Sexual violence (SV) affects each survivor differently and recovery is pending on a variety of factors: support network, education about SV, therapy, connection to friends and family, activities that are equally distracting and rewarding, reporting and the ensuing investigation and case and others that are specific to each individual. It is impossible to tell a survivor how long it is going to take to recover and there is no specific road or path that they can take to get there. It’s unique to each person as they try to regain trust in the world and the people around them. Each day can be a step forward or a step backward. It can be a long, grueling, frustrating, and emotional journey.
It can be difficult to know how to respond to friend’s disclosure of sexual assault. Many people think that it’s best to simply ignore the situation and that the survivor will heal faster if the assault is never mentioned. However, put this theory in a different context: what if someone close to you died or you lost the job you’ve held for the past ten years? Would life be easier for you if you didn’t talk about it? Would the hurt and emotional trauma be easier to handle if no one discussed this with you? I am not comparing sexual violence to losing a job or a loved one. It is however a traumatic event, just as the other two are. And most people need to discuss or acknowledge the trauma that has occurred in order to accept it and start on a path to recovery.
So how should someone respond? Unfortunately, there isn’t a magical phrase or action you can do to miraculously heal the situation. The beautiful and, sometimes, difficult, thing about people is that we all respond differently to similar situations. Therefore what can work for one survivor may not work for another survivor.
What is important is to keep in mind is that this person is your friend. You have probably seen her or him in a variety of different emotional states and social settings. Therefore, you can base your responses and behaviors off of these past experiences. Does your friend typically like to talk about things straight on or in a more roundabout way? Perhaps it would be better if there was food to be used as an excuse for not immediately responding to a question or statement. Other options for putting the survivor more at ease about disclosing could include taking a walk, putting on music, or engaging in some other activity at the same time. Sometimes it can be easier to talk about the sexual violence when it is not the central focus of the conversation but rather just one element of it.
The best thing you can do is to be supportive of your friend. Disclosing can be an extremely difficult thing to do, and she/he will typically only tell you if they feel they can absolutely trust you. Make sure that your questions are pertinent to what you can do to help your friend and what she/he needs rather than requesting for more details about the assault and why she/he engaged in whatever actions beforehand. It’s okay to fumble a bit when deciding what to say-that’s normal but make sure that what you’re saying is nonjudgmental. Be sure that you are effectively communicating that the assault was not her/his fault and that you are there to support in any way necessary.
It’s important to let survivors make their own choices and to support the ones they make. As previously mentioned, responses to sexual violence can vary widely. Therefore, be prepared to give your friend options about what she/he can do. An example would be asking your friend if she/he wanted to go to the hospital to get medical treatment and a forensic exam, only medical treatment, or not go to the hospital at all. There are so many decisions that need to be made and the only one who can make the best decisions is the survivor. You can be there to lay out what options exist and to discuss how each one might impact the survivor. But you have to let your friend make those decisions and support that choice. And that can be difficult sometimes.
While this can be an extremely difficult thing to hear and handle, know that you aren’t alone. There are so many resources available to help your friend and yourself. If you’re on a college campus, there are residence life staff, health counselors, and other staff members to assist. There are many helpful organizations in the community as well, including BARCC. Oftentimes, these organizations are great at referring to a better place if they are unable to fit your needs or questions. So don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help because it’s what we’re here for!
*If you are interested in learning more in depth information about how to respond to disclosures then contact BARCC (firstname.lastname@example.org) and ask about the different trainings and workshops we do!*
Written by: Stacey