Helping a Friend

It can be hard to know what to do to help a friend or a family member who has experienced sexual misconduct, such as sexual harassment or sexual assault, a violation and/or crime (or crimes) where s/he/they has lost control over the situation. It is natural to feel a tremendous loss of power and control over life during these times. Surviving sexual violence or sexual harassment is a testament of the individual’s strength; however, s/he/they may not feel strong. Below are some suggestions about how you can help.  

What to say:

  • I'm sorry this happened to you.
  • It wasn't your fault. 
  • You survived; obviously you did the right things. 
  • Thank you for telling me. 
  • I'm always here if you want to talk. 
  • Can I do anything for you? 
  • How can I support you?

What NEVER to say:

  • It was your fault. 
  • You could have avoided it had you _________ (e.g., been sober, stayed with your friends, locked your door, not led him/her on). 
  • You should not have ________ (e.g., walked alone at night, dressed provocatively, gone to his/her room, had so much to drink, kissed him/her). 
  • It's been so long! Get over it! 
  • You wanted it. 
  • It's not that big of deal; it happens to lots of people. 
  • I don't believe you. 
  • He/she is such a nice person and couldn't have done something like that. 
  • What did you do to provoke him/her? 
  • If you report him/her, you will ruin his/her future. 
  • You should have fought back. 
  • I would have ________ (done something differently, e.g., fought back, ran away, screamed, called the police). 

What to do and what not to do:

DO respect your friend enough not to pity him/her.

DON'T assume s/he/they does/does not want to be touched. Some people can't stand a hug at this point. Others can't make it without one. Ask before touching.

DO comfort her/him. Make the environment comfortable.

DON'T try to solve all of their problems for him/her. S/he/they has had his/her control taken away. Try to avoid doing that again.

DO allow her/him to tell them as much or as little as they need.

DON'T assume you know how your friend feels.

Further suggestions:

Refer your friend to the Title IX website.

Do offer to gather information about options and who may be able to help. Once you educate yourself and have information to share, encourage her/him to take a step. It’s okay to offer your support in taking a step but be mindful of not taking over or pressuring your friend to do what you think s/he/they should do. Whatever step they take will reinforce that s/he can take another.

Be willing to say nothing. If you don't know what to say, that's okay. The most powerful statement a friend can make is by simply being there, not trying to fix everything or pretending it's okay. Silence often says more than words.

Do not judge. An individual is likely examining him or herself very critically during this time. Asking questions regarding details of the assault/harassment, why the individual was at a specific place, doing a specific behavior, etc. only works to place blame them for the violence/harassment of the perpetrator. No matter what his/her behavior was prior to the assault, s/he/they are NOT responsible - the perpetrator is. Following sexual violence/harassment, an individual may try to understand her/his role in what happened but it’s important to be clear that s/he/they are not responsible for the actions of others. Examine your own attitudes and feelings about sexual violence/harassment. Don't allow the myths to affect how you perceive your friend.

Do not attempt to impose your explanation of why this has happened or try to “fix” the situation. It may come across as victim-blaming. The only real explanation is that the perpetrator chose to act as s/he/they did. Additionally, you don’t have to fix the situation; you just have to be supportive.

Remind your friend that their feelings are understandable. There are many symptoms that the individual may experience; these are typical reactions to traumatic events. If he/she experiencing feelings, emotions, or physical symptoms that are out of the ordinary, it is due to the fact that he/she just experienced a horrific and traumatic event.

Do not attempt to reassure the person that everything is “Okay” or tell him/her you know how s/he/they feels. At this time, everything is not “okay.” Making statements such as “Don’t worry about it,” “You’re going to be fine,” etc., may serve to minimize the victimized person’s feelings and downplay the seriousness of the event(s) which occurred. Also, chances are you don’t know exactly how s/he feels. You may know what it feels like to be hurt, to be violated, or to be angry. However, you probably don’t know quite how s/he/they feels at this moment.

Do not feel intimidated by the intense emotions. Remember: you don’t have to fix the situation; just be supportive. There are many people at our university and in the community who can help support.

Encourage your friend to seek counseling and post-trauma services. There are specially trained mental health professionals that can assist your friend on many levels. Counseling is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength and of taking control of the situation.

Find your own support. You are also affected by this situation. You can’t support someone else if you aren’t supported as well. Find other friends, support people, or counseling to share your own feelings related to what happened to your friend.