First, thank you for being that person— whoever you are, you are that person who has been trusted enough for a rape survivor to confide in about their personal hell.
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We live in a generation of tip toeing around the truth, over sensitivity and sugar coating bad news. Subjects such as abuse, sexual assault and mental illness create this sort of societal discomfort that is unnecessary. We need to speak out and have discussions on these matters to disintegrate that societal discomfort, because if we create an environment in which opening up about being a victim of rape is met with understanding and support, rather than uneasiness or awkwardness, then maybe sexual assault survivors wouldn’t hesitate to find justice and report their case.
I am a survivor of sexual assault. There’s no one to blame for the lack of knowledge on how to handle sexual assault victims, besides our culture and society. We live in a world where women are taught to be submissive and men are entitled to pursue partners they deem attractive or "worthy". We live in a world where men are supposed to feel “lucky” if a woman pursues him. We do not live in a world where consent is taught to be the most important part of intimacy and sexual activity. Society blames external elements like alcohol, drugs, revealing clothing, etc., every excuse possible to distract from confronting the actions and intentions of the rapist.
With current cases about sexual assault and rape circulating social media and news stands, it is bringing to light the disgusting rape culture our society holds and the discrepancies in state laws about the crime. However, that is not what I want to discuss in this article. So, for now, I’ll step off my soap box on how rape culture so desperately needs to change. I want to help enlighten and educate you on how to approach a situation in which your friend and/or loved one has opened up to you about being raped.
Your loved one has had every form of control taken away from them. Depending on how recent the crime has taken place your friend may become jumpy around you and others, which is normal. Respect the size of their personal bubble. Ask for permission to enter their room, to sit on their bed, if they are in need of a hug. By doing this it reassures your friend that they still have control and power to allow or deny certain actions.
Just be present, physically and emotionally. Make yourself available to that friend in their time of need and vulnerability. It takes a lot of courage to finally tell someone out loud about the experience. That friend might feel exposed and helpless, reliving the experience in their mind, when they finally open up and tell you. Listening, being there and being silent does so much more than you think. If your loved one just wants you there, it’s a sign of trust, because, unknowingly and though it may remain unspoken, they find comfort and safety within your presence.
When your loved one is ready, they will open up to you. It takes time so just be patient. Reassure him/her that you are going to be there when they are ready to talk about what happened, or if they don’t want to talk about it at all, respect it. Don’t bring it up unless your friend brings it up first.
There is a difference between pity and empathy.
You might not completely understand what a survivor of sexual assault has been through, but there is a huge difference in feeling sorry for them and trying to understand them. When I have told those of my experience, there is a certain look that I receive of deep sorrow from them, that reminds me of the reaction people have when they watch a Sarah McLachlan puppy adoption commercial. We are not wounded puppies, just a temporarily wounded human being. Love, support and the attempt to simply understand that your friend is hurt is all that is necessary.
Treat them normally.
Similar to the last point, your friend is still the same person. It’s up to you as their friend to help them readjust to the person they were before the trauma. Have conversations about the future, and what they want to achieve, and how you can help your friend achieve those things. Also, don’t be afraid to tease them, joke around with them and treat them like you did before you knew. Your friend needs normalcy and you have the capability to provide that to them.
Suggest professional help.
Sometimes you can only do so much for your loved one. Research people your loved one can go to who may be able to help beyond your abilities. Remember to just make it a suggestion and not a forced necessity, you don’t want to make your friend feel like they are only fixable through professional means. The connotations of professional counseling are misconstrued into being something negative; however, let them know that it could be the best decision of their life. Be there for your loved one, whatever they decide. Walk them to their appointment as a solid, supportive figure. Talking to a counselor who has no prior judgments of who they are and no prior knowledge of their past can be refreshing, so let them know that.
Seek counseling for yourself.
When someone opens up to you about a situation like this, it could be hard to handle personally. If you were at the party it happened at, you could feel responsible in some way. However, you should not feel like you are responsible for the actions of another. Seeking the guidance of a professional gives you the opportunity to express your personal feelings and reactions towards the situation. Please don’t forget to take care of yourself.
I can’t speak for every survivor out there, but this is based off the right way those in my life have treated me after I told them my experiences. I hope this helps you and your relationship with a survivor. If anything, I hope this has helped you gain some knowledge about rape survivors.
Again, I can only speak from my own perspective, but please remember I am a human being. I am not defined by the misfortunes my past may hold, I should be defined only by the capabilities and dreams I hold for the future.