Survivors of sexual assault are more likely to tell a friend about the assault than anyone else. While fewer than five percent of sexual assaults of college students are reported, two-thirds of survivors tell a friend about the incident. When a friend confides in you, you may want to help but not know what to do. You may not know how to react or what to say. You are likely to be emotionally shaken and find yourself struggling with your own feelings of anger and helplessness.
While the experience of each survivor is unique, and therefore there are no set guidelines for how to help, there are some important points to keep in mind when offering support. First and foremost, sexual assault is not about sex — it is about power and control. The perpetrator of sexual assault is exerting power and control over another human being. The survivor is in no way responsible for the assault. Implying that your friend bears some responsibility for the assault will lead to distrust in your relationship.
It is very difficult for survivors to come forward and share their story, and your reaction may impact whether or not your friend chooses to continue to share this information with others and seek further help. Here are some guidelines for supporting your friend.
- Believe your friend. Tell your friend that you believe them and you want to support them in any way that you can. Do not judge your friend, regardless of the circumstances.
- Be a good listener. If you hear your own voice more than your friend’s, you’re talking too much and not listening enough. Listen non-judgmentally to what your friend is saying and accept the experience as your friend describes it. You may want to ask questions and get details about what happened, but remember that your role is to support your friend, and it is best to allow the survivor to decide what and how much they would like to tell you about the incident.
- Validate your friend’s feelings. Be sympathetic, but do not let your own emotions get in the way of supporting your friend. It is not uncommon to feel intense anger toward the person who did this but what your friend needs right now is calm and caring support. Expressing your own emotions only adds to the emotional burden your friend is already carrying. Keep the focus off your own anger and on your friend’s emotional and physical well-being.
- Know that each experience is unique. If you’ve had other friends who experienced a sexual assault, avoid making comparisons.
- Assure your friend that it is not their fault. Self-blame is common among victims of sexual violence. It is important that, as their friend, you help the survivor understand that no matter what happened—it was not their fault.
- Do not make judgmental comments. Do not comment on what could have been done differently or make statements that imply that your friend could have avoided the assault.
- Discuss their options with them. Show them the sexual harassment and sexual misconduct policy. Don’t feel as though you have to have all the answers. That is not your role. Instead, help your friend to find out the answers by reaching out to university resource personnel.
- Give your friend control. Let them choose the next steps. You may provide advice, guidance, and information about their options, but allow your friend to decide if, when, and how they will pursue these resources.
- Offer continued support. If your friend is hesitant to get help, offer to accompany them in seeking medical attention, counseling, going to the police or to university resource personnel. Sometimes that's all it takes to help a friend begin to take action. Recognize that your friend’s needs may change over time, so keep “checking in” to renew your offer of help and support.
- Respect privacy and confidentiality. Do not share your friend's story with other people unless you have their permission to do so. At the same time, never hesitate to seek advice from individuals who are in a position to help you. It is not necessary to give names or provide details to get initial support and to learn more about options.
- Do not forget to support yourself. Supporting a friend through a trauma can be a difficult and emotionally draining experience for those in the support role as well. Recognize this and don't hesitate to seek help and support for yourself when you need it.
As a faculty or staff member, you frequently encounter students who are under stress or going through a difficult time. Because students look up to you as mentors and trust your opinions and guidance, you can serve as a reliable and confidential source of information about the resources available to them.
Faculty and staff are not expected to take on the role of counselor, and the following information can help you provide appropriate assistance to students who reach out to you.
First and foremost, it is important for you to know and to share with students that you are not a confidential resource. Tell them that you may have to share information with others on a need-to-know basis.
The university’s policy and procedures for addressing sexual harassment includes the statement: “Faculty and administrators who receive first-hand, or other credible and specific, reports of violations are expected to promptly contact an EGP co-Chair or the associate provost for equity and diversity.” If the student wishes to speak with someone confidentially about their concerns, then you can facilitate that connection by offering to call or to walk them over to one of the confidential resources on campus.
