Sexual assault is any sexual act that happens against your will. With nearly one in five women experiencing an incident of sexual assault, you may find yourself in a situation where someone you know like a family member, friend, or partner discloses their experience of sexual assault to you. Anyone of any age, race, gender, sexual orientation etc can be sexually assaulted. Based on personal experience with friends, I have done some research on how to best support someone who has experienced sexual assault. I think these are the most helpful tips to follow:
Talking about experiencing sexual assault is very difficult and takes a lot of courage and bravery. You are not expected to be your friend’s counsellor or to make them feel instantly better. Actively listening to what you are being told and offering your support can bring a sense of comfort to your friend. Responding with phrases such as ‘I believe you’ and ‘I am sorry you went through that’ are simple ways to offer your support. Your friend may not be comfortable giving specific details about their assault. You should be conscious not to push them for more information if they are distressed or uncomfortable.
People who experienced a sexual assault can feel a sense of shame or embarrassment as a result of what has happened to them. Telling someone about a sexual assault is difficult and should be handled carefully. It is important to reserve your judgement and just listen to your friend as they speak. Avoid asking them how they ended up in this scenario or what they could have done differently. Reassure the person that what happened to them was not their fault and that you are there to support them.
Report the incident
Once your friend has finished telling you their experience, you should consider talking about the next steps they can take. You might share information on the available options including making a report about their assault to the Gardaí and/or visiting a Sexual Assault Treatment Unit. However, it is not unusual for someone to not wish to report their sexual assault. It’s important that you respect their choice and don’t pressure them into talking to anyone they don’t want to.
Sexual assault can be a very traumatising experience and your friend may need additional support. Suggest making an appointment with your university or local counselling services. rapecrisishelp.ie is an excellent website that will direct you to your nearest rape crisis centre and provide you with relevant contact information. Rape crisis centres and support hotlines are for all victims of all forms of sexual harassment and assault, not only victims of rape.
Whether or not your friend decides to report the incident of sexual assault is their decision. You may feel they need to speak to a professional about their experience, but that is not up to you. As a trusted confidant, you must respect how your friend decides to handle the situation. Every person has a different experience of sexual assault and has a different way of coping. Your friend may choose to report the incident or seek help at a later stage. Your ongoing support is crucial to them in having the confidence to avail of these options.
As previously mentioned, experiencing sexual assault can be extremely traumatic. If your friend has chosen to confide in you it means that they trust you. You have a responsibility to respect your friend, to be discrete and not repeat what you have been told to other friends or family members without their consent. Your friend is likely to still be coming to terms with what has happened to them. They may not be comfortable with other people knowing about their experience. This is not your story to share.
The effects of sexual assault can be long lasting and vary from person to person. Talking about an incident of sexual assault can be very upsetting for your friend. They are probably going to need your support and reassurance that what has happened to them does not change your perception of them. It is also important to look after yourself and access supports if you need them too.
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