An expert’s guide on how to support a friend who has been sexually assaulted

Including what not to say

TW: Mentions of sexual assault

Unfortunately the prevalence of sexual assault at university means even if you have not experienced sexual assault, you will probably know someone who has. And more often than not it will be one of your closest friends, but how do you help a friend who has been through something like this?

It can be awkward and uncomfortable to provide the right words to make them feel better, because so often there is nothing you can say that will be enough. And then you have to question whether you should encourage them to report the assault to the police or the university.

After the initial disclosure of the assault, your friend then has to live with it and often it means you do too, taking its toll on you emotionally as well.

So how do you provide your friend with the support they deserve? We spoke to Counselling Directory member Sarah Murray, who specialises in working with sexual assault victims and used to work at a rape crisis centre, for her advice on how to support your friends.

Remember your friend has come to you for a reason

It can be overwhelming and upsetting to first hear about a friend’s experience of sexual assault. You don’t know quite what to say and you definitely don’t want to say the wrong thing.

However there is no reason to put pressure on yourself to come up with the perfect response. Sarah told us it’s important to remember your friend has come to you for a reason.

She said: “Your friend has come to you for a reason and that’s because they trust you and feel safe enough to be vulnerable with you.”

Believe them

Sarah told The Tab many survivors often don’t come forward with their stories for fear of not being believed.

This is a crucial way you can help a friend – by simply believing them. The feeling of being believed will feel “empowering and reassuring” for your friend says Sarah, it also helps them feel less isolated.

Be patient

When bringing up the actual sexual assault you may want to ask loads of questions but Sarah says to follow your friend’s lead and let them bring up what they want to and when.

Sarah says it’s important to be patient as the survivor will probably be experiencing a whole host of emotions and still be processing the event.

Respecting their privacy and telling them how brave they are by coming forward to you will also be a great comfort says Sarah.

A few things not to do or say

Even though you might be desperate to know what exactly happened, asking specific questions about what occurred could be triggering for the survivor.

Another thing Sarah advises is to really think about what you’re saying before you say it. You don’t want to come across as if you’re blaming your friend for the abuse as survivors often feel as it’s their fault for the abuse they faced.

She said: “No one asks or deserves to be abused. Think before you say anything and remind yourself of this to make sure nothing you say is placing the blame on them. Survivor’s often feel being abused was their fault and it’s important as their friend to reassure them that they are not to blame.”

A friend may approach you immediately after the assault has happened but they also might not tell you about it until days, weeks or months after it happened. Sarah says to not take this as a comment on your friendship and most importantly not to say “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

Sarah said to remember this is your friend’s journey and it takes a lot of courage for a survivor to speak out.

Don’t pressure them to report it to the police

Whilst you might have your own feelings about what your friend should do regarding reporting the incident, it is your friend’s choice what they do.

Sarah says it’s important to “not rush or pressure them into something they don’t feel ready for or want to do”.

She also highlights most rape crisis centres will have an advocacy service which helps survivors understand the process of reporting and will help them make an informed decision on what to do next.

Come up with a code word

Sadly if your friend’s perpetrator is a fellow student there is a high chance your friend may run into them again. Whether this is in the library or on a night out, it’s guaranteed to be upsetting.

Apart from showing them you’re there to support them, Sarah suggests speaking to your friend about the possibility of running into the perpetrator.

She suggests “having a code word” so your friend can tell you when they feel uncomfortable and want to leave.

You cannot pour from an empty cup

Hearing about a friend’s sexual assault and supporting them afterwards, will also impact your own mental health so it’s important to remember to look after yourself.

Sarah told The Tab she is a firm believer in “genuine self care” seeing it as “essential”, as you “cannot pour from an empty cup”. She suggests making time for yourself and properly scheduling it into your day.

It’s important to not feel guilty for realising the mental effect this may have on you. Sarah says whilst you may think you can’t be struggling because “it didn’t happen to you”, it can feel overwhelming and you are equally entitled to support. This can be accessed by the same services your friend may be using – university wellbeing centres, rape crisis helplines, speaking to a GP or counsellor.

It can often feel like a massive weight on your shoulders supporting a friend through this time, but Sarah says to remember you are not there to “fix the situation”, all you can do is offer your friendship, which will be an enormous comfort to your friend.

If you or someone you know has been affected by this story contact Refuge on their free 24/7 helpline 0808 2000 247 or contact Rape Crisis online for a free confidential chat helpline.

The Tab’s Do Better campaign is putting a focus on the rising student sexual assault problem. Universities need to do more to support students and the culture around sexual assault needs to change.

If you’ve got a story you’d like to share with us – whether it’s about lack of support from uni, problematic sports socials, assault in lockdown or anything you think needs to be heard, get in touch in confidence by emailing [email protected]

Featured image credit: Alicia Steels on Unsplash

Read more from The Tab’s Do Better Campaign:

Sexual assault reports at UK universities have more than doubled in four years

It’s harder than ever to report sexual assault at uni right now

Sussex University took eight months to deal with my domestic abuse complaint