Listen — Support — Consult — Refer — Report
If a student chooses to share information about sexual harassment or sexual assault, here are some guidelines for supporting your student.
- Listen non-judgmentally. Accept the experience as the student describes it. Articulate clearly that you believe the student and you want to provide support in any way that you can.
- Validate the student’s feelings.
- Assure the student that it is not their fault. Self-blame is common among victims of sexual violence.
- Do not make judgmental comments. Do not comment on what could have been done differently or make statements that imply that the student could have avoided the harassment or assault.
- Be sympathetic. However, do not let your own emotions get in the way of supporting the student.
- Discuss options. Show them the sexual harassment policy.
- Offer support, not justice. You may provide advice, guidance and information about your student’s options for additional support, but do not take matters into your own hands, offer to confront the perpetrator, or investigate the incident on your own.
- Offer company. If your student is hesitant to get help, even from those who you know are supportive and helpful, offer to accompany them to those who can help. Sometimes that is all it takes to help a student begin to take action.
- Contact the associate provost for equity and diversity. It is expected that faculty and staff who receive credible reports of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct forward that information to the associate provost for equity and diversity or to an EGP co-chair. Every effort will be made to allow the student to decide the course of action to be taken.
- Get support for yourself. Do not hesitate to seek advice from individuals who are in a position to help. It is not necessary to give names or details of the incident to get initial support and to learn more about options. Equity Grievance Panel members have been specially trained in all aspects of the university’s policy and procedures for addressing sexual harassment and sexual misconduct, and are an important source of advice, support, and referral.
Learning that your child has been a victim of sexual violence is shocking. It is natural to feel angry, and your parental instinct may be to take control to protect your child. It is important for you to understand that sexual assault is an exertion of power and control over another — the greatest gift you can give to your child is the freedom and control to make their own decisions and choices about how to proceed.
Here are some strategies that you may find useful as you seek to help your child to recover from this trauma.
- Believe your child. It’s often very difficult for a survivor to come forward and share their story. Your reaction may impact whether or not your child chooses to continue to share this information with others and seek further support. State that you believe them and you want to support them in any way that you can.
- Do not ask “Why?” Why didn’t you...? Why did you...? All “why” questions have the tendency to shut down communication to the detriment of your child’s recovery and your relationship with your child.
- Assure your child that the assault is not their fault. Self-blame is common among victims of sexual violence. It is important that, as their parent, you help your child understand that no matter what happened—it was not their fault. It can be very difficult for parents to hear the circumstances of an assault, especially if alcohol or drugs, previous forms of consensual sex, or any other activities you do not approve of were involved. Keep judgment to yourself for the time being. Right now, your child needs your unequivocal support. Understand that your child is carefully watching for your reactions, both verbal and non-verbal. If there is any indication that you do not believe or that you do not accept what is being said, this will greatly diminish your child’s ability to continue.
- Allow your child to control next steps. You may provide advice, guidance, and information about their options for additional support, but allow them to decide if, when, and how they will pursue these resources. Support whatever decisions your child makes. Be sure to discuss which other family members will be told, and respect your child’s decision on the matter.
- Understand that the recovery process is unique to your child. The length of the recovery period will depend greatly on the individual. Support your child for as long as he or she needs it.
- Take care of yourself. Supporting your child through a trauma can be a difficult and emotionally draining experience. Don’t hesitate to seek help and support for yourself when you need it.
- Listen actively and non-judgmentally. When listening, it is natural to think of many questions. You'll feel compelled to gather as much information as possible about what transpired, but it is important to respect your child’s boundaries and not ask for details. In the case of sexual assault, it is best to allow the survivor to control what and how much they share. Let your child know that you are there to listen and support, but they control when and how much they wish to say.
- Recognize that time may have passed before your child consulted you. Don’t let this become an issue. “Why didn’t you tell us sooner?” will not be perceived as a supportive statement. Your child’s reason for not telling you sooner may have been fear of your reaction, and you don’t want to shut down the opportunity for your child to share.
- Sexual Violence Education & Resources, University of Virginia