Supporting a friend through a difficult time can be both challenging and rewarding. Most of us have supported our friends when they’ve experienced hardships, such as a death in the family, a mental health issue, or a breakup. We know that being present for our friends can make a difference.
If one of your friends experiences sexual harassment, assault, or violence, it’s equally important for you to be there. Research shows that when people who have experienced sexual violence receive positive social support, they’re less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or substance abuse issues.
“A first responder to someone disclosing their experience of sexual assault can help in how they respond—with kindness, compassion, and empathy,” says Carla Bertsch, Sexual Violence Support Advocate at the University of Calgary in Alberta.
Supporting friends in marginalized groups
As you support your friend, it’s important to keep their identity in mind. Does your friend experience marginalization based on their race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, class, sexual orientation, gender, or something else?
“Sexual assault and harassment affects people of all ages, genders, sexual orientations, races and ethnicities, socioeconomic status, and abilities (among others),” says Bertsch. “Individuals who identify within particular communities can be disproportionately marginalized, discriminated against and thus victimized, and/or affected by sexual violence.”
So what can you do? “Taking an intersectional approach when responding to a friend who has disclosed is crucial. An individual’s multiple identities—racial, socioeconomic, geographic, religious—all intersect and can inform how easy or difficult it may be to navigate the services and information to help them,” says Nadiah Mohajir, Founder and Executive Director of HEART Women & Girls, an organization that promotes sexual health and sexual violence awareness in Muslim communities.
Remember that people of all backgrounds experience sexual violence, and don’t make assumptions about the details of your friend’s experience. Cultural stereotypes about which kinds of people are likely to commit or experience sexual violence may make it more challenging for your friend to share what happened. For example, a 2005 study published in the Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services found that lesbians worried about reporting experiences of intimate partner violence, as they were concerned that people might not believe that women can commit intimate partner violence. By demonstrating to your friend that you believe and trust them, you make it easier for them to get support.
“I’ve previously heard of lesbians being stigmatized after a sexual assault by a man through language like ‘Does that mean you’re bi now?’ or ‘Well, you can’t be fully lesbian,’ implying that their experience with assault qualified as a willing sexual experience with a man.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Mount Allison University, New Brunswick
“As a person of colour and a woman, I feel as if those of us within these two communities tend to brush off people’s words as not being examples of sexual harassment even when they are. It’s almost as if we brush it off to show that we’re strong enough to not let these things affect us. I’ve personally done this before. I’d like others to know that it’s important to assure women of colour that speaking out against someone who sexually assaults, abuses, or harasses them shows strength—not weakness. It’s important to share these life events with a counsellor, trusted family member, or friend.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Rowan University, New Jersey
“Supporting LGBTQ+ survivors means not sticking to traditional, heteronormative definitions of sex. Please keep in mind that assault can take many forms.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri
3 things you can do if a friend tells you about an experience of sexual harassment, assault, or violence
When a friend opens up about an experience of sexual violence, it’s normal to feel a wide range of emotions, such as fear, anger, shock, detachment, or confusion. While you’re talking to your friend, do your best to stay calm and keep the conversation focused on your friend’s emotions.
“Most people disclose experiences of sexual violence to people they know and trust, such as a friend or family member, and are looking to be heard and not judged,” says Bertsch. “They want, need, and deserve to feel accepted and believed. Your response can open up doors for further acts of self-care that might remain closed if they receive blame, shame, or are pressured into reacting in ways that don’t feel safe or correct for them.”
As with any challenging situation, every person responds to sexual violence differently and will need different kinds of support. Your friend might want to talk all about the experience, or they might not want to get into details. They might want you to stay with them, or they might prefer time alone. Keep an open mind about your friend’s needs and remember the following considerations as you offer your support.
Avoid assumptions based on stereotypes.
“Sex, gender identity, and race can all influence how an experience like this affects someone, but it’s very important you have no presumption about what it feels like to your friend,” says Dr. Melanie Boyd, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs and lecturer in Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Yale University in Connecticut. Therefore, don’t assume the perpetrator’s gender or anything else about their identity, such as their sexual orientation or race.
