When Karen’s younger cousin Tammy was robbed, beaten, and raped, Karen naturally wanted to do all she could to help.  She went into take-charge mode, insisting her relative move in with her for the next few weeks, take time off from work, and just relax and de-stress. Once Tammy arrived, Karen pulled her into a lengthy, enveloping hug.  “I wanted Tammy to realize how much I cared,” Karen explained.

Karen then led Tammy to the sofa, offered tea, and began strongly advising her on what the next steps should be—undergoing a medical exam, filing a police report, making an appointment with a therapist…

Karen clearly meant well, but the gestures she made might have unintentionally caused harm. While nothing can erase the horrors of suffering sexual assault, there are right and wrong ways a caring friend can provide comfort. If you have a friend who confides in you after a sexual assault, here some Do’s and Don’ts to follow

First, The Don’ts

DON’T decide what’s best for them

When someone is sexually violated, they feel victimized, often totally disempowered.  The options Karen offered Tammy were lovely. However, the way she framed these offers weren’t suggestions, they were orders. Tammy likely felt in no position to object.

It’s common for a victim of sexual abuse not to want to be touched. Pulling her in for a hug without asking for permission can feel like another violation, more loss of personal power.

Karen’s proposed next steps were sound, but the person who was traumatized needs to be the one to decide on what actions to take, and when.

DON’T pass judgment or cast doubt on their story

If your friend is opening up to you about the attack, the worst thing to do is make statements like, “Uh, it’s horrible and you didn’t deserve this, but how many drinks did you have?” Or, “That is a tough neighborhood to walk in alone at night,” or, “I told you Jeff was super aggressive and you shouldn’t go up to his apartment.”

Someone who is raped is likely already doing psychological numbers on herself.  The last thing they need is a person they trust to victim-blame.

DON’T minimize what happened

Sometimes, in an effort to make the sufferer feel better, the ‘comforter’ downplays the attack. The comforter insists it won’t be that difficult to process and bounce back from the attack, that the victim will get over this quickly if they just do X, Y, and Z. However, this tactic is likely to result in feelings of invalidation for the victim. They need to be allowed to fully express their feelings.

Now, the Do’s

DO let them know they are believed and supported

Perhaps the number one fear of sexual assault survivors is that they won’t be believed. The best thing you can do is offer unwavering support. In the upcoming trials your friend will have to face, it will help enormously to know that at least one person is unequivocally on their side.

DO ask what they need

Karen assumed she knew what her cousin needed after being assaulted, but Tammy felt further disempowered by Karen taking charge.  Does the victim want you to listen to her story without interjecting? Or not to press her for any details? Does she want you to offer advice? To take her to the ER? To make some calls for her? Ask first.

It’s quite possible that they are in shock, emotionally paralyzed, and need time to process what happened before making any decisions about how they want to proceed.

DO encourage them to seek help

You should not insist your friend seek medical treatment, psychological counseling and/or press charges against the assailant. It is fine, however, to gently encourage these steps, all the while insisting all decisions are completely up to them.

The most time-sensitive step is to seek medical attention. There is the possibility of the victim having contracted a sexually transmitted disease and/or become pregnant from the encounter. And if they later decide to press charges, the case is considerably weakened with no physical evidence. An ER doctor can provide a forensic medical exam, commonly referred to as a rape kit.

While it might feel imperative to push your friend to visit a healthcare professional, your role is to be a sounding board and comforter, not to force her to do what you feel is best.

DO continue to be a support long after the bruises fade 

People typically rally around the one in grief and shock immediately after a trauma. But in the ensuing weeks and months, and even years, your friend is still in need of support. They might be suffering flashbacks, experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and debilitating fear, having trouble sleeping and concentrating.  Let them know you want to continue to be a comfort. For example, if they are not already seeing a mental health counselor and have expressed interest but are too drained to look into it, perhaps you can offer to research some therapists who specialize in trauma.

DO take care of yourself

In the rush to be present for your friend, to listen to her story, to be her rock, you might be triggered to relive a past trauma of your own. Being a caretaker takes a toll. Do not neglect yourself. Reach out to your support system. Take time for yourself. Remember, you can’t give to anyone else if you are depleted.

National Sexual Assault Hotline

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Consider what you can do to raise public awareness about this issue, and educate people about prevention.

If you or someone you know have been sexually assaulted, you do not need to feel alone in figuring out what to do next. You can call the free and confidential National Sexual Assault Hotline 24/7 at 1-800-656-4673. Visit their website here: Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) .

Last Updated: Sep 9, 2020