First it’s important to know how to recognise when someone is talking to you about sexual violence – it won’t always be someone taking you aside calmly and using the words ‘I have been raped’ for example. It could also be a build-up of offhand comments, something said jokingly, a story that someone starts to tell then stops and says it doesn’t matter, a question. Often it’s difficult to verbalise an experience using particular words, and it can be up to the listener to hear what someone is trying to say, if they know them well and understand when they are distressed or uncomfortable about what they are talking about.
Response to the first time someone talks about their experiences can be a really key point in that person’s journey – so if you are in this position you have the opportunity to do some real good for someone. However, it’s also essential that you look after yourself and have the support you need to support your friend. Remember that you can’t fix this for them, and that this might be hard for you as well.
When someone does talk to you, the most important thing is to respond in a way that maximises their choice and control over what happens next. You can simply ask them what they need or want. This is because of the nature of sexual violence as a disempowering experience which takes away control from the victim – control over events, control over their own body and control over the consequences. Try not to skip ahead to what to do practically without first validating what you have heard and listening to what they have to say. Make sure that listening to them is your first priority in any conversations – don’t take over with what you have to say. Sometimes the only important thing to say can be “ok, I’m listening” or “I believe you”.
This can be particularly important in relation to:
– the criminal justice system – many people feel a desire to push reporting as a solution where it may not be wanted – best not to bring up reporting unless it is something your friend starts to talk about themselves. If they do want information about this there are support services out there that can give it – see our resources section for details.
– support – many people feel worried and panicked and want to get some kind of support in place straight away – your friend may not be in a place for this at the moment and/or it may not be what they want so you always need to ask.
– confidentiality – this is obviously incredibly important – although you may need support for yourself so remember that if this is the case you can contact a helpline where you can remain anonymous and not use names, so that you won’t be sharing anything your friend doesn’t want you to.
Another important consequence of sexual violence is stigma, shame and self-blame. Your friend may well feel any or all of these things and it is important not to exacerbate them through your response. It’s good to take care about asking questions which are ‘loaded’ from a societal point of view, for e.g. around alcohol consumption or previous sexual history -ask yourself what is relevant and what do you need to know to support. Also keep in your mind at all times the your friend’s individuality and personhood beyond the experience – try not to ‘just see the assault’ no matter how distressing it is as this further undermines their identity and autonomy. As a friend, you can have a key role to play in letting them know that they are the same person for you before and after hearing what has happened to them. Don’t ignore or minimise what you’ve heard, but don’t let it take over your whole view of the person or the relationship either.
Try to control any shock or distress you may feel hearing details about an assault and stay calm – so that your friend can be reassured and is not left feeling responsible for someone else’s distress or that their experience can’t possibly be survivable because it has distressed you as a listener. It’s ok to let your friend know that you care about what has happened and that it’s an injustice / upsetting / anger-inducing etc, but don’t let your feelings about it take over the conversation. Always speak to someone yourself if you need support with what you have heard, in a way which is as anonymous as possible, for example a helpline.
In terms of practical responses, as above the most important thing is to find out what your friend wants from you and not to push if this is currently ‘nothing’. Support options can be found on our resources sheet. Try not to promise a kind of support that you can’t give yourself. You were a friend before you heard this information, and you still are – it’s a very different role from a professional / counsellor / support worker, and it’s a really important one so try to stay within those boundaries.