how to be there for a friend who was raped
March 30, 2008 8:01 PM   Subscribe

What can I do to help a friend who was a victim of sexual assault?

A close friend of mine was raped by acquaintances this weekend and I'm struggling with how to help her. From what she remembers it sounds like she was drugged and then taken back to an unknown apartment before being raped, and waking up in the morning alone. Her boyfriend is also a close friend and had called me worried when his girlfriend didn't come home from the bar she had gone out to that night. And he called in the morning to see if I could come help out as moral support for him and his girlfriend.

We took her to the hospital yesterday for a full exam and she's already spoken to an amazing woman from social services who gave her information about the hospital's counseling services. She's receptive to the idea of using the counseling services; but she doesn't want anyone else to know about the rape, so besides myself, her boyfriend, and her best friend (who lives about 4 hours away from us) I don't think she'll have any friends to talk to.

She's on the fence about pressing charges, but knows enough contact information for the people involved that I think the police would be able to find them (she talked to the cops at the hospital, and her clothes were taken as potential evidence along with the results of whatever tests they did at the hospital). She doesn't remember everything, and the counselor told us that more things might come back and that we should encourage her to write everything down. It sounds like the people involved might do this regularly (she remembers video equipment and it doesn't sound like the apartment was anyone's house) and I hope she'll decide to press charges, but I think that's a pretty scary thing for her to think about right now and I absolutely don't want to pressure her at all.

I don't know how to talk to her about all of this though. I've told her that I'm totally down to talk to her about it if she wants, or just to come hang out with her and not talk about it if she wants that. But I don't want it to be this huge elephant in the room if she doesn't want to talk about it and I just don't know what the best thing I can do for her at this point is. Do I wait for her to bring it up? Ask how she's doing with it all? Some other option?

If anyone has any advice they don't want to share personally I've set up an email address:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
What a horrible story. I truly feel for her.

I think you're doing the right things. She's going through a lot of feelings right now and it's quite likely she doesn't know what would help, so it's good she knows you're up for keeping her company unconditionally. Just *be there*. Help her be kind to herself.

(I don't really know what more I would have wanted. My situation wasn't so black-and-white and there was only one man involved. So HMMV. But just having someone who believed me and supported me 100% would have helped me immensely. I didn't have a friend like you -- and my boyfriend left me when he found out -- so I really applaud you caring so much for her right now. I am certain it will mean a lot to her even if she doesn't say it.)
posted by loiseau at 8:13 PM on March 30, 2008

Just be there for her. Listen if she wants to talk. Hug her if she wants to be hugged. Just let her know that you believe her and will be there for her. Don't ask for details unless she wants to discuss them. Remind her that's it's not her fault. The only person at fault is the person who hurt. Keep believing her.
posted by rglass at 8:15 PM on March 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

How to help a loved one from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network
posted by nuclear_soup at 8:18 PM on March 30, 2008

It sounds as if with your and her boyfriend's assistance, she has taken all of the early steps to begin working through this horrid situation. As you've already let her know you're open to discussion if needed, that's the best offer anyone who has been physically or emotionally abused can have. Between her best friend, boyfriend and you, she appears to have strong emotional support. I would hesitate to repeatedly ask her how she is, as many people dealing with difficult physical or emotional issues seem to get overwhelmed and perhaps experience an emotional overload upon answering a sensitive question like that repeatedly.

Be with her during this time, and look carefully at cues she may give if she feels ready to talk, but as you know her better than we all do here, she may need to initiate first.
posted by Asherah at 8:19 PM on March 30, 2008

From my experience knowing survivors of sexual assault, she'll most likely bring it up quite a lot herself, as long as you've made it clear that you're always open to listen to her & be supportive.

She'll probably want at least one or two people who she can talk to outside of the professionals that she'll be dealing with, because her reactions to the counsellors, police, health professionals etc will probably become a bit of a theme to be talked through in itself & you might find that every visit to such people requires a 'debriefing' talk straight afterwards.

Obviously, don't in any way suggest that she was even remotely to blame.

Other than that, try not to be tempted into playing the amateur therapist. Leave that to the pros. What she needs is friendship & support.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:20 PM on March 30, 2008

She really does need to press charges, I think, and that's one of the trickier things here.

On one front, you and her boyfriend need to be there for her, and in my experience, the most important thing is for her to understand that being victimized doesn't change who she is as a person or her value as a person at all. This is a traumatic experience which she has survived, which she didn't deserve or invite, and that in the end, she should only come out of it wiser... but all of that is difficult enough. One tack might be to try to dull or play down in her memory what happened to her, but even if that is effective, she still needs to press charges.

You said that the circumstances made it look like these acquaintances have done this before, which as you know makes it likely that they'll do it again. There's nothing about this that isn't awful, but your friend now has a responsibility to make sure that her rapists don't attack anyone else. She knows who they are, has evidence and contact information. She's in a great position to help any potential number of women escape this same situation, aside from that doing so might just add to the current trauma.

