It can be pretty confronting when someone close to you tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted. You may feel confused about what to say and how best to support them. Here are six tips on what to do when a friend discloses they’ve been sexually assaulted.
Remember that every person’s recovery from sexual assault will look different. Ask your friend what they feel they need, and make sure to respect their decisions.
1. Make sure your friend is safe
Check that your friend isn’t in any kind of immediate danger, especially if they’ve come to you for help shortly after the assault. They may need you to call the police or an ambulance.
In most cases, though, the sexual assault will have happened weeks, months, or even years before. In any case, you want to start by checking in with them. Ask questions like: ‘Are you okay? Are you safe?’.
If you’re worried your friend may be suicidal or at risk, there are services you can call to keep them safe.
2. Thank them for trusting you
It takes a lot of courage to talk about a sexual assault.
Ellie Freedman, Medical Director at Northern Sydney Sexual Assault Services, says: ‘If someone tells you they have been sexually assaulted, it means they have judged that they feel safe enough in your relationship to share that with you. As human beings, we all want to rush in and solve things. But you want to acknowledge that it was a big thing for the other person to tell and that you are pleased they were able to tell you.’.
3. Tell your friend that you believe them
It’s important that your friend knows you believe them. It’s also important to avoid doing or saying anything that suggests you think the sexual assault was their fault.
Saying things like, ‘Oh, but you were really drunk that night’, or asking probing questions like, ‘Why were you alone with them?’ can make it sound like you’re blaming your friend for what happened.
If they blame themself, reassure them it wasn’t their fault, no matter what they were wearing, or if they’d been drinking or were flirting. Remember: anything less than an enthusiastic and ongoing ‘yes’ doesn’t equal sexual consent.
4. Encourage your friend to get support …
It’s okay to admit that you don’t know what to do next. You may want to take some time to research the options.
There are a lot of resources available for sexual assault survivors, including free phone and in-person counselling. You can also visit a GP or your local hospital, who can connect you with the right people.
Your friend may also need either immediate medical attention or a health check-up. If they’re unsure about whether to report the sexual assault to the police, you could suggest that discussing it with a counsellor would help with the decision.
5. … but let them decide the next steps
The most important thing is to make sure your friend makes any decisions about what to do next, even if it goes against what you think is right. Ask them how they want to proceed and how you can best support them.
Ellie Freedman explains: ‘Sexual assault is something that’s been done against someone without their consent, so what we want to do is try to give them back as much control as possible. Often, people feel like they need to give advice and will say things like “You have to go to the police” or “You have to go to the hospital”.’
Instead, Ellie recommends giving your friend options. Saying things like ‘Would you like to go to the police?’ or ‘Would you like to go to the hospital?’ gives them control over making decisions for themself.
6. Look after yourself
It can be really hard – or even triggering – to see someone you care about deal with the impacts of sexual assault or abuse. You might feel anxious, overwhelmed or angry. Speak to someone you trust, such as a family member or a counsellor, or reach out to a support service. And take the time to practise self-care and to do things that make you happy.