It took me years to reach out for help after my sexual assault experiences. When I told my friends and family members what I had gone through, they all had loving intentions. They all wanted to help. But not everyone had the information they needed to respond supportively without diminishing or dismissing my experience.
Recently, more and more victims have been breaking their silence. With this bold reckoning, more and more victims are seeking support! Here are some guidelines on how to help a friend or family member, compiled from various rape crisis centers.
- Let the victim know that you believe them and reassure them that you know the assault was not their fault. Let them know that you still love them.
- Ask them how you can support them. If they are unsure, you can offer choices such as: “Would you like me to sit with you while you cry and let your nervous system wind down?” or “Would you like me to contact a rape crisis center?”
- Recognize that a sexual assault means losing control over your body. This means the victim needs to be in charge of all physical touch, even comforting touch. Rather than rushing to hug them or rub their back, ask what would help, and reassure them that their choice is valid and respected.
- Avoid interrogating questions such as “Why didn’t you punch your attacker?” or “Why didn’t you run away?” We are familiar with fight or flight mode, but the freeze mode of staying still is a common survival mechanism in the face of fear. If they submitted to an assault, that does not make them a willing participant.
- Encourage the victim to get professional support. Immediately after an event, this may mean contacting a rape crisis center and seeking medical attention. When the assault took place months or years ago, encourage them to look for a therapist they trust.
- Respect the victim’s decision to report or not to report the assault to the police.
Personally, the greatest support I received was from my husband about six months after we were married back in 2007. He printed out a list of local therapists specializing in trauma recovery, and encouraged me to call. I protested the idea of therapy. We were tight on money, I reminded him. We were living in a tiny apartment with a refrigerator from the 1960s. Therapy was too expensive, I insisted.
But the deeper issue was my injured sense of worthiness. I did not feel like I deserved to spend so much money on myself. My husband was persistent, but kind with his urgings to find a therapist. Finally, I began to see his perspective: that my wellbeing was the number one priority at that time, and we would find a way to make the budget work. And that therapy helped me blossom into a strong, empowered woman who no longer feels ruled by my traumatic past.
When a friend of mine called me in tears about a recent sexual assault, I told her how much therapy can help, even if you are not sure if your trauma is “severe enough” to warrant professional support. But at the same time, I had to keep my advice in check because I love to rush into “fixing mode” whenever a friend needs a listening ear for their problems. My gut reaction is to offer advice, and lots of it. Underneath this desire is my own discomfort with my friend being in pain. If I can just offer enough solutions and fix my friend lickety-split, then, voila, my own discomfort goes away!
Other people go straight to revenge mode (“I’m going to get back at the person who hurt you!”), drowning your sorrows mode (“let’s drink away all this pain”), or dismissive mode (“something like that happened to me. It’s not a big deal”).
When we can breathe deeply and avoid getting carried away by our knee-jerk reactions, we can listen quietly and validate our friend’s emotions. We can truly be of service by holding space, staying grounded, and asking our friend how we can help.
Once we have helped our friend feel supported and heard, then it is time to do our own processing. Rape crisis lines are not just for victims; calling can also help a friend or family member who is processing difficult emotions around their loved one’s experience.
I have called the National Sexual Assault Hotline in the US, and I am grateful for the support I received when I was in crisis. So it seems fitting to include information on how to call:
When you call 800.656.HOPE (4673), you’ll be routed to a local RAINN affiliate organization based on the first six digits of your phone number or your zip code.
You, my loving readers, are the brave people who are making a more compassionate world. Please share this information so we can help more people on the path of feeling healed and whole.