“Please call me. I need to talk to you.”, read the text from my childhood friend. We send funny Instagram posts back and forth everyday and text about what outfits we should wear on dates on the weekends, but we don’t talk on the phone except every three weeks or so. She lives two and a half hours away, but she knows that if she needs me I will answer the phone anytime.
As soon as I read her text I unexplainably knew exactly what had happened. I felt it in my stomach and it rose to my face as I called her and waited for her to pick up the phone. “Something happened last night,” she said. She began to tell me of how she had seen her ex-boyfriend for the first time in a while. Their relationship had ended poorly and had been marked with emotional manipulation throughout. “I don’t know why I went home with him”. Within the following minutes, my worst fears and suspicions were confirmed as she unfolded the story of the night before and the physical violence she had experienced at the hands of someone she used to trust.
The next day I found myself Google-ing in class “How to respond when your friend tells you they have been a victim of intimate partner violence”, “What to do when your friend is sexually assaulted”, “Supporting a friend who has survived gender based violence” and comparing my response to that of the articles I found. No one prepares you to respond to that phone call. It seems we live in blissful denial of the reality of so many women’s lives. RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) reports “1 out of 6 American women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime”. Futhermore, “1 in 4 women… experience severe intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner contact sexual violence, and/or intimate partner stalking with impacts such as injury, fearfulness, post-traumatic stress disorder, use of victim services, contraction of sexually transmitted diseases, etc.” (NCADV). For context, 1 out of 8 women are diagnosed with breast cancer, which is the most common kind of cancer. So even more than breast cancer, which is fairly common today, women are more likely to experience abuse and violence. Even so, I felt completely lost on how to deal with something that is a reality in the lives of so many women today.
From talking to my friend on the phone that night and what I found from the articles I read that next day in class, I have come to find that while there is no perfect script to follow when responding and reacting to a friend’s experience of sexual violence, there are some things that are important to keep in mind.
- Just listen and be present.
This may seem simple, but it can be hard not to interject when you want to affirm your friend or relate to what she is sharing. While what you have to say may be valuable, there will be time to share it later, once your friend has had the space and freedom to fully express her experience, how she feels, and the thoughts she has. Your role, for now at least, is to simply allow her to unpack what is going on without trying to find an immediate solution.
While there is a time later to discuss options and resources your friend may choose to use, at first your job is to be present with your friend. In my experience, I struggled with wanting to come up with a solution to the problem as soon as it arose. This can be good in the case of a flat tire or a broken sink, but when dealing with real human hurts, sometimes a practical solution is not the best option. It is good that you want stop your friend from hurting, but the first step is to allow them room to hurt and express everything they need to.
- Understand the context and how it may affect choices.
What you would do in this situation and what your friends chooses to do may be different and that is okay. Oftentimes this comes up when deciding whether to report or press charges. While I feel that reporting and pressing charges can be can be empowering for a survivor, my friend chose not to press charges. Because of her situation and the people involved, she felt better seeking help from friends and professionals and not speaking to the police. This was challenging for me to understand, but because I wanted to respect her choices, there were times I had to hold my tongue and not express what I thought was best for her when she did not agree. Because I did not experience what she did, I cannot make choices for her, only try to advocate for her in the choices she makes now. Sexual assault and intimate partner violence take away any choice from the survivor, so recovering this autonomy in how one responds to it can be incredibly empowering.
There is only so much you can do for your friend. I wanted to solve for her all of the problems that intimate partner violence and sexual assault brought, but I am not trained to provide all of the care she needed in that time. This was frustrating to me because I am in school to become a counselor and work in situations such as this and felt I should have been more prepared. I had to realize that I am only an undergraduate psychology student and this was not a client, but a friend. She needed me to be her friend, not her counselor (although some of my counseling training was useful) and I needed to help her find someone who was a well-trained and qualified professional. University health centers and sexual assault centers in the community are often great resources for survivors of sexual assault. There they can find all of the resources they may need such as counseling, pelvic examinations, legal consultations, rape