Some of you may have felt a bit “doom and gloom” after my last article– after all, when you look at the general aftermath of a sexual assault, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could ever have a “normal” life again. Truth be told, some never do. But I don’t want this article miniseries to turn into a progression of increasingly pessimistic claims about starting over. Instead, I give you a brief list of suggestions for how to support a friend or loved one (henceforth referred to simply as a friend) who may be going through some of this stuff.
1) Believe, believe, believe. You will probably never know the full story of what happened, especially if your friend did anything shame-inducing (like got utterly sloshed). You might find yourself being asked to choose sides if the person who assaulted your friend is also a friend of yours. And yes, the stakes might be pretty high — just look at U.S. Presidential Nominee Herman Cain’s situation. But remember that you don’t have to agree with a person’s choices to believe that someone committed a crime against them. The odds are very strong that, if someone confides in you, they’re telling the truth…and they’ll probably appreciate hearing you say that you believe them.
2) Patience is a virtue. Remember that whole last article about how miserable the aftermath is? Part of the reason it’s such a misery-fest is the fact that resolution takes a long time. Trauma reactions can take years to heal. Police departments can take forever to conduct interviews and compile evidence (in Colorado Springs, where I work, it can take upwards of 18 months). Processing a forensic exam will take many, many, many weeks. If you’re being supportive for your friend, be prepared to be needed for a long time. It’s okay to make sure your friend knows this, but it’s also okay for your friend to be really angry when things aren’t resolved in six months. And along those lines…
3) Healing is a process, not an event. As I’ve said before, there might be a lot of psychological drek — trauma, trust concerns, second-guessing the self, etc. — for your friend to sort through. This can be pretty serious and take a while. One of my clients, who had been coasting along pretty well a few months after her assault, suddenly started having recurring nightmares. Her partner freaked out because he didn’t understand why she would regress all of a sudden. The truth is, it can be really draining to support someone through their healing process simply because it’s not a linear thing. Make sure your friend knows that they’re not weird or crazy if they find themselves taking two steps forward and one step back- they’re healing. And if you’re going to volunteer to be available any time your friend needs to talk, please try to follow through on that.
4) Have some positive messages ready. So let’s say your friend was trashed, or their partner was already quite abusive, or had started things consensually. They’ll probably be pretty good at beating themselves up for the choices they made. Try to think of ways to re-frame their blame. For example, if your friend says “If I hadn’t come on to Pat, Pat wouldn’t’ve raped me,” a good response might be something like “Flirting is a normal thing to do. Pat needed to stop when you tried to leave.” If your friend eventually can’t take your re-framing anymore, it’s okay simply to be with your friend. Sometimes it’s easier to be angrier at yourself than at the things you can’t control.
5) Let your friend make the choices. I don’t mean about what junk food to gorge on, of course. I mean about what to tell to whom. When someone’s been sexually assaulted, their choice — their ability to assert their autonomy — has been taken away from them. One of the best, most supportive things you can do is to encourage your friend to reclaim that ability by not interfering with their decision-making. If they ask you what to do, help them weigh the pros and cons of each choice (i.e. getting a forensic exam is no fun, but it increases the likelihood of being able to prosecute in the future) rather than making the choice for them. One of the hardest things to do is watch your friend decline to call the police or get an exam done. Believe me, it’ll make your teeth grind and your stomach ache. But your priority as a friend needs to be your friend’s choices.
6) Get some support for yourself, too. There’s a lot out there for someone who’s been sexually assaulted — advocacy, counseling, legal services — but often not a whole lot for their friends or family. If this is someone you’re close to, you might find yourself experiencing similar reactions that they are — anger at the choices of your friend and their attacker, fear that this could happen to you, sorrow for the loss of your friend’s safety, etc. As with your friend, these feelings are completely normal. This is someone you care about, right? Humans are programmed to have empathy for those in their “pack.” It’s okay to be on an emotional roller coaster, but it’s also okay to look for resources that can help you too. You can start by going to RAINN’s online hotline to find local resources or to talk to an anonymous hotline staffer.
I hope these have been some helpful ideas for where to start supporting someone, and I also encourage you to be proactive in your support: look for sexual assault awareness events in your community, bring some of the knowledge you’ve gained here into a conversation that may happen in your home or workplace, or try any number of the other suggestions listed at the Green Dot Project.
If you have any questions, please feel free to add them in the comments section below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.