If a friend says they were sexually assaulted, start with “I believe you.”

March 30, 2016 | by Kerry O’Connor, RN, BSN, SANE-A

Every 107 seconds, someone is sexually assaulted in this country. The National Sexual Resource Center estimates one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped in their lifetime. But, almost 70 percent of these crimes will not be reported to police. Why is sexual assault one of the most under-reported crimes?

Sexual assault is extremely traumatic, and only those who have suffered it can understand the effects. It’s hard enough for survivors to find the courage to report their assault. When they do, many face negative reactions, such as doubt or blame, which often stops the reporting process.

Since rapists attack an average of six times, one unreported crime can equal five more victims. At the same time, a negative response can further damage the physical and emotional health of survivors, leading to issues like post-traumatic stress. Sadly, survivors are better off receiving no support at all than negative or hurtful reactions.

The Start By Believing public awareness campaign designed by End Violence Against Women International is trying to change the way we respond to rape and sexual assault in our communities. It’s important to note that false reports of rape are no higher than false reports of any other violent crime.

As the campaign states: “There is no shame when your loved one dies. When your car is stolen. When you’re diagnosed with cancer. Friends and loved ones gather around you for support. It should be the same with sexual violence. But all too often, survivors who have the courage to tell someone what happened are blamed for bringing it on themselves. A terrifying attack becomes a source of shame, not support. This needs to change.”

Most often, the first person a survivor confides in after an assault is a friend or family member. How you respond can have a lasting impact on their recovery. Here are some tips for how to respond if your friend tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted:

“I’m so sorry this happened to you.” It is extremely difficult for survivors of sexual assault to come forward. When they do, make sure to show empathy and respect. Say things like “I’m glad you are sharing this with me.” Avoid any judgment.

“I believe you.” Many survivors are hesitant to share their story because they worry they will not be believed. They are taking a chance opening up to you, so show them you believe them! Don’t ask “why” questions that sound like you don’t trust their story.

“I’m here for you.” Many survivors of sexual assault are intensely traumatized. They may cry, have an angry outburst, or be incredibly calm. Let them express their emotions, listen and be unconditionally supportive. Reassure your friend that this doesn’t change the way you see them.

“It’s not your fault.” More than 80 percent of sexual assault survivors know the person who assaulted them, and many survivors may feel ashamed or blame themselves. Remind your friend that survivors of sexual assault are never to blame! Say things like “You did not ask for this to happen, you trusted this person” and “What happened was not your fault.”

“Are you open to seeking medical care?” Offer to accompany your friend to get medical attention but make sure they know it’s their decision so they feel in control. If the assault just happened, a medical examination can provide evidence to apprehend and prosecute the assailant.

“You are not alone.” Talk about the many support services available to help survivors of sexual assault recover. Resources like the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) can provide information about local health facilities and the reporting process. Visitors can chat anonymously at online.rainn.org.

About one-third of sexual assault survivors do not go on to report it. It doesn’t have to be like this. The goal of Start By Believing is “to change the world, and outcomes for victims, one response at a time.”

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Join us on Wednesday, April 6—the globally-recognized Start By Believing Day—in the Oak Room at Elmhurst Hospital for an all-day education event. The afternoon portion, from 1 - 3:30 p.m., will be geared toward community members. Come and learn about myths and facts of sexual violence and the sexual assault services available in your community. For more information about the event, call 331-221-0148.

If you or someone you know has been sexual assaulted, the YWCA in Addison offers a 24-hour hotline at 630-971-3927.

Learn more about the Start By Believing Campaign.

Learn how to reduce your risk of sexual assault.

Get resources to help recover from sexual assault.

Kerry O'Connor RN, BSN, SANE-A is the sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) nurse coordinator at Elmhurst Hospital.

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