Helping Others: Sexual Assault

How Do I Know if Someone I Care About Has Been Sexually Assaulted?

Possible Warning Signs
There is no one way to know if someone has been sexually assaulted unless they or someone close to them tells you that this has occurred. However, there are several signs/symptoms which may help you to know if a friend needs help.

  • Sleep disturbances, including nightmares and difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Change in appetite (has no appetite or eats more than usual)
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fears about personal safety
  • Exaggerated startle response, for example, jumping at a small noise or if their name is called
  • Numbness, lack of communication
  • Depressed – she/he may experience feelings of hopelessness
  • Has difficulty being touched or expressing loving feelings
  • Withdrawal or disinterested in participating in activities they once enjoyed (doesn’t feel like going out, going to movies, seeing friends, volunteering or participating in student groups, etc.)
  • Seems detached from others

What Can I Do To Help If Someone Discloses A Sexual Assault?

Helpful Things to Do
No one expects you to be a trained counselor, but there are things you can do to help your friend to cope and to find help.

  • Believe them
  • Maintain a calm manner
  • Listen without interrupting
  • Allow for tears and expression of feelings
  • Convey genuine concern
  • Allow them to make her or his own choices
  • Set judgments aside
  • Maintain confidentiality
  • Let them know that “It’s not your fault” (You cannot say this enough!)
  • Let them know that there are people who can help and that they don’t have to go through this alone.
  • Refer your friend to help and encourage them to go. They trust you. That is why they are talking to you. You can use that influence to help them to reach out for help.

Things to Avoid Doing
Some common responses to sexual assault are not helpful. These responses are part of a natural attempt to gain control over the situation and cope with your own feelings about rape, but they are ultimately not useful in helping the survivor to get help or to recover.

  • Do not place blame or question the survivor’s actions
  • Do not ask what or why questions, as this may make the person feel blamed or guilty and may decrease the chances of their being willing to speak to a counselor who can help them.
    • “What were you doing out alone at 2:00 in the morning?”
    • “Why did you drink so much?”
    • “Why didn’t you ask someone to walk you to your car?”
    • “Why did you go to her/his/their room?”
  • Do not ask for details about what happened or ask too many probing questions. You can be just as helpful without knowing the details of what happened. You can be most helpful by helping to get the assault survivor to a counselor who can assist them.
  • Do not tell the survivor what to do – they need to feel in control of what is happening to them.
  • Do not tell others about the assault or gossip about it. Unless you have the survivor’s permission and are making a referral to someone in a professional capacity, do not talk to others about the assault. It is critical that you respect the confidentiality of the person who has been assaulted. Their trust in themselves and others has already been severely damaged by the assault. You don’t want to accidentally make things worse.
  • Do not dismiss their feelings or minimize what happened by comments like “It’s ok now,” or “I know just how you feel.”

We encourage you to view Brené Brown’s Empathy vs Sympathy (link) to learn more about providing support without overshadowing the trauma of the victim/survivor.

For more information, visit Responding to a Sexual Assault Disclosure (link).