7 Ways You Can Support a Friend or Family Member Who Has Experienced Sexual Assault
Always offer safe, non-judgmental support
Experiencing sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence or stalking can be life altering for survivors. And every sexual assault survivor’s journey is unique. Your role as a supportive friend is to be there with compassion, empathy, and respect. We spoke to Tina Zickefoose, OneEighty Victim Advocate and Outreach Specialist, and Crystin Troyer, OneEighty Victim Advocate and Outreach Specialist, to learn about how we can best support a loved one who has experienced sexual assault.
Sexual violence impacts 1 in 4 people
“I work with a program with high school students called ‘In Their Shoes.’ I’ll ask students to count off from one to four. Then, I’ll ask all the fours to stand up,” Tina explained. “The fours are usually uncomfortable, but I do this to demonstrate how common sexual assault is. We all know somebody who has experienced it.”
1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, non-consensual intimate partner contact, sexual violence, and/or intimate partner stalking with impacts such as injury, fearfulness, post-traumatic stress disorder, use of victim services, contraction of sexually transmitted diseases, etc. (source: ncadv.org).
Sexual assault is a traumatic and devastating experience that can have long-lasting effects on the survivor. “The main drivers behind sexual assault are power, control, domination, and humiliation – and that’s what keeps a victim from stepping forward,” Tina asserted.
“Whether it’s a stranger on the street who jumps out of the alleyway or it’s your friend, which typically it is a friend or a family member, it’s never your fault,” added Crystin.
Know that consent must be consistent, ongoing, and enthusiastic
“No one is entitled to your body – even if you walk down the street naked. I think a lot of times people feel entitled to sex. The idea that, ‘Oh, well, I went on a date with you. I paid for dinner.’ I have clients who feel obligated to provide sex – especially if it’s their spouse or their boyfriend or someone they live with. The perpetrator presses on a boundary that changes the dynamic of the relationship and now you realize this person isn’t trustworthy anymore – especially in marital relationships. It’s especially difficult because trust and respect are violated. One of the most heartbreaking things is when any form of sexual assault happens with someone you love and have had a trusting relationship with,” Crystin explained.
Here’s how you can help
If you have a friend or family member who has experienced sexual assault, it’s important to offer them support and help them navigate through their healing process. Avoid judgment or criticism. It’s important to create a safe and non-judgmental space for them to share their feelings and experiences without fear of being judged.
Here are 7 ways you can support and advocate for a friend or family member who has experienced sexual assault:
1. Educate yourself: Learn more about sexual assault, its effects, and the available resources for survivors. This can help you better understand what your friend or family member may be going through and how to support them effectively. However, avoid the assumption that you know exactly how they feel or what they need. Understand that everyone’s experience is unique.
Understanding Types of Sex Assault
Types of sexual assault – provided by Tina Zickefoose, OneEighty Domestic Victim Advocate and Outreach Specialist. Remember, sexual violence – in any of its forms – is a crime:
- Intimate partner rape – when you’re in a relationship with the person.
- Acquaintance rape
- Drug-facilitated rape
- Child sexual abuse
- Hate crimes
- Stranger rape
- Sexual exploitation by helping professionals – doctors, dentists, counselors
- Sexual harassment
- Military sexual trauma
- Special populations – including the elderly, people with disabilities and LGBQT
- Human trafficking
- After a natural disaster – For example, after an earthquake or hurricane, we hear about the looting. But there’s a lot of vulnerability in the aftermath of something like that. After a disaster, there’s a vulnerable population out there that is often taken advantage of.
2. Be a safe person: Even before someone comes to you, set the groundwork that you’re a safe person. “For example, if you laugh at someone’s rape joke, how am I going to feel comfortable telling you about how that happened to me?” Crystin added. “Show up, be present, ask them, ‘What do you need?’ Then listen and let them take the lead.”
3. Believe them: Listen without judgment and avoid any comments that could sound like victim-blaming or questioning their story. “National statistics demonstrate that 8% are not telling the truth. That means 92% are telling the truth and that makes it very easy for me to believe them,” Tina remarked.
“A lot of times people just need someone to believe them and literally say, ‘Yes, that was wrong!’ Sexual assault survivors often feel shame, guilt, and self-doubt – so it’s very important to validate their experience and assure them what happened to them was wrong and it’s not their fault,” Crystin offered.
