Statistics suggest that one in three American women will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime. Unfortunately, a number of those assaults take place on college campuses. According to the Washington Post, reports of forcible sex offenses on college campuses are rising; in 2012, there were more than 3,900 reports of sexual assault at universities across the country, which is up 50 percent in the span of three years. Those cases are just the ones that were reported–the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network states that 60 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police.
With statistics like these, the odds are unfortunately high that someone we care about–a friend, a family member, or one of our sorority sisters–could be the victim of sexual assault. When you suspect a friend may have been assaulted or a victim chooses to share her assault with you, there is no “right” way to respond, particularly because each situation, along with the victim’s reactions and feelings about it, are different. However, there are things that we can do to help.
Know the signs. Unless a friend specifically tells you she was sexually assaulted, there is no way to know for sure. However, according to the Campus Assault Resources and Education Department at the University of California, Irvine, there are a number of symptoms of rape trauma that could indicate a friend needs help. These include:
• Sleep disturbances: nightmares, difficulty falling or staying asleep
• Change in appetite
• Irritability or outbursts of anger
• Difficulty concentrating
• Fears about personal safety
• Exaggerated startle response (jumps at a small noise or if her name is called)
• Difficulty being touched
• Withdrawal or no interest in participating in activities she once enjoyed
• Seems detached from others
Again, there is no way to know if a friend has been sexually assaulted unless she explicitly tells you, but these signs could be an indication of some kind of an issue.
Listen. If someone chooses to share with you that she has been sexually assaulted, it means she trusts you enough to share this terrible trauma. One of the best things you can do when someone shares this with you is to just listen. This is her experience, and choosing to reveal it to someone can be a difficult step. Listen without judgment. Do not interrupt, ask her to share additional details she did not bring up, or question her actions or decisions. Simply listen and let her know you are there for her, no matter what.
Keep it confidential. It’s a given that you wouldn’t share this information in a gossipy way, but your instinct may be to share the situation with your mutual inner circle so they can provide support as well. However, it’s important to remember that this is not your story to share. It’s hers. She may not be comfortable talking to anyone besides you. This person has trusted you with this information at a time when her level of trust in people is likely at an all-time low. While you have the best of intentions and think that developing a support network of friends for the victim would be helpful, it’s not up to you to share her story with anyone. That needs to be her decision.
Provide resources. After someone is sexually assaulted, it can be difficult to know where to turn. Many campuses provide specific resources for sexual assault victims, as do local communities. However, searching for these resources can be a painful step for a victim. One way to aid your friend is to compile all of the available resources for her in one place, so she can easily access the information if she chooses to. For help finding local resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s searchable database. If she is uncomfortable speaking with someone on campus or locally, the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-HOPE or live chat online) is an alternative option.
Educate yourself. The resources you gather for your friend can also be helpful for you. When a friend comes to you to reveal a sexual assault, it can be a stressful time for you, too. Many of the resources that are available to her as a victim can also help you with ways to support her and to deal with your own thoughts and feelings. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them if you need assistance, too.
Be supportive without being pushy. Oftentimes, when something like this happens to a friend, our reaction is anger–we want the person who did this to be punished. However, the person who should decide to take action, report a sexual assault, and pursue criminal chargers is the victim. While encouraging your friend to report her assault is okay, it is more important to remain calm and let her know you will be by her side however she decides to handle the situation..
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