“A bisexual friend of mine was sexually assaulted by a student who implied that since she was bi, she must be more sexually promiscuous than most. He used this as a means to ignore her, saying that she was uncomfortable, ignoring her non-verbal cues. Afterwards, she voiced to friends that she now felt guilty that she didn’t resist further, or express her discomfort more insistently. She remained unable to concentrate and uncomfortable being in public for weeks afterwards. I found the best way to comfort her afterwards was to remind her that it wasn’t her fault, and that her identity was not responsible for her assault.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Mount Allison University, New Brunswick
“As a black woman, I think the best thing people can do is listen to what we have to say. The stories that are usually told are those of white women, but not of people of racial minorities or members of the LGBTQ+ community, even though those people are especially impacted by these systems.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Hofstra University, New York
Let your friend share their own experience.
Use open-ended questions that leave space for your friend to share their own experiences. Avoid questions or statements that may feel blaming (e.g., “How much did you drink?” or “What were you wearing?”) or that reinforce stereotypes (e.g., “I didn’t think you went to parties—you’re so religious” or “How could a tiny girl do that to a big guy like you?”).
Try saying . . .
- I’m so sorry that happened.
- What happened to you is so disheartening.
- Thank you for sharing this with me.
- Do you want to talk more about this?
- How are you feeling?
- How can I be supportive?
- I understand if you don’t want to talk about it anymore, but I’m here for you if you ever do.
“It’s important to recognize that there’s no one way that an individual could be assaulted, especially when the survivor is from a gender minority. There’s no ‘he said, she said.’ There’s only the feelings of the survivor and the actions of the assaulter, regardless of either’s gender or sexuality.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, University of New Brunswick
“I’m bisexual. One thing I’ve noticed is that I don’t want to be stereotyped based on expectations of how people should react to these horrible situations. What people need to do is listen to what the victim feels personally. Everybody’s a person, whether or not they’re bisexual, trans, heterosexual, etc.”
—Third-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia
Avoid labelling the experience.
For instance, if a friend describes an experience as a “really bad hookup,” don’t label it a “rape.” Words such as “rape,” “assault,” and “abuse” have connotations that your friend may not be comfortable with. Follow your friend’s lead and use the same language that they use to describe the experience.
Focus on helping your friend feel empowered.
One reason that sexual violence has such a negative impact is that it can take away your friend’s agency or their ability to feel like they can make decisions for themselves. “Sometimes the urge is to say, ‘I’m going to get in there and fix it,’” says Dr. Deinera Exner-Cortens, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary in Alberta. “But we really want to empower survivors that they can do it, and that we’re here to support whatever they think is best.”
Ask your friend what would make them feel safe, comfortable, and empowered.
Everyone’s different, and your friend may feel like talking about their experience in detail—or they may want to go for a run, quietly do their homework, or attend a party. “Always be willing to go with them or talk with them. Ask ‘when you call, do you want me to be there for it?’ and they will let you know,” says Dr. Exner-Cortens. “Or, if they’re going to walk down to Student Health Services, ask them if they want you to walk there with them. Just be there in a way they want you to be. But if they say, ‘I’m OK,’ respect that.”
Talk about their options.
There are many resources available to support people who’ve experienced sexual violence—on campus, in your community, nationally, and even internationally. Your friend might be interested in working with campus disciplinary resources, the police, a counsellor, a chaplain, or someone else. While it’s not your job to push your friend toward any one course of action, offering to help research resources can be helpful. If you’re looking for resources on campus, talking to a Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention Coordinator can be a good place to start.
Your friend may feel most comfortable seeking out a resource that reflects their identity or experience. For instance, they might be interested in speaking with a religious professional, a counsellor at an LGBTQ organization, or a counsellor at a community organization that reflects their racial or ethnic background. Offer to help your friend connect with these resources as well and offer to go with them if they’d like the additional support.
“I’m part of the LGBTQ+ community, and am of a minority race at my school. I also have hidden disabilities that people generally don’t see just by looking at me. My best advice is to seek the resources that are available at your school if you or your friend have been harassed, assaulted, or abused. Sometimes you may have to see multiple counsellors or talk to multiple professionals before you find one that’ll get you the help you need, but don’t give up trying if the first person you talk to isn’t helpful. The worst thing you can do is not tell anyone about it at all.”
