There is a lot you can do to support your friend. You cannot put yourself into your friend’s shoes. Even if you have experienced sexual violence too, your reactions, responses and circumstances are likely to be different. What works or worked for you will not necessarily work for them. If you find that hearing about your friend’s experience is bringing things up for you, or if you’re finding it difficult to cope, call the RCS Helpline for support.
It can be hard to ‘stand back’ because you care about your friend, and you may be frightened for them or worried about the effect on your friendship. It is up to them to decide whether or not to accept your help or advice. Your help and advice also have to come at the right time for them. It is important for your friend to have some control. This is because, when people experience sexual violence, control is taken away from them.
- Listen to and believe your friend. Give them time to talk. It can be tempting to tell them about your own experiences. Try not to do that as they need you to listen to them for now.
- Become comfortable with silence. Your friend may be thinking about how or whether to say something. They may not want to talk.
- Questions are not always helpful. You don’t need to know the details of what happened in order to help someone. Also, it may ‘re-traumatise’ your friend to have to go over it/try to remember it/and say the words.
- Accept and believe what your friend says. Perpetrators often tell survivors that no-one will believe them. It is very hard for people to talk about abuse. Imagine what it must be like to find the courage to talk about it.
- Don’t judge your friend’s story or be surprised if what they tell you does not fully add up. They may not tell you everything. They may not remember everything that happened, especially if it was a long time ago. Memory can also be affected by trauma or ill-health or shock or fear. They may have been asleep at the time, or unconscious, or a very young child.
- If your friend talks to you about the sexual violence, it is good to tell them how brave they are for telling you, rather than ask why they never told you before.
- However your friend reacts to abuse, accept and try to understand their reaction, even if you do not find some of these reactions very likeable or acceptable.
- Remember that your friend is not responsible for the abuse. If your friend blames themselves, it may help if you say to them that they are not to blame, that the perpetrator had a choice about how they acted. You want your friend to be safe and supported, and it can help to tell them so.
- Although you may think your friend should report the abuse to the police, it is not for you to approach the police or other services on your friend’s behalf, unless they ask you to do that, or unless a child is at risk (or you are very scared and think your friend is in immediate and serious danger). If you do not respect your friend’s desire for confidentiality and privacy, that could also put your friend in danger. They may not have told you everything. They have ‘insider’ knowledge and may have a more realistic idea of the options, limitations or the risks they face than you. If they do want to report, you may be able to help. Your friend may appreciate your company if they go to see lawyers, police and so on. You can also help by taking care of any children while they attend appointments, take notes at appointments or help with transport. You may also be able to give evidence to support the case. Don’t take things into your own hands such as confronting the perpetrator, threatening them, assaulting them, telling them to ‘lay off’ and so on. This is unhelpful, unsafe and could also be criminal.
- Be patient and avoid putting pressure on your friend. It can be tempting to think or say things like ‘you’ve just got to get on with it’ or ‘it’s time to move on’ or ‘it happened years ago, forget about it’. But abuse, trauma and their effects are persistent. Even after someone has come to terms with what happened, and has healed from the immediate trauma, they may react to some triggers years later.
Practical ways in which you may be able to help:
- Be consistent. If you offer your support then be there for your friend and do what you say you will do or be how you say you will be. Try to find out what your friend needs from you, if anything. Don’t assume what they want or need. Just let them know that you are there for them.
- If your friend has panic attacks or flashbacks or nightmares or is self-harming or talking about suicide, it is useful to find out more about these symptoms of trauma and learn what can help so that you can help your friend.
- Your friend may not want to spend all (or any) of their time thinking or talking about the abuse. They may feel lonely at times. Think about nice things which you could do together, or which you could encourage them to do for themselves or with others. This could include walking or relaxation or going for coffee or to a film or watching TV together or other simple pleasures or treats which nurture them and make them feel cared for. These do not need to cost money and they can help your friend feel better about themselves and also see that they are worth caring for.
- Respect your friend’s privacy. They may or may not want other people to know what has happened. You may want to keep it secret for your own reasons, for example, because it involves a mutual friend. But it is best if you can take the lead from your friend because secrecy may reinforce their feelings of shame and humiliation; forced secrecy may have been a significant element of the abuse.
- Encourage your friend to get help if you think they need this. This could include medical support for physical health issues; or support from a local Rape Crisis centre. Remind them that the RCS Helpline provides phone and email support.