How Do I Know if a Friend has been Sexually Assaulted?
There is no one way to know if someone has been sexually assaulted unless she or he or someone close to them tells you that this has occurred. However, there are several signs/symptoms of rape trauma (a type of post-traumatic stress) which may help you to know if a friend needs help.
Possible Warning Signs
- 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?
No one expects you to be a trained rape counselor, but there are things you can do to help your friend to cope and to find help. Whether the assault occurred recently or a long time ago, there are some helpful things you can do.
Helpful Things to Do
- 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.
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. There are some responses you should try to avoid.
Things to Avoid Doing
- Do not place blame or question the survivor’s actions
- Do not ask what or why questions, for example:
- “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 his room?”
- Questions like 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.
- 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.”
People Close to Survivors Hurt Also
People close to survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence often feel that they need to be strong and take care of their friend or loved one. It is normal to want to help and that support is crucial to the survivor, but it is important to remember to take care of yourself as well. If someone you care for has been hurt, especially if in a sudden or violent way, you may feel like a “secondary victim.” Secondary victims have to cope with their own feelings of violation, vulnerability, and helplessness, as well as with the issue of how to treat the primary victim in a helpful and healing way.
It’s important to remember that even if you have not been directly attacked or injured, you may experience some of the same emotional upset and mental confusion felt by the direct victim, since the victimization of someone close to you threatens your own well being and sense of security. Secondary victims are particularly likely to have difficulty with feelings of fear, anger, and guilt. You too may need some time and help in recovering from this trauma. Information and referrals are available for people close to survivors at UMKC Women’s Center.