First Steps and Immediate Assistance
If you or a friend experienced sexual assault recently, the situation should be considered an emergency, and there are some basic steps you should encourage the victim to take.
Do not shower, bathe, douche, eat, drink, smoke, wash your hands or brush your teeth until after you have had a medical examination. Remember to take a change of clothes to the hospital, as they will collect the ones you're wearing as evidence. If you do change, save all clothing that you were wearing at the time of the assault and bring them and any other potential evidence to the medical exam. Place each item of clothing in a separate paper bag. Do not use plastic bags. Do not clean, straighten up, disturb, or remove anything from the area where the assault occurred.
A forensic examination is one way to preserve evidence, but it is not the only way. You can easily take some important steps to preserve evidence by saving all text messages, emails, social media postings (taking screenshots can be helpful) or anything else that might relate to the assault, or that might be helpful later in reconstructing a timeline of events. Write down the names of people who might have seen you immediately before or after, as it's easy to forget names or locations. Even if you do not want to participate in the investigative process now, you might later change your mind, so it's helpful to preserve as much information as possible.
It is vital that sexual assault survivors seek emergency medical care at a local hospital as soon as possible. A person who has been sexually assaulted may not realize that they have sustained serious injuries (including closed head injury). In addition, hospital staff are trained to collect, preserve and document physical evidence of the assault. Physical evidence is best collected as soon as possible; however, some evidence may still be collected after 72 hours. Emergency department staff can also provide counseling and treatment related to sexually transmitted infections (including HIV) and pregnancy which may have resulted from the sexual assault.
Recognize that healing from a sexual assault takes time. Talking about the sexual assault or its effects will help the survivor through the recovery and healing process. Supportive family, friends, Wise Options advocates and on-campus resources can make a real difference for survivors of sexual assault. On the other hand, unsupportive or victim-blaming comments from family or friends can do tremendous harm to the sexual assault survivor.
How to help a friend or family member
It can be hard to know what to do to help a friend or a family member who has experienced sexual violence or sexual harassment.
A survivor has experienced a violation and/or crime (or crimes) where they have lost control over the situation. It is natural to feel a tremendous loss of power and control over life during these times. Surviving sexual violence or sexual harassment is a testament of the individual's strength; however, they may not feel strong. Below are some suggestions about how you can help.
What to say to a survivor
- I'm sorry this happened to you.
- It wasn't your fault.
- You survived; obviously you did the right things.
- Thank you for telling me.
- I'm always here if you want to talk.
- Can I do anything for you?
- How can I support you?
What never to say to a survivor
- It was your fault.
- You could have avoided it had you _________ (e.g., been sober, stayed with your friends, locked your door, not led them on).
- You should not have ________ (e.g., walked alone at night, dressed provocatively, gone to their room, had so much to drink, kissed them).
- It's been so long! Get over it!
- You wanted it.
- It's not that big of deal; it happens to lots of people.
- I don't believe you.
- They are such a nice person and couldn't have done something like that.
- What did you do to provoke them?
- If you report them, you will ruin their future.
- You should have fought back.
- I would have ________ (done something differently than the survivor, e.g., fought back, ran away, screamed, called the police).
DOrespect the survivor enough not to pity them.
DON'Tassume they do/do not want to be touched. Some people can't stand a hug at this point. Others can't make it without one. Ask before touching.
DOcomfort them. Make the environment comfortable.
DON'Ttry to solve all of their problems for them. They have had their control taken away. Try to avoid doing that again.
DOallow them to tell you as much or as little as they need.
DON'Tassume you know how the survivor feels.
- Refer the survivor to this page.
- Do offer to gather information about options and who may be able to help. Once you educate yourself and have information to share, encourage them to take a step. It's okay to offer your support in taking a step but be mindful of not taking over or pressuring the survivor to do what you think they should do. Whatever step they take will reinforce that they can take another.
- Be willing to say nothing. If you don't know what to say, that's okay. The most powerful statement a friend can make is by simply being there, not trying to fix everything or pretending it's okay. Silence often says more than words.
- Do not judge the survivor. An individual is likely examining themselves very critically during this time. Asking questions regarding details of the assault/harassment, why the individual was at a specific place, doing a specific behavior, etc. only works to place blame on the survivor for the violence/harassment of the perpetrator. No matter what their behavior was prior to the assault, they are NOT responsible - the perpetrator is. Following sexual violence/harassment, an individual may try to understand their role in what happened but it's important to be clear that they are not responsible for the actions of others. Examine your own attitudes and feelings about sexual violence/harassment. Don't allow the myths to affect how you perceive the survivor.
- Do not attempt to impose your explanation of why this has happened or try to “fix” the situation. It may come across to the survivor as victim-blaming. The only real explanation is that the perpetrator chose to act as they did. Additionally, you don't have to fix the situation; you just have to be supportive.
- Remind survivors that their feelings are understandable. There are many symptoms that the individual may experience; these are typical reactions to traumatic events. If they are experiencing feelings, emotions, or physical symptoms that are out of the ordinary, it is due to the fact that they just experienced a horrific and traumatic event.
- Do not attempt to reassure the person that everything is “Okay” or tell them you know how they feel. At this time, everything is not “okay.” Making statements such as “Don't worry about it.”, “You're going to be fine.”, etc. may serve to minimize the victimized person's feelings and downplay the seriousness of the event(s) which occurred. Also, chances are you don't know exactly how they feel. You may know what it feels like to be hurt, to be violated, or to be angry. However, you probably don't know quite how they feel at this moment.
- Do not feel intimidated by the intense emotions of survivors. Remember: you don't have to fix the situation, just be supportive. There are many people at our College and in the community who can help provide support.
- Encourage the survivor to seek counseling and post-trauma services. There are specially trained mental health professionals that can assist the survivor on many levels. Counseling is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength and of taking control of the situation.
- Find your own support. You are also affected by this situation. You can't support someone else if you aren't supported as well. You cannot expect the survivor to provide support for you; find other friends, support people, or counseling to share your own feelings related to what happened to your friend.