#MeToo. This one simple line has shed so much light on the unfortunately ever-growing epidemic of sexual assault against both men and women. Statistically speaking, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. Based on those numbers, you know someone who has been a victim. Maybe it’s you. Maybe it’s the person next to you, your best friend, a coworker, or a family member. Whatever the reality you find yourself in, the truth is that unless you’ve been through a similar situation, it is often really hard to know how to help a friend who’s been sexually assaulted. I want to share a small piece of my story with you in the hopes that it will inspire you to share yours and to be a friend to someone who has been sexually assaulted.
I am a survivor of sexual assault, which may come as a surprise to some who read this. It’s not a part of my life that I openly advertise. Though I’m not going to share that story with you today, there are a few things that I’ve learned from that experience in what a survivor needs and how to be a friend. Understand this: I am not a voice for all victims and I won’t claim to know what each person needs, but I want to help you understand that without friends, just surviving after an assault will never go to thriving in the healing that is possible. I often felt alone and sometimes still feel that way, which I would venture to say is a similar feeling for most survivors. I have learned that time does not heal all pain and there is always part of me that will cringe when I think about what happened. There is always part of me that will grieve that moment in time.
As my friend, I know you want to be helpful, but the loss that I have endured is so loud that it’s sometimes hard to hear anything else. This loss cannot be held or put into words - a thief stole a part of the my soul and with that, I feel like he stole my voice. While I spend a lot of time debating on making the decision to find some kind of meaning for life again, I admit that I probably won’t know what to ask of you - mostly because I don’t know what I need for myself.
I’ve compiled a small list of things that mattered deeply to me post-assault. I’d venture to say the same could be said for other survivors. Here are a few things to remember when a friend says, “Me too.”
“I believe you” and “I am sorry” are two small sentences that can be a game-changer in the healing process.
One major struggle a survivor has is being afraid no one will believe their story. They may be waking up multiple times a night, feeling their chest tighten and like they’re unable to breathe - feeling trapped under the memory of unwanted touches and actions. Having to plead for someone to believe them is not another hurdle they need or have the energy to fight for. Saying, “I believe you” can start to undo those fears and build a bridge of trust that is vital to the healing process. “I am sorry that happened to you” can start to free them from the prison they’ve found themselves in.
Do not minimize their experience.
No matter how small the event seems to you, it’s devastating to them and has completely turned their world upside down. Do not minimize what happened to them. They need you on their side. All your friend needs to know is that you care. Though your intentions are probably good, be careful with your words. They don’t want or need to hear how bad it could have been; right now, it feels like nothing worse could possibly have happened. Right now, they only know their experience and are still working through the pain. If you are also a survivor, they may want to hear your story one day, but that day is not today. Sit with them, grieve with them, and let them know that you recognize just how big of a deal being assaulted is. I promise you, we notice those things.
Let them decide next steps.
Now is not the time to tell them what to do. They need to know they are in control and get to make the decisions – it’s part of the healing process. You should definitely encourage them to do the hard but healthy things – seek medical attention, file a police report, go to therapy, etc. Please, don’t try to force control on them. They’ve lost it once, they don’t need to feel like they’ve lost it again. Be supportive of your friends no matter their decisions and let them know that you’ll be there every step of the way.
Be respectful of their story.
Don’t ask for more details. You aren’t owed any part of their story. If they don’t want to talk about what happened, they don’t have to. Don’t tell their story to others without their permission (this includes not telling that one person that, no matter what, you still tell everything to). Let your friend tell their story on their terms and to whom they want. They have trusted you with what is probably one of the worst, most vulnerable moments of their life. Don’t take advantage of that.
Don’t be afraid of tears. Or anger. Or sadness. Or numbness. Or whatever other emotion they might be feeling.
Your friend needs the freedom to feel every emotion that comes up without fear of someone questioning and/or running from them. Being someone that your friend feels safe enough to be this vulnerable around is a big deal. Guard their hearts and protect their emotions.
Your friend might be doing everything in their power to become a recluse and turn away from everyone they love. It’s critical that they have someone to turn to when they decide they no longer want to be alone. Despite what they may believe, they can’t get through this on their own. Survival isn’t just making out of the assault alive, it’s making it through the hours, days, months, and years after. They can’t do that if they don’t have someone to be their friend. Be that someone. Whether you’re sitting with them in silence while they blankly stare at the TV or you drag them out of the house for an hour and go for a drive, I can promise you that your presence means more to them than you may ever know. "They cried out in lament, ripped their robes, and dumped dirt on their heads as a sign of their grief. Then they sat with him on the ground. Seven days and nights they sat there without saying a word. They could see how rotten he felt, how deeply he was suffering." Job 2:13 (MSG).
Be a voice of truth.
Remind your friend that what happened is not their fault. They did not ask for it. They did not deserve it. They are not dirty or tainted. They are not damaged goods. In a world where survivors hear these things directed at them day after day, be the one voice that constantly tells truth. Remind them that, despite the hurt they’re experiencing, God is still good. Even the most devoted Christian could completely turn away from God and question His goodness post-assault. If you’re a believer, continue to gently point them back towards Jesus - the ultimate peace-bringer and Healer.
Encourage them towards help.
I mentioned therapy in an earlier point, but really, encourage them to seek help. Ultimately, no matter how much they tell you, you are not their counselor – nor should you be. Seeking help for the mental and emotional trauma that comes along with an assault will be a main source of freedom and healing for them; not just confiding in a comforting friend. They may need structured therapy and even medicinal interventions for a while until they get back on their feet.
Be patient with them.
Even when the initial shock of your friend’s assault may have worn off for you, it most likely hasn’t for them. The process of their healing is going to take time – a lot of time, probably. Don’t rush them. Be patient and allow them all the time they need, walking alongside them every step of the way.
This is primarily a preemptive step so that you may feel a little more “equipped” for if/when a friend comes to you to share their story of assault. Look up resources available in your area. Read helpful books like Rid of My Disgrace by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb or Shame Interrupted by Edward T. Welch to better understand sexual assault and the emotions that may come along with it. If you are a survivor and haven’t already done so, get the help and healing you may need from your own assault. If you haven’t gotten help and a friend shares their story, you may feel triggered by theirs and be suddenly overwhelmed by your own experience, leaving you unable to help them.
Most of all, love them.
If I could put into words the amount of negative thoughts and emotions that have run through my head following being assaulted, you’d probably be reading a 10-page paper. One of the biggest things that helped me was three words: “I love you.” Reassuring your friend that they are loved when they probably feel most unlovable is one of the biggest things you can do for them. Remind them over and over and over again. Say it with words. Say it with actions. Your friendship and love can and will be a defining factor in their healing.
Friends love through all kinds of weather, and families stick together in all kinds of trouble.
- Proverbs 17:17 (MSG)
Life, especially after surviving a sexual assault, is not easy. For the survivor, it may seem like the sun is refusing to shine for days on end – like they’re stuck in an eternal torrential downpour with no hopes of finding shelter. Your friendship just might be the shelter they’re longing for. It may not be easy to love someone through the aftermath of being sexually assaulted, but
hopefully, these few tips can help you find a place to start.
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If you or a friend have experienced Sexual Assault and want to pursue healing, CLICK HERE to learn about counseling options in your area.