Back to school brings new classes, new friends, the return of college sports, homecoming, recruitment, and many other memorable events. Sadly, the first six weeks of the fall semester, referred to as “The Red Zone”, is also the time when students are most likely to experience sexual assault.
During their undergraduate years, one in five women will be sexually assaulted, and one in sixteen men. These numbers are staggering and an unfortunate reality. It is likely that all of us will know a friend (possibly multiple) that are sexually assaulted before they reach college graduation.
There is much work to be done to rid our campuses of sexual assault. We can start to fight the epidemic as we educate ourselves, and our sisters and brothers, about its realities. It is important for every student to be prepared in how they would respond to a friend who shares that they have been assaulted. Sometimes how we think we would react in these situations, and how we actually end up reacting, can be radically different. Mulling over these difficult conversations before they ever occur can be extremely helpful.
Here are five ways to respond when a friend has been assaulted:
1. Listen more than you speak.
Let your friend guide the conversation, only ask questions if it seems they are giving cues that it is okay.
Before asking a question, try to think about how it may affect your friend. Asking your friend what they were wearing that night, why they let what happened to them happen, how much they had been drinking, or if their assailant had been drinking, are questions that may make your friend feel like you don’t believe them.
2. Let your friend know that what happened to them is not their fault.
No matter the circumstances surrounding your friend’s assault, what happened to them was not their fault. No always means no, and if your friend was under the influence they weren’t capable of giving consent. Just because the other party had something to drink as well, doesn't make what happened okay. An easy way to think about this is: if a drunk driver hit and killed a drunk pedestrian, the drunk driver is still responsible for their actions, just as someone who had been drinking is still responsible for sexually assaulting someone.
3. Let them know that you believe them.
This is perhaps the most important thing that you can do for a survivor. Your friend is likely going to experience a lot of doubt and be forced to field many uncomfortable or inappropriate questions surrounding their assault. One of the main reasons that survivors feel afraid to seek medical attention, speak to their university, or to the police is that they are worried they will not be believed.
As your friend confides to you that they have been assaulted, search your heart. It is monumental within a survivor’s healing for them to feel believed and supported. If you do not believe your friend, or feel that you are internally blaming them for the assault, keep these perspectives inside, and reach out to a sexual assault advocate. Advocates work to support survivors, as well as the friends and family of survivors, and would love to talk to you and help guide you in responding to the challenging situations (and unexpected emotions) that may come from your friend sharing with you that they were sexually assaulted.
Sexual assault strips survivors of power and control over their own body. This can be an incredibly isolating feeling. You can help to empower your friend by giving them unconditional love and support.
Sexual assault strips survivors of power and control over their own body. This can be an incredibly isolating feeling.
4. Let them know that help is available.
There are resources for survivors of sexual assault. Offer to go with your friend to a rape crisis center or advocacy center, or to speak with someone on campus, at a medical facility, or with the police, but never force them to do any of those things if they are uninterested. During this challenging time, it is important for your friend to feel they have the power to make choices surrounding their healing and how they want their story told.
Some positions (even student positions) on university campuses have mandated reporting requirements, and it is important to know about these requirements before speaking with someone who is employed by a university if your friend is not ready to make an official report to the school of their sexual assault.
Make sure to listen to your friend and if they are ready to speak with the school before encouraging them to do so. There is no guarantee a university adjudication will have the outcome that a survivor is hoping for, and this is something important to weigh.
5. Stick With Them in Their Healing Process.
It’s important to know that your friend may do some things that you don’t understand after their assault. They may reach out to their assailant, they may laugh at uncomfortable times, they may want to start going out more, they may not want to go out at all anymore, they may refuse medical treatment or refuse speaking to their university or the police. Know that all of these responses are normal for a survivor of sexual assault. Sexual assault is a traumatic event, and the reality is that there is no typical survivor reaction to the trauma of sexual assault. Healing for survivors of sexual assault has many stages and isn’t linear. It's possible that your friend’s healing and acceptance of what has happened to them may look different on different days.
Love God, Love Others
Again and again, the Bible tells us that we were created to be in loving community with one another. From Genesis 2:18 forward, the Bible is chock full of examples of how we cannot grow, heal, or even fully survive without being in community! According to Jesus, the greatest commandment is to love God & love others. The Apostle John spoke of this need to love our community in 1 John 4:11, writing: “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we ought to love one another”. As Christians, this isn’t an opt in or opt out type of deal; it’s a non-negotiable if we claim to follow Jesus. Supporting our friends when they’ve been sexually assaulted is a monumental way that we love God and love others.
Here are some resources that may be helpful:
RAINN (Rape Abuse Incest National Network) is the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the United States, and can help connect you and your friend with a crisis or advocacy center, and their also facilitate a national hotline.
National Suicide Hotline. Please remember, if your friend is expressing suicidal intentions you always need to reach out for help. Offer to call the National Suicide Hotline with them, or chat with them online. Someone is available 24 hours a day through both services.
This is part 1 in our series on Sexual Assault.
To read part 2, "I've Been Assaulted, What Do I Do Now?" Click here.
To read part 3, "A Letter to a Fraternity Man" Click here.
Tara is a Pi Beta Phi alumna and graduate of the University of Utah with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and International Studies with a Middle Eastern emphasis. Tara completed an honors thesis regarding campus sexual assault and university policies during her time in school and her work has been published in the Journal of Education and Practice, as well as Sexuality Research and Social Policy. Immediately after graduating, Tara worked as the Volunteer Coordinator for Women Helping Women, a rape crisis program in Oxford, Ohio. She is currently working on research regarding campus sexual assault and, in her spare time, she love to rock climb any chance she gets!