Every survivor’s experience is different — especially in the context of college campuses. Survivors who are assaulted on campus deal with challenges that are both unique and often universally true for all survivors. At the top of that list of challenges is privacy. As a friend or loved one of a survivor, it can feel overwhelming navigating how to best support or respond to them, and you may struggle with your own feelings of guilt, sadness, and anger over what your friend has experienced. Those are very normal and valid feelings: no one should ever experience sexual violence. Part of what keeps survivors silenced or fearful, and perpetuates cycles of violence, is victim-blaming.
As a friend or loved one of a survivor, there are things you can do to support your friend through what may be an enormously challenging time and ensure they feel heard.
1. Don’t assume what a survivor needs — ask
Even if we are the most empathetic friend possible, and even if we, ourselves, have experienced similar trauma or know someone else who has, we can’t know what exactly our friend might be feeling or processing. The best way to try to gauge what your friend may need is to ask them. This both empowers them to decide, an important healing piece after experiencing a trauma that’s about disempowerment and lets them know you are open to supporting them in the way that they need. Start by sharing, “I want to support you and know that you may not know exactly what that looks like. Do you have some ways you know you want to be supported?” Whether they are aware of ways they want support or not, your main point to convey is you will support them in whatever way they need. If they are interested, you can suggest some concrete support ideas (ex. Going on a walk together at a set time each week to have support that’s consistent; helping them find counseling on campus)
(Photo © Surviving in Numbers)
2. Offer options, don’t make them mandatory
Sometimes, as a friend or loved one, it can feel impossible to sit with someone else’s trauma. We may want to act, or have an idea of how we would act in the situation: you might feel you would definitely report to law enforcement or campus police immediately, or seek medical treatment immediately, or know you’d want counseling. Your friend may want some or none of these options, and that’s okay. Everyone’s process is different. What you can do to best support your friend is to let them know what options exist or to help think through what their options may be on campus or locally. It can be hard, to sit with your friend who is in pain and not wanting to get counseling — but all you can do is let your friend process their experience in their own way.
Survivors have very valid reasons for not wanting to report to campus authorities or especially to law enforcement, who are part of a legal system where punishment rates for perpetrators of violence are low, within a system that is both not designed to support survivors and is often part of further marginalizing survivors who are most vulnerable, such as survivors of color, survivors who are immigrants, survivors who have past trauma histories, and others.
Some survivors also may not want to have their assailants punished or may be afraid of their assailant retaliating against them and hurting them further, which is especially true for those on campus who may still have to see the person who harmed them in class, in a dorm, or around campus. Some survivors may simply just not want to be forced to re-tell and re-visit their story dozens of times and have details questioned in a precinct or courtroom. Whatever decision a survivor makes is truly okay, and we need to actively let survivors know we will support whatever choice they make.
3. Let them know explicitly that you believe and trust themEven while every survivor has different needs, the best thing you can do for any survivor who tells you what they’ve experienced is to let them know you believe them and will support them in any way they need. We often worry about needing to find the perfect thing to say to a survivor but hearing a friend say “I believe you” is hugely important. Many survivors struggle with guilt and shame and worry no one will believe them. It takes enormous courage and trust in you for someone to have shared their experience with you — let them know you are a safe person with whom to do that by being clear you believe them and won’t ask any questions that can feel judgmental.
If we want survivors to share their stories, they need to know they’ll be safe doing so. If they aren’t believed, it can be devastating: as one survivor shared, “The first person I told asked me, ‘Why did you allow it to happen?’ which hurt just as bad.”
4. Be sure you have your own supportSexual violence, harassment, assault, and experiences that are hard to name can be enormously traumatic for a survivor. As a loved one or friend of a survivor, that trauma can also impact you. You may feel guilt or shame for being unable to protect your friend; you may feel scared for your own safety; your own trust and worldview may shift. Whatever feelings you’re experiencing, know that you are not the only one. There is no way to make sense of sexual violence. It’s important not to take these feelings out on the person in your life who’s experienced the trauma -- your feelings are a result of how much you care for them, but they are not responsible for your feelings. You are entitled to your own support on processing these feelings and can seek out on or off-campus counseling or call your local rape crisis center if you are able. Whether or not you feel you want to talk to someone about your own feelings in this process, there are resources available exclusively for those going through what you are.
As a way to deal with how unfathomable sexual violence is, there are also other options: you can take action to support survivors more broadly or to make change on campus. Surviving in Numbers is disrupting the cycles of victim-blaming and violence through empowering survivors to share their stories for personal healing and cultural change, and through prevention and support workshops with communities.
Every survivor deserves support. Every survivor moves forward differently: for some, there is a lifelong impact, especially if a survivor experiences multiple instances of sexual violence. As a friend, what’s most important is that you stand in solidarity with and in support of your friend’s needs and safety.
(Photo © Surviving in Numbers)
Alison Safran is the Founder & Executive Director of Surviving in Numbers, which has pioneered new techniques in story sharing for culture change and trainings for sexual violence prevention. She has nearly a decade of experience working with over 20,000 survivors, clinicians, teachers, and other providers to survivors of violence and was named 1 of 50 Global Heroes Ending Sexual Violence by a UN Partnership.