My advice, and might not be worth a damn, is to help her frame her recovery in terms of justice. I don't know your friend, so this might not work, but you should be able to help her look at prosecution as part of the closure process. Think about it this way: any of us who were not raped by these guys would want to see them prosecuted. only she, the victim, and still traumatized, is on the fence about it. So things can come in one order or the other: either press charges, and hope that doing so brings about the understanding which leads to recovery, or undertake recovery, with the hope that afterwards, she'll be okay with pressing charges. As it seems like these guys will probably attack again within the timeframe of the latter, I think the former is better.

She should join an anonymous support group immediately, but you three will still be her main source of help. As far as that goes, the best I can say is that the three of you (and this will probably be toughest for her boyfriend) need to shift your perception of her away from "rape victim" and back to "friend." What she needs most from you is likely not to relive the event, but to just feel normal with people who aren't ignorant of what happened. If you all are social, plan events that don't involve going out, but rather staying in and having a good time someplace where she knows she's safe. And then don't bring it up. She'll bring it up, when she wants to go over it, but chances are that in the immediate future, she's better off having her friends show her that she's more than a rape victim to them.

It's easy in these situations to want to be the hero, but there's really nothing you can do except to be supportive. She, however, can be a hero to other women, but only by pressing charges. She's your friend, though, so only you will know how to approach doing that.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:27 PM on March 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

A close friend was sexually assaulted a few years ago, and I really empathise with your position- it's so hard to want to help someone without having any idea how.

What I found was that if I simply made myself available and took a passive role whenever we spoke, she found it useful. Sometimes she wouldn't mention it at all, and I'd follow her lead. Sometimes she would, and I'd be there to listen to her. Sometimes we'd even be making jokes and laughing with each other. Just see what she seems to want and follow her lead.

I know this has been said up thread, but I wanted to repeat it- my friend would often try to blame herself. She could have done something different, she should have known, etc. You need to show her that she's in no way responsible for it, and has no reason to feel gulity about it.
posted by twirlypen at 9:42 PM on March 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Nthing the idea of being a willing, outwardly passive listener.

She'll need to talk about it. And those of you in her life will need to make sure that she is talking about it -- whether to y'all or to a paid professional.

Watch closely. Keep in touch with the other folks who know about this. Make sure that she's talking to someone, even if only in little bits.

That doesn't mean calling up the boyfriend, or the best friend, and asking "What have you heard?" That means remaining in contact with them to make sure that she's getting some of it out. Because maybe she needs to do separate bits with all of you. Make a pact with those other people that you'll check in with each other without sharing personal info unnecessarily.

She's not going to be able to totally analyze the whole thing right away. It'll take time, and it'll come in fits and starts. The important thing is that those fits, those starts, happen. That she doesn't shut down. That she keep pulling at the threads.

So, that's what you can do. Be there, make sure her other trusted friends are there. Ask, occasionally and unpointedly, "how's it going today?" Let her talk if she feels like it. Let her defer if she doesn't.

Just remain strong for her. It's the best thing you can do.
posted by mudpuppie at 10:14 PM on March 30, 2008

As nuclear_soup suggests, use RAINN as a resource for you, and encourage her to make use of it too. Take Back the Night is another great resource.

Do not try to talk her into pressing charges -- that is the job of the PA's office. Your job as a supportive friend is to support whatever choice she makes and to just be there. Let her direct the conversation. If she wants to talk, talk, and if not, don't. You are probably itching to do something concrete and loving for her so knock yourself out doing just that. Make and bring her food so she doesn't have to worry about it and accompany her on her errands or run them for her. She's probably going to have fears about leaving her house or going anywhere alone but do everything you can to encourage her to get her back out in the world. If she regularly goes to the gym, go with her -- anything she can do to feel good in her body again should be highly encouraged.

Don't be surprised if she blames herself against all reason and spends a lot of time combing over her behavior trying to figure out what she did to make this happen to her. Listen to her but be firm about reinforcing the idea that this isn't her fault. Remind her always that the men who did this to her are counting on her feeling an intensity of shame that she wouldn't feel if she had been mugged or robbed -- they want her to be ashamed for their crime so that they can keep hurting women. Keep encouraging her to use those services -- drive her or otherwise accompany her if it feels to overwhelming. It's okay to be awkward and silent if you just don't know what to say; you can show your support by being there and doing kind and thoughtful things for her.

She may pull away and try to hide out from you and everybody else but do everything you can to keep her from isolating herself. This is going to be a hard time for you, too, so take care of yourself. Thank you for not running away from this and for wanting to be a good friend. I truly wish you both well.
posted by melissa may at 10:20 PM on March 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would be wary of using justice as part of the recovery process. That's great if the guy does in fact get convicted. But what happens if the justice system can't make that happen? If she built her recovery process around that, she's stuck in limbo. What happens if he goes to jail and she still feels awful?