4. Respect their boundaries: Avoid pressuring your friend or family member into actions they may not be comfortable with yet – like reporting the assault to the authorities or talking about the assault if they aren’t ready. It’s important to respect their boundaries and wishes. They may need space or time to process their emotions. And after this kind of violation, it’s important for them to feel that they have the autonomy to make their own decisions.
5. Offer emotional support: Sexual assault survivors may experience a wide range of emotions, including fear, anger, sadness, and anxiety. Be there for your friend or family member and offer a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. Let them know that it’s okay to feel whatever they are feeling and that their emotions are valid. Sometimes they simply want someone to be there for them – without feeling pressured to talk about the assault.
6. Respect their confidentiality: It’s important to respect your friend or family member’s privacy and confidentiality. Don’t share their story or personal information with others without their explicit consent. Confidentiality is crucial in building trust and maintaining their sense of control and autonomy.
7. Encourage professional help: Encourage your friend or family member to seek professional help from a trained therapist or counselor who specializes in trauma and sexual assault. “We’re considered a rape crisis center, so we have a Hotline – 800-686-1122. If somebody’s in crisis and calling on a Friday night at two in the morning, someone is available to talk to them,” Tina offered. The Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) works together to help survivors of sexual assault in Wayne County. SART consists of a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) to examine the survivor, law enforcement to investigate the case, and an advocate trained in providing crisis intervention to provide support and referrals to community resources. If a person has experienced a sexual assault in Wayne or Holmes Counties, then the person would be able to receive an exam by presenting to the emergency department of either Orrville Aultman Hospital or Wooster Community Hospitals. Alternatively, the person, or a support person, would be able to contact the OneEighty hotline or local law enforcement to discuss options.
What NOT to say to a survivor.
Knowing what not to say is important. Don’t say anything that blames or invalidates the victim:
“What were you wearing?” or “Why were you there?” – This is victim-blaming language that can imply that the survivor’s actions or choices were responsible for the assault.
“Are you sure?” or “Did it really happen?” – Questioning or doubting a survivor’s experience often contributes to their trauma.
“I guess it could have been worse.” – This kind of comment is dismissive, invalidating and it minimizes the survivor’s experience.
“I know how you feel.” – The intentions may be good, however claiming to know exactly how a survivor feels can be presumptuous. Offer empathy and support without assuming you know exactly how they feel.
“You should…” or “You need to…” – Again, this may be well intentioned, but it’s important to remember that everyone copes with trauma differently. After being violated, survivors need to feel that they have agency in their own healing process.
“Did you fight back?” or “Why didn’t you scream?” – Questioning a survivor’s actions during the assault is intrusive, judgmental, and blameful. It’s not uncommon for survivors to respond to assault by freezing and dissociating. The fact that they may not have fought back does not diminish or invalidate their trauma.
You can help make a difference
Supporting a friend or family member who has experienced sexual assault requires empathy, patience, and understanding, which can make an important difference in their healing journey. Remember to believe and validate their experience, respect their wishes and privacy, and offer emotional and practical support. At OneEighty, our Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Hotline provides an immediate response, at any time, for victims of domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault. Call OneEighty to begin the process of breaking free from a life threatened by violence. And, if you are in need of emergency shelter due to domestic abuse or sexual assault, you can call our 24-hour hotline at 800-686-1122.
We’re here to support you
We help people change direction with programs for addiction, domestic violence, rape crisis, mental health, housing, and prevention and education. At OneEighty, we actively support an evidence-based approach to sustainable recovery from trauma and addiction – restoring dignity and purpose, reimagining potential, and rebuilding lives. OneEighty offers counseling programs, intensive addiction treatment programs, group addiction treatment, residential services, recovery housing, and peer recovery.
If you or someone you love has experienced sexual assault or is experiencing domestic violence, call us at 800-686-1122. For those encountering a substance use crisis, please call OneEighty’s Substance Use Treatment Navigator Hotline, available 24 hours per day, 365 days per year at 330-466-0678.
For more resources, click the links below:
Community Relations & Prevention
Substance Use Treatment Navigator Hotline
Intimate Partner & Domestic Violence booklet (Wayne County)Self-Help Legal Manual
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