Helping a Friend Who Has Been Sexually Assaulted

When someone has been sexually assaulted, chances are that they will turn to a friend for help. You are an important person to the survivor; this is why the survivor shared this experience with you.  Knowing how to respond will be very helpful in your friend's recovery. This page offers guidance on how to best support your friend.  There are also resources available to you, because when get support for yourself you will be better able to support your friend.

When a person is sexually assaulted, keep in mind that their power has been taken away from them.  As you are helping, allow your friend to maintain control over what happens next.  Offer information, and then let your friend make their own decisions including who they talk to, what services they access, and what actions they decide to take or not take.  Even if you disagree with your friend, supporting them in making their decisions will help them feel more in control.  When your friend remains in control, they will be better able to regain a sense of strength, power, and safety. 

What if the sexual assault happened in the past few days?

There are some time sensitive decisions your friend may have to make.  If your friend is female, she can prevent pregnancy by taking emergency contraception within 120 hours (5 days) of the assault. Emergency contraception is most effective when taken as soon as possible.  Collecting physical evidence must occur within 96 hours (4 days). Medications to prevent the development of some sexually transmitted infections and HIV can be provided by Health Services.  HIV prophylaxis treatment needs to be started within 72 hours. Screening for date rape drugs may be done up to 72 hours after the incident, but is optimally done within 12 hours.  Since many of these drugs clear the system quickly, a negative test result does not necessarily mean that no drug was involved.  It is helpful to inform your friend of this information, provide the options, and then let them decide what to do or not do next.

Brown students can call a nurse at Health Services (401.863-1330) for confidential medical advice.  The nurse is available 24 hours a day when classes are in session. You can call to get information for your friend without giving their name. For more information about what to do immediately after a sexual assault click here.

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What should I do if my friend doesn’t feel safe?

There may be times when your friend is physically or emotionally unsafe.  If your friend needs immediate medical attention, is suicidal, or at risk of hurting themselves or others you should call the Department of Public Safety (401.863-4111) 24 hours a day. If you are off campus, call 911.

If your friend is not in immediate danger, help them think about what changes, if any, they would like to make that will help them feel safer, whether related to their physical surroundings or how they interact with people. There is support available to help your friend think about ways to feel safer and decide if they want a restraining order or a University no-contact order.  Your friend can speak, confidentially, to the Sexual Assault Response and Prevention Program Coordinator (401.863-2794), Counseling and Psychological Services (401.863-3476), or the Special Victim’s Unit advocate at Department of Public Safety (401.763-2542). 

Should my friend report the sexual assault to the police?

Whether the assault happened recently or a long time ago, your friend may consider reporting the assault to the police and/or Brown University. Reporting the incident is a personal, difficult decision.  This decision can only be made by the person who has been assaulted.  It is best to avoid pressuring your friend to report the incident.  You or your friend can confidentially discuss reporting options, and what it may be like to report, with the Coordinator of Sexual Assault Prevention and Advocacy (401.863-2794) or by calling the Sexual Assault Response Line, available 24-hours a day (401.863-6000).  If your friend wants to report the crime, they can notify Brown's Department of Public Safety immediately at 401.863-4111. For some, reporting the crime can help regain a sense of personal power and control. Click here to learn more about various reporting options.

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What are some of the tactics that offenders use?

It’s very difficult to recognize someone who would commit sexual assault.  They can be male, female, or transgender, queer or straight, and they live in all communities and on all college campuses.  They are a very small percentage of the population but they will typically commit multiple sexual assaults.  They can seem very friendly and charismatic; but behind closed doors, they act very differently and may use force, coercion or manipulation against a victim.

Common tactics include:

  • Planning and preparation, including establishing trust with a potential victim
  • Assessing someone’s vulnerability as a means of identifying a potential victim.  (i.e. seeking out a first year student or someone who appears socially isolated, and testing a person’s boundaries)
  • Using only the amount of force that is necessary.  Body weight is frequently used as a means of force.
  • Using alcohol or other drugs to create vulnerability
  • Afterwards, denying the harm caused by calling the assault consensual and/or by continuing to contact the victim

In college, an offender often counts on the “hook up” culture to normalize what they have done.

How does someone react after a sexual assault?

