When someone has experienced sexual misconduct, he or she almost always turns first to a friend for support and help. When these conversations go well, they are tremendously powerful; when they go poorly, they can compound the emotional damage. The emotional impact of abuse, harassment, or assault can be both immediate and long-lasting. A friend may confide in you 10 minutes or 10 years later—whenever it happens, it will be a difficult, important conversation. Listen well. Your friend may be experiencing any of a wide range of responses, including sadness, anger, shame, fear, self-blame, anxiety, shock, or feelings of helplessness. Often, people have trouble concentrating, eating, and/or sleeping; they may be plagued by intrusive thoughts and memories, even though they try to focus on other things.
The acceptance and support of friends are often vital steps in the healing process. Sexual violence is almost always a violation of trust; it often leaves survivors doubting their own judgment. By being understanding and supportive, you can help your friend begin to regain some of that trust and confidence.
Strategies for helping:
- Listen and demonstrate that you believe him or her. Be sure your friend knows you will be supportive. It is important for your friend to know he or she is believed and not judged. If you find yourself doubting your friend’s story or experience, don’t express it. That is not helpful and is often re-traumatizing. When you can, call SHARE to talk through your concerns.
- Let your friend lead the conversation. Allow your friend to determine the pace and focus of the conversation. Sexual misconduct is almost always a profoundly disempowering experience. An essential part of support is allowing the survivor to maintain control over what happens next.
- Inform yourself about resources. Spend some time on this site learning what options your friend might have, and offer information as appropriate. But be sure to let your friend be the one to make the decisions about who to talk to, what services to access, and what actions to take next. You may disagree with some decisions but the important step is to listen and not judge. Help him or her understand the available options, but your friend should be the one to decide how to proceed.
- Be reassuring. Your friend is not at fault. No one asks to experience sexual misconduct. Avoid judgmental questions and statements. Remember that your friend may be blaming him- or herself.
- Take care of yourself. Remember, you too can call SHARE for support.
If you are supporting your friend, be sure to take care of yourself:
- Be aware of your own feelings. You may feel hurt, angry, guilty, anxious, or frightened. Such feelings are understandable but your reactions may feel surprising, confusing, or overwhelming.
- Know and respect your own limits. There is only so much you can do to help your friend. You can provide support and compassion. Try not to offer more than you can give, and encourage your friend to seek additional support.
- Remember that it was not your fault. You may feel guilty, thinking that you could have done something to prevent your friend from being hurt. Remind yourself that the blame lies only with the person(s) who committed the acts of sexual misconduct.
- Do not be afraid to ask for help. Find someone other than the survivor to talk with about your feelings. Talking with someone else can help you understand your own emotions and give you a clearer perspective on the situation. SHARE is available for you, too.
- Keep the rest of your life on track. Do not forget to take care of yourself. This will help both you and your friend.
If your friend has decided to file a formal UWC complaint, you can learn more about this process by viewing the videos created by Yale CCEs and administrators titled “Supporting a Friend Through the Formal UWC Process”