A more solid way to recover from any traumatic experience is to find a way to make peace with it from inside herself. Her pain comes from within, so the recovery from that pain needs to come from within.

Just be there for her.
posted by gjc at 6:26 AM on March 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

I agree with those who have already disagreed with the suggestion to advocate for pressing charges. That is an incredibly complicated decision for the survivor to make (as much as those of us on the outside wish it weren't. Naturally we want to see those bastards pay, but sometimes that desire has to take a backseat), and letting her arrive at that decision in her own time and as best meets her needs is a critical part of the empowerment that is crucial to healing.

I would also add anecdotally from my experience in the support role (I was a hotline counselor and hospital advocate for a crisis center) that many survivors seem to feel a sense of otherness about themselves -- that they are different and that people can tell that Something Bad Happened to Them, and that they are unclean or otherwise a pariah, and so on. An emphasis on normalcy seemed to be helpful for those particular people: running the same errands, getting back into the same daily routine when possible, going to the same shops and restaurants, talking to the same people... getting back into the business of living. This might not be an issue for your friend, but just something to consider. I've seen that self-isolation that melissa may mentioned turn into long-term depression, which is heartbreaking.

You didn't mention in your post whether your friend is considering telling her family. When I worked with college students who were in this situation, they usually began not wanting to tell their parents, due to shame and/or a perceived need to protect them... but, to a one, the women who did end up telling their families, at least the immediate members, were vastly helped by it. The enormity of the pressure of keeping that kind of secret, of not sharing a life-changing experience with one's family, was sometimes harder to handle than the secret itself. Often the family members become a strong support system and are able to assist in the recovery process. Obviously this is anecdotal and not a rule of thumb, and the nature of your friend's family relationships and dynamics will be key to making that decision... but just something else to think about.

Also, please don't underestimate the value of getting some counseling for yourself on this. I'm not saying that you should make this about you, at the expense of your friend -- but that this is heavy, hard stuff, and it can take a toll on loved ones -- especially in a case like this where you are not only providing support but also helping to keep a big secret. At the center where I volunteered, the in-house professional counselors were all required to also receive their own counseling from peers, for debriefing and decompressing purposes... and these were certified MSWs/etc. So, don't expect to be stoic and perfect all the time. You can reach out to a counselor even just to say, "How can I best help my friend?"

Similarly (from the RAINN page that nuclear_soup linked above):
It is also important to note that having a friend or family member who is assaulted can be a very upsetting experience. For this reason it is also important that you take care of yourself. Even if your friend and family member isn’t ready to talk to a hotline specialist, you can get support for yourself. You can also get ideas about ways to help your friend or family member through the recovery process.
Thanks for helping your friend. You are a good egg.
posted by pineapple at 8:04 AM on March 31, 2008

Everyone has great, well-intentioned advice. The thing I would add, if you're looking for specifics, is this:

It isn't unusual after a sexual assault to have a terrible fear of being alone or of going anywhere alone. If this is the case with your friend, her boyfriend may initially be entirely accommodating of this, but it's likely that it will become impractical and he will become frustrated. You might let them both know that you can be around as needed andfor transport if it's useful.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:35 AM on March 31, 2008

follow-up from the OP
add a quick thank you from me to the thread. The responses so far are really helpful, I think I needed to hear that it's good for me to keep doing what I have been doing: trying to be there and be supportive, but not pressuring her to talk or to press charges if she doesn't want to. Once again, the metafilter community has totally blown me away with the caring and useful responses to people in need.
posted by jessamyn at 10:24 AM on March 31, 2008

Coming in a bit late here but something I want to add is that you need to validate her feelings. It's possible she will go through a range of emotions from feeling like it couldn't have really happened to feeling extremely stressed out and anxious. Don't dismiss her feelings and don't suggest that it would help if she didn't think about it.

It would be helpful to let her know that people can go on to live a normal happy life after being sexually assaulted, but don't do this to the extent of suggesting that she will get over it in a matter of weeks. It may be a little while until the reality of the situation sinks in so you need to be aware that you may need to continue to offer support for a while.

You may have strong feelings that it would be benficial to your friend to press charges. You can try to suggest that this may be good for her but please do not put pressure on her to do it. Your friend has just had her control taken away from her in a horrible way and she needs to be free to make her own decisions. If she isn't ready to press charges then telling her that she has a responsibility to bring the rapists to justice and that it will be necessary for her recovery will be extremely harmful. At the moment the only responsibility she has is to do what's best for her.
posted by Laura_J at 5:30 PM on March 31, 2008

Let me clarify, briefly. No, as others have mentioned, you shouldn't pressure her to press charges. I just wouldn't do anything to make her feel like "just getting past this" is the most important thing, only because it really seems to me as if her attackers will continue to do this. It isn't about justice as much as keeping further rapes from occurring.

But, as has been said above, that isn't your job. If she does press charges, though, it's definitely your job to be doubly supportive, though, as she'll be doing something braver than most of us will ever have to face.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:51 PM on March 31, 2008

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