your friendship), you can be an excellent source of support.
On campus: Consider discussing the situation with a counselor, Title IX coordinator, trusted dean, or RA.
Kelly Addington, founder, One Student, Rearview, Florida.
Cristina Ayala, executive director, Asian American Task Force Against Domestic Violence, Boston, Massachusetts.
Melanie Boyd, PhD, assistant dean of student affairs; director, Office of Gender and Campus Culture, Yale University in Connecticut; and lecturer in women, gender, and sexuality studies at Yale University in Connecticut.
Nadiah Mohajir, founder and executive director, HEART Women & Girls, Chicago, Illinois.
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