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My friend has been sexually assaulted. What now?

CW: Sexual assault, sexual harassment.

She calls me 23 times in the middle of the night. Having left the club early, I was already fast asleep. In the morning I wake up hungover, pop a Panadol and check my phone. I quickly texted her “You ok?”. The news she texts me opens up a whole heap of emotions in the pit of my stomach.

Guilt. Guilt that I wasn’t there for her when she needed me. That I was fast asleep, blissfully unaware of what she was going through.

Anger. Because how dare he do this to my sweet, loving friend.

Shock. Because despite the statistics that 1 in 5 women have experienced sexual assault since they were 15, it is a statistic that doesn’t need to exist.

The question of “What now?” constantly ran through my head. As someone who tends to be apathetic (I am an Aquarius after all), I knew that what she needed was support, a shoulder to lean on.

Don’t be pushy - Instinctively, you will want to get into take- charge mode. Run through the next steps- medical exams, pressing charges, seeking professional help. Although you may mean well, you could unintentionally be causing further harm. Let them decide what they want to do and when they want to do it and make sure that they know that you will be with them every step of the way.

Don’t minimise what happened - You may attempt to make them feel better by downplaying what happened. "Don’t worry, you will bounce back from this." "Take a deep breath and carry on. Don’t let this drag you down." These are things that should remain unspoken as they could make your friend feel invalidated. Everybody responds to crisis in different, complex ways. They could feel completely numb or completely devastated. Recovery will not be as straightforward. It is important that you recognise that any reaction is a perfectly normal and valid reaction.

Do listen - It may be a simple thing and something that we’ve all heard before. Don’t interrupt, something that many people (me included) find difficult. You may be looking for answers or planning on what you could say to make them feel better but your friend deserves to be truly heard. There is nothing wrong with silence and you can spend a few moments after they have finished to get your thoughts together.

Do talk to them in a sensitive way - It’s essential that any questions you ask must be without judgement. One tip is to avoid starting them with “Why”, as this word tends to be loaded with judgement. Also, avoid phrases that could infer that the blame lies with them. “What were you wearing?” “Were you drunk?” They didn’t asked to be sexually assaulted. The responsibility always completely lies with the perpetrator and not them. Another method is to be honest and outright with them in communicating the intention of your questions.

“I’m going to ask you some questions, not because I think you did anything wrong, but because I want to really know and understand what happened. Is that okay?”

Anyone who identifies anywhere along the gender spectrum can be a survivor of sexual assault.

I have used the example of my friend, who identifies as a woman, but these also apply to supporting anyone who has been sexually assaulted.

Further support:

1800RESPECT: National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Centre

Canberra Rape Crisis Centre: Provides counselling and practical support to survivors of sexual violence in ACT.

Service Assisting Male Survivors of Sexual Assault (SAMSSA): (02) 6287 3935 (part of the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre)

Living Well: Online support for male survivors of sexual assault

Kid's Helpline: 24/7 phone and online counselling service for young people

- Angela Chen

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