How to Help a Friend That’s Been Sexually Assaulted on Campus

What to Do When a Friend Has Been Sexually Assaulted

Posted by Shelley Kilpatrick on 25 November 2015 |

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friend sexually assaulted campusSexual assault is a traumatic experience for anyone, but it’s especially tough for students who might be away from home for the first time. Without their usual support network of family, teachers or other authority figures, students often turn to friends.

So when someone you know — a friend, an acquaintance, classmate or even a stranger — is sexually assaulted, you might want to help. But you might also be afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing.

To help you figure out what to do, we’ve put together some information:

  • Definition of sexual assault
  • Signs that indicate sexual assault
  • Ways you can help a friend

What is Sexual Assault?

Sexual assault actually has very little to do with sex. As the University of Oregon points out, sexual assault is about anger and aggression, not desire or passion. It’s a hostile attack that’s meant to hurt, dominate or humiliate.

Also, sexual assault isn’t just rape. The Office of Women’s Health (OWH) points out that any type of sexual activity that happens without consent, whether it’s verbal or physical, can be considered sexual assault. Some examples include:

  • Sexual coercion
  • Fondling or unwanted touching above or under clothes
  • Someone exposing themselves in public
  • Forcing someone to pose for sexual pictures

Signs of Sexual Assault

When someone has been sexually assaulted, they might not come right out and tell you. Instead, they might exhibit signs, either physical or psychological, that indicate something’s wrong.

And some of these changes are noticeable right away, while others take longer to appear. Either way, knowing these signs can help you recognize that a friend needs help — and guide you in the right approach.

The Joyful Heart Foundation, founded by actress Mariska Hargitay to help sexual assault survivors heal, identifies the following physical and psychological/behavioral changes that may occur in someone that’s been sexually assaulted:

Physical Changes

  • Bruising
  • Bleeding
  • Difficulty walking
  • Soreness
  • Broken or dislocated bones
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Pregnancy

 Psychological/Behavioral Changes

  • Substance abuse
  • PTSD
  • Eating disorders
  • Depression
  • Withdrawal
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep problems

Ways You Can Help

There are many different ways you can help when a friend is sexually assaulted. Here are just a few.

Make sure they are safe

If a friend reaches out and tells you they are in a bad situation, the first thing you can do is make sure they are safe. For example, if you’re friend is at a party and texts you that they’ve had too much to drink, offer to pick them up and take them home.

If your friend calls and says they’ve already been sexually assaulted, get them away from the attacker and to a safe place.

Listen and don’t judge

This is an essential step. When we hear information, most of us want to ask questions. It’s a natural instinct; however, this is not the time to speak. It’s much more important to listen to what the person has to say. Sometimes people just need to talk, and they need someone to listen.

Also, avoid making any statements that imply blame or judgement. Let your friend know that you don’t believe any of the myths surrounding sexual assault by not questioning what your friend was wearing or why they were hanging out with a certain crowd of people.

Assist them in getting medical care

Go with your friend to the doctor. It’s crucial to get medical attention right after an attack because it’s the best chance of preserving evidence in case your friend decides to press charges.

Help them report to the campus and/or police

Most survivors of sexual assault – 68 percent according to one statistic – don’t report it to the authorities. And that’s okay. It’s understandable that your friend might not want to go to the campus or the police. But if they do want to file a compliant or formal report, let them know you support their decision.

Offer specific help

Just like when someone is grieving, it can be tempting to tell your friend that you’re sorry and if they need anything to just ask. But when someone is dealing with a traumatic experience like sexual assault, they may not know what they need.

So you can help by offering something more specific. For example, let your friend know that you’re available to drive them to any appointments or that you’ll take notes for them if they have to miss class. You can also offer to cook them dinner and have a conversation.

Start Healing from Sexual Assault

Sexual assault is a complex issue. It’s about power and control, and often negatively affects a survivor’s physical and mental wellbeing. Listening and supporting a friend who has been sexually assaulted will help them feel more in control and start the healing process.

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