The Compassion Project

How to Respond When a Friend Confides

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and part of creating a more compassionate society as a whole is in how we respond to sexual assault survivors.

As the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, RAINN, explains:

Fascilla-Emily“Sexual assault is a violent act to humiliate, terrorize and degrade the victim, with survivors feeling fear of rejection, humiliation, shame and degradation as part of a host of emotions they experience. Fear of being judged or being seen as liars are two prevalent reasons for not assisting in the judicial process. For many male victims, the shame and secrecy is compounded by the fear that their own sexuality may have something to do with being targeted, or at least that others will think so.”

The distress caused by sexual assault is neurological, biological, and psychological – making trauma-informed care a non-negotiable necessity. Being trauma-informed simply means understanding that your reaction as a friend, acquaintance, or society member toward someone who has been sexually assaulted has the power to do further damage. That said, it also has the power to begin their healing process.

To achieve the latter, here are five responses to help you be a compassionate listener and trauma-informed confidant for survivors of sexual assault.

“I’m sorry this happened.” Acknowledge their experience and express empathy. Say things like, “This must be really tough for you.”

“It’s not your fault.” Reassure, reassure, reassure. This is not their fault, you are not judging them. There is never an excuse for sexual violence. Clothing, level of sobriety, and being alone are not invitations or justifications for an act of sexual assault against another human.

“I believe you.” Don’t use words like “alleged” or “supposed.” While the accused has the right to remain innocent until proven guilty, the victim has a right and emotional need to be believed. There is an incredible campaign that focuses entirely on this called Start By Believing. It demonstrates the crucial importance of believing someone who comes forward.

“I’m here for you.” Be an attentive listener, but also be comfortable with periods of silence and the possibility that your physical presence could be more meaningful than what you say.

“You can trust me.” Reassure them you won’t judge and you’ll protect their privacy and confidentiality. Keep that promise.

“Can we take you to the hospital?” Medical attention is always needed, even if the assault happened a while ago. It is possible your friend or acquaintance is unaware there are designated facilities that are prepared to meet their needs. It can also feel like a very scary or intimidating process to seek help. Here in Boise, one of the best resources we have is FACES Victim Center. Law enforcement reporting, medical services and forensic exams can be done onsite in one visit at no charge to the client.

According to the latest statistics by RAIIN, for every 100 rapes, 32 are reported to the police, 7 will lead to an arrest, 2 of those rapists will spend one single day in prison. 98 rapists will walk free. A friend, colleague, or acquaintance confiding in you is often the first step they will take in their reporting process. Being compassionate, supportive and simply believing them can make a difference in their immediate emotional state, as well as encourage a cultural shift. Our justice system will not change the treatment of victims until our society changes the treatment of victims.

To learn more about the damaging effects of victim blaming and victim shaming in various justice systems read about Denim Day here and join us in our efforts to raise awareness surrounding these issues.
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