—First-year graduate student, Queen’s University, Ontario
“I didn’t pretend like I could understand where she was coming from, because I couldn’t; I’ve never been there. I told her she was incredibly brave for opening up to me and thanked her for feeling comfortable enough to do so. I then connected her with a local sexual assault counsellor because they would know how to help her work through everything better than I could.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Wilfred Laurier University, Ontario
“It meant the world to me when someone sat down with me at a coffee shop and helped me make a list of possible steps to reporting, healing, and staying safe. Some of those, for me, included talking to an investigator that was on our campus and seeing a professional counsellor that specialized in PTSD and LGBTQIA+ issues.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Utah State University
Maintain your friendship.
While it’s important to give your friend space to talk about their experience, it’s also important to remember that they’re still the same person. Give your friend opportunities to continue with activities you enjoy doing together.
“I think the best thing that my friends and family did was to continue to treat me like a normal person—like what had happened was something in the past and didn’t change my identity, although it was now a part of me. They didn’t walk on eggshells like I was a bomb about to go off at any moment. It helped me realize that they valued me as a person over this event that happened.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri
“My friends were able to show me what true closeness is supposed to be. This made the problem all the more serious to me, but it also showed me how much love and support there was to be found in normal relationships.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Trinity Western University, British Columbia
Try saying . . .
- If you want, we could set up a time for you to meet with your rabbi or pastor about this.
- We can walk to the campus counselling centre together, if and when you’re ready.
- Do you think you’d be more comfortable talking to someone who has worked with lesbian students before?
- There are lots of people you could talk to on campus and in the city. Do you want me to help you connect to them?
It’s okay to set limits and boundaries.
It can be difficult to talk about sexual violence, especially if you’ve experienced it yourself or someone close to you has. It’s okay to be clear with your friend about your needs.
Seek out support for yourself too.
Just as you help your friend connect to support resources, you may want to reach out to some yourself. “Self-care is important if you want to be capable of supporting your friend for a longer period of time. You’re not expected to be supportive 100 percent of the time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You’re allowed to take a break for your own good,” says Cristina Ayala, Executive Director of the Asian American Task Force Against Domestic Violence in Massachusetts.
“People share difficult things in their lives with people they trust, so you may want to consider your physical, emotional, and/or spiritual health,” Bertsch adds. “Find what works for you and consciously make an increased effort to engage with these strategies if necessary.”
“As the supporter, you need to make sure you can handle it. If it’s too much for you to listen to what has happened and how your friend is feeling, it might be a good idea to see if the friend is willing to talk to someone else other than just you.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador
Campus resources, such as Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention and Awareness Coordinators and survivor advocates, can help connect you to organizations that help those who are supporting people who’ve experienced sexual violence. You may also find it useful to connect to sources of support that reflect your identity, such as campus or community organizations representing your racial or ethnic group, religion, or sexuality.
“Self-care looks different to each person. Taking a nap, writing, having a meal, or asking someone else (a professional or another friend) to support you are all great examples of self-care. There’s no ‘right or wrong’ way to care for yourself,” says Ayala.
Try saying . . .
- I really want to be here for you, but I’m finding this conversation a little overwhelming. Would you be interested in speaking with a professional on campus? I could walk you over.
- I want to be able to support you as well as I can, and I think that I can do that better if I take a break for a few minutes.
Considering your friend’s identity is a critical part of being a good supporter. “A person’s position within society influences how people respond to them as well as their access to services and justice. It’s important to understand how intersections and different levels of oppression can influence and inhibit access to care and support. We must actively work to remove barriers to promote a more inclusive culture without erasing people’s truth and differences,” says Bertsch.
Considering your friend’s identity is a critical part of being a good supporter.
Remember how you’ve supported friends in other challenging situations, and how your friends have supported you. By simply being a good friend (e.g., listening with an open mind, helping connect them to resources, and maintaining your friendship), you can be an excellent source of support.
On campus: Consider discussing the situation with a counsellor, Sexual Assault and Violent Prevention and Awareness Coordinator, trusted faculty member, or Resident Assistant.
Cristina Ayala, Executive Director, Asian American Task Force Against Domestic Violence, Massachusetts.
Carla Bertsch, Sexual Violence Support Advocate, University of Calgary, Alberta.
Melanie Boyd, PhD, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs; Director, Office of Gender and Campus Culture; and Lecturer in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Yale University, Connecticut.
Deinera Exner-Cortens, PhD, MPH, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary, Alberta.
Nadiah Mohajir, Founder and Executive Director, HEART Women & Girls, Chicago, Illinois.
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