I decided to reply to this as a post, because my answer ended up being very long and personal and took on a journey of it’s own for me. it’s something that is interesting for me to think about, and something I want to keep thinking about, because teaching people how to help the rape victims in their life feels very crucial to me.
that’s a very difficult question. I still feel very strongly let down by some of my friends and I maintain that not many people were there to help me after I was assaulted (although I also blocked a lot of people out). I know that if I had the friends then that I have now, things would have been easier for me. but I’m not necessarily saying that my friends then didn’t care about me, just that they obviously were clueless as to how to help me. plenty of people had no idea what to do or say.
but just because I know that a lot of people fell short doesn’t necessarily mean that I know what they could have done instead! but I’ll suggest what I can.
I think it’s important to take it very seriously when someone opens up to you about sexual trauma they’ve experienced. be upset for them; be devastated! show them that you genuinely care that this has happened to them. I had a friend respond to the news that I’d been raped with “that sucks!”. it’s not an appropriate response. getting a bad mark on an assignment sucks; having to work over the weekend sucks. being raped is more than that, don’t devalue it with that kind of every day language. it’s hard to describe, but when I tell someone I’ve been raped and they become distressed, I get this very distinct feeling that is a combination of immense sadness but also warm relief. I’m sad that I had to tell them something that upset them, but it also makes me feel reassured that this IS something awful and this person recognises that and cares what has happened. it’s validating for me.
I still remember talking to my friend kate about what happened, and I told her one of the things my rapists said to me the next morning, and she audibly gasped and grabbed both her chest and my hand and looked like she was about to cry. that meant a lot to me, and helped me realise the gravity of what I had experienced. I don’t think I even realised how cold and heartless the sentence was until I saw her reaction; it’s like I had accepted that kind of treatment and was numb to it. I needed someone to react like that so that I felt empowered to go, “you know what, they’re right - this is messed up.” so; get angry and upset and feel your friend’s pain with them.
I also think it’s important, in most cases, to try not to ask too many questions about the details of what happened: let them tell you about it at their own pace, and let them reveal as much to you as they’re comfortable. opening up can be really hard. the best you can do is be supportive, listen intently, and then they’ll know that you’re happy to listen if they want to talk. don’t make the conversation about you, don’t talk over them, give them your full attention and make them feel safe and cared for. essentially: be a thoughtful listener.
when you do talk, be careful! think about what you’re saying. don’t question why they did what they did. don’t ask why they let this or that happen, or why they drank that much, or why they didn’t do this or that, or why they didn’t pick up on their rapists shady behaviour sooner, don’t say “did you push him away?” or “did you say no?”. even if the person did something that was obviously risky or unsafe or irrational, try and be understanding. telling them that they should have done it differently or that they responded poorly will not help in any way. they probably have already listed a hundred reasons why it’s their own fault, and they don’t need you to give them another one. I had a friend who told me I was stupid when I initially didn’t want to go to the police; that was unhelpful, hurtful and certainly didn’t motivate me any more to report it. I had a teacher ask me to promise them I wouldn’t be so stupid again in the future; again, unhelpful and hurtful.
be mindful of the fact that everyone processes trauma differently and everybody wants and needs different things. some people will want to be left alone, other people will be devastated if others leave them. some people need to talk about what happened, other people need to be distracted. the best thing to do is just ask what the person needs, and make clear that you’re happy to do whatever will help them. making suggestions is good too, because I think so much of the time you don’t know what you want or need to do until someone offers to do it for you. your friend might want to have a cup of tea and talk, they might need you to talk to someone else for them, they might need you to go with them to the police or to a counselling appointment, they might need you to do their washing for them once or twice, or clean their house or their room, or drive them somewhere. those are just a few things!
in the few days after it happened: I remember I needed to be driven to the police station, I needed someone to tell the lady at the counter why we were there because I couldn’t stop crying and I certainly couldn’t utter the word rape, I needed someone to buy me a huge burger for the way home, I needed someone to take my dog to the vet because she was sick, I needed someone to stay with my dog that night while I was at the police station, I needed someone to submit a uni assignment for me, I needed someone to sit with me at uni because I’d cry if I was alone, I needed someone to stay with me for a couple of nights while my mum was away, I needed someone to stay up with me all night while I cried and ranted, I needed someone to tell work I wasn’t coming in that weekend.
a few weeks or months after it happened: I needed to only go out with people who knew what had happened, I needed to know they would stay with me and never leave me to go home alone or leave me alone with a guy, I needed guys I was seeing to make me feel safe and comfortable and demonstrate that they understood good consent, I needed people to not make rape jokes or make light of rape around me, I needed my uni friends to get off my fucking back when I didn’t go to uni (spoiler: didn’t happen), I needed people to keep meaningfully checking up on me so I didn’t feel like everyone had forgotten what happened and moved on without me (that also didn’t happen), I needed affection and intimacy (nope), I needed to know that people still cared about me even though I was fucked up and a mess and kept crying everywhere, I needed people to stop telling me that I was “so strong” while I was falling apart.
now, more than a year later: I need to feel that there are people who will listen when I need to talk, I need to be reminded that I don’t have to be strong all the time, I need people to support my decisions even when I make those decisions out of total weakness and sheer incapacity, I need for nobody to ever attempt to have anal sex with me ever again and I need people to stop interrogating me for answers why when I say that I am not interested in anal (though I am sure I will never ever have this requirement satisfied), I need for people to stop attempting to have sex with me when I am very drunk, I need for people to say no to me if I am very drunk and attempting to have sex with them, I need people to respect my boundaries and listen to me when I say no in ANY aspect of my life, I need people to understand how overwhelming basic things can be for me and not think less of me for it, I sometimes need somebody to help me do my washing, or my shopping, or take me somewhere because if they don’t, it won’t get done. I need to know that I’m not alone.
those are some things that a person who has experienced assault or depression might need! it’s good if you can be mindful of those things. it might give you an idea about the different stages someone might go through and the different things they may need. of course, they may need none of those things! but if you care about your friend and stay in touch with them, it’ll be easier to see what you can do for them. you cannot talk to your friend only occasionally and still expect them to open up to you, or expect them to accept your help. it doesn’t mean you are a bad friend, but sometimes there are things that only best friends can provide.
I think people’s inability to respond helpfully to victims of rape is part of a bigger picture of people not really knowing how to address confronting personal situations or undertake successful close relationships. I think most friendship or relationship problems come down to poor communicating, a poor understanding of each other, or a poor understanding of emotions and behaviour. so I think some people are naturally very good with other people, and thus will deal well with a person coming forward about an assault, while other people haven’t got quite a firm grip on that level of social interaction, you know? it just takes a bit more work for them. so the whole thing can be a very awkward, muddled process, and often even just the intent to help can be nice. above all, I think the idea is to be patient, be understanding, be gentle, be present, be genuine.