How to Help Your Friend in the Aftermath of a Sexual Assault

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The frightening truth is that it can happen anywhere at the hands of anyone. You can be at the bar having drinks with friends, walking home at 3 a.m. from a late night study session or hanging out in a dorm with someone who you thought was a friend. The bottom line is that sexual assault is something that’s taboo and yet so prevalent, especially in college settings.

According to a study completed by the United States Department of Justice, one in five women and one in 71 men are sexually assaulted at some point during their lifetime. Count five of your girlfriends that you binge on Netflix with; one of them may be assaulted before they walk across the graduation stage. With statistics this scary, it’s important to be aware of what steps to take should you find one of your friends pounding on your door one night.

Immediately following an assault, a flood of emotions will rush through their mind. They might feel severely anxious, furious, disgusted or just plain shocked. All of these emotions are normal and difficult to witness, but it’s important to remain calm and firm for your friend’s sake. “The first important thing for an individual to do immediately following a sexual assault is to make sure that they’re in a location that is safe and out of harm’s way,” said Heather Pearce, director of the Victim’s Advocate Program at Florida State University.

If you’re at a party, go to a well-lit and well-populated area away from there. Assess your options and choose what you believe is the safest option. Once you’re away from the suspect, find a way to get your friend to the nearest hospital, where they can be treated for any injuries.

As tempting is it may seem, attempt to dissuade your friend from showering or changing clothing following an assault. They will be feeling completely disgusted with their body and will want to wash the night away, but it’s important that they keep the evidence temporarily should they have to use it against the perpetrator. If they do, then a rape kit can be completed. Although it is invasive and uncomfortable, the rape kit will preserve any and all evidence against your friend’s attacker. Your friend will also have the option of submitting the kit anonymously, which means that they won’t be required to fill out a police report and their name won’t be associated with the evidence.

If they should choose not to press charges, respect their decision. Don’t fill their head with phrases like, “If you don’t press charges, you’re allowing it to happen to someone else,” or “Why are you letting them get away with what they did to you?” Their personal wellbeing is of upmost importance and respect whatever decisions they make to find closure.

I wish I could say that the minute your friend leaves the hospital, the pain remains hidden and won’t follow your friend like a ghost. I wish I could say that your friend could bounce right back to who they were before the incident. But if I said those things, I’d be lying. Although it’s something that’s been downplayed in our society and that many are desensitized to, sexual assault is nevertheless a devastating trauma. “I most likely went about it all wrong,” said a senior at Pasco County State College. “I became very closed off, I cut a lot of ties with people at first…but then I started to reconnect with people.”

It’s important to help your friend find the support they need and remain open to them. “A victim needs a support system to understand that they don’t always want to talk about the incident, but they just need someone to be present with them, to believe them and to reassure them that someone cares about them,” said Pearce. Don’t cease contact or change the amount of contact you’ve had with them following this incident, because your friend will need you now more than ever.

If unsure how to react when a friend tells you their story, a Florida State sophomore said, “I’d want them to just assure me that it’s not my fault and I’m OK. I don’t need much besides just getting them to understand my position.” As time goes on, they might feel more comfortable opening up about it and will want to do so. Allow them this opportunity, and be ready to listen.

Your friend will never forget your loyalty and support. “I have a friend who did open up to a little bit, but she had been my friend for a few years so I was very comfortable with her,” said State College senior Pasco Hernando. “I told her because I knew no judgment would come from her and that she wouldn’t blame me for what happened, like I did.”

Overcoming the aftermath of a sexual assault is a long and difficult process, but make sure your friend knows that they’re never alone. There are plenty of resources ready to help them heal and reshape their life. “Get support as soon as you can,” said a Florida State sophomore. “Give yourself time to recover and remember that even small progress is still progress.”

In the meantime, don’t let your friend lose sight of what’s important or let them believe that the incident will define them for the rest of their life. Being there for your friend and helping them reach a healthy point in their life is the best thing you can do for them. They’ll be eternally grateful to have your support–even if that friend is actually you.

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*Names withheld for privacy.

Tamiera is a sophomore studying Editing, Writing, and Media at Florida State University. She is a proud addict of Coldplay, American Horror Story, and candy corn. Her life’s mission is to travel the world, publish her novels, and finish a tube of ChapStick.

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