Sexual assault is a traumatic event and survivors will have similar reactions as those who have been through other types of trauma.  Some research has found that sexual assault and combat exposure are the two types of trauma most likely to cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Your friend may feel in shock, act like nothing has happened, or feel numb.  While some people experience an overwhelming amount of emotions immediately after an assault, others find that days, months, or even years pass before feelings surface.  Emotions that may surface include sadness, guilt, powerlessness, hopelessness, embarrassment, shame, anger, and fear. There may be periods when a person is preoccupied with thoughts and feelings about the assault. They may have unwanted memories, flashbacks or nightmares.

Since most often the perpetrator is known to the victim, many survivors will find it difficult to trust other people.  Here are some of the issues to be aware of:

  • It’s normal for survivors to have a range of reactions, including depression, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, social withdrawal, and impaired memory. 
  • Some survivors will use alcohol or other drugs to numb the pain.
  • Victims who knew the offender may have longer recovery periods.

Survivors have complicated reactions to this experience.  It’s important to listen to what they have to say without judgment.  If you analyze what happened or ask questions about the victim’s behavior, you may unintentionally cause your friend to blame themselves and shut down.  Because the brain stores traumatic memories differently from normal memories, it’s very common for people who have experienced trauma to have gaps in memory and/or be unable to relate the experience in a chronological way.  If you want to read more about common reactions click here.

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What if my friend is male?

Gender stereotypes about men and boys make it particularly difficult for men to seek support. If your male friend has shared with you that he has been sexually assaulted it’s important that you believe him, avoid reinforcing gender stereotypes about men and boys, and understand how he may react to the incident.  Many people believe that only women are victims of sexual assault. The fact is that 1 out of every 10 men is sexually assaulted. Although most perpetrators of sexual assault against men are male, women are offenders as well.  A male assaulted by another male may question his sexuality and struggle with internalized homophobia.  Research has consistently found that male and female victims experience similar effects: fear, anger, shame, isolation, substance abuse, low self-esteem, depression and issues with sexuality.  Men may be more likely to outwardly express their anger and use substances to cope with difficult emotions; but, like all survivors, individual reactions will vary and can depend  many things such as personal history and support from family and friends.  The stereotype that men and boys are supposed to be tough, in control, and unemotional minimizes the trauma that male survivors experience. Click here for more information for male survivors of sexual assault.

How can I help a friend who has been sexually assaulted?

Validate and believe
If your friend feels ashamed or guilty, reassure them that the incident was not their fault and that their feelings are normal.  Often survivors feel that others will question or minimize what has happened. Let your friend know that you believe them.  Your friend may not disclose the sexual assault for days, months, or years after it occurred.  Limit the number of questions you ask as this can make a person feel as if you doubt them or that they need to prove what happened.  Avoid questions that could imply blame such as “Why did go back their room?”  “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”  “Why didn’t you fight them off?” You can be supportive without knowing the details of the incident.  Use open-ended questions such as “How are feeling?” or “What can I do to help?”   Give your friend time and space to share with you as they are ready to do so.

Listen
One of the greatest gifts you can give a friend is your ability to listen.  Avoid judgment, giving advice, and sharing your opinions.   Just listen.  Some survivors will want to talk more than others.  Let your friend know that you are available to listen when they are ready to talk.  

 Do not confront an alleged offender
While it is normal to be angry at the person accused of hurting your friend, confronting this person can result in the offender escalating behavior (ie, stalking) against the victim.

Protect your friend’s privacy
Brown is a small campus and when someone is sexually assaulted they may feel like everyone knows what happened to them.  It’s important that you get permission from your friend before you talk to anyone about what they have shared with you.  Your friend has confided in you because they trust you.  If you talk to another person about the incident, your friend may feel betrayed.  At the same time, you may find it difficult to maintain your friend’s privacy because the incident is upsetting to you.  You can seek support from one of the resources below without identifying who your friend is. 

Take care of yourself
When someone you care about is hurt, it is normal to feel angry, sad and powerless.  As a friend, it is also common to experience many of the same reactions a survivor does.  Consider getting support with how you are feeling.  Processing your feelings with the person who has been sexually assaulted can be overwhelming to them and may exacerbate how they are feeling.   The resources below are for friends and family members as well as victims.
           
Believe in the possibility of healing
Let your friend know that you believe that they have the strength and the capacity to heal. People are resilient; they can and do recover from the trauma of sexual assault.

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Resources to assist you as you help your friend

Coordinator of Sexual Assault Prevention and Advocacy
Bita Shooshani, 401.863-2794, bita@brown.edu, 3rd floor of Health Services
Bita is available to help students affected by sexual violence and abuse in a relationship. Confidential services include support for a survivor or the friends of a survivor, help exploring options to address the incident (such as filing a complaint, if that is the student's choice) and educational programs for the student community. When you speak to Bita, you do not have to pursue any specific course of action and no action will be taken unless it’s something you choose.

Sexual Assault Response Line 401.863-6000
Available through Psychological Services' on-call system. Confidential crisis support and information is available for any Brown student dealing with sexual assault. The on-call counselor is also available to accompany a victim to the hospital.

Counseling and Psychological Services 401.863-3476
Clinicians provide confidential crisis support, follow-up appointments, and 24-hour on-call services for any Brown student who has been impacted by sexual violence.  Located at J Walter Wilson, Room 516.

Brown Department of Public Safety 401.863-4111 (emergency response).
Emergency response available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You may also call Public Safety's administrative number, 401. 863-3322, for non-urgent matters, questions, or complaints.

Brown Department of Public Safety, Special Victim’s Unit, Michelle Nuey, 401.863-2542 (non-emergency response)
This unit provides information and support concerning University and Providence Police reporting options.  Confidential services include safety planning, victim advocacy, court accompaniment and assistance with obtaining restraining orders.

University Health Services 401.863-3953
Confidential medical care, testing and treatment. Emergency contraceptive pills and treatment for sexually transmitted infections are available. Located at the corner of Brown and Charlesfield Streets.

Sexual Assault & Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-494-8100
If you or someone you know needs help because of a sexual assault or an abusive relationship, call this hotline 24 hours a day. Counselor-advocates provide confidential support and are available to accompany victims of sexual assault to the hospital and police station. Ongoing counseling and support groups are available. (This hotline is specific to Rhode Island.  Contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE if you need help in another state.)

Links you can use

The Office of Student Life, Student Handbook
This is an online version of the Student Handbook that links to the section on policies and regulations. Brown's definition of sexual misconduct is outlined here as well as the steps taken when an assault occurs.

Day One: The Sexual Assault and Trauma Resource Center
Day One is the RI resource for victims of sexual assault and their families. The site provides information on a range of topics, including sexual assault, child sexual abuse, internet safety and sex offender management. Day One offers individual and group counseling for survivors of sexual abuse, child sexual abuse and for their families.

Rape, Abuse, and Incest Network (RAINN)
This web site offers information and statistics on sexual assault and can locate a local rape crisis center in your area.

Rape Treatment Center
This web site offers information on the impact of rape, date rape drugs, facts and statistics, as well as a comprehensive list of links to other resources.

Gay Men's Domestic Violence Project
The Gay Men's Domestic Violence Project is a grassroots, non-profit organization providing community education and direct services for clients. GMDVP offers shelter, guidance, and resources to allow gay, bisexual, and transgender men in crisis to leave violent situations and relationships.

The Network/ La Red
This program offers free services in English and Spanish for lesbians, bisexual women and transgender people who are victims of battering. These services include a hotline, emergency shelter and advocacy programs. Located in Boston, Massachusetts.

Anti-Violence Project
This project serves lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and HIV-positive victims of violence, and others affected by violence, by providing free and confidential services enabling them to regain their sense of control, identify and evaluate their options, and assert their rights

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Disclaimer: BWell Health Promiotion is part of Health Services at Brown University. Health Promotion maintains this site as a resource for Brown students. This site is not intended to replace consultation with your medical providers. No site can replace real conversation. Health Promotion offers no endorsement of and assumes no liability for the currency, accuracy, or availability of the information on the sites we link to or the care provided by the resources listed. Health Services staff are available to treat and give medical advice to Brown University students only. If you are not a Brown student, but are in need of medical assistance please call your own health care provider or in case of an emergency, dial 911. Please contact us if you have comments, questions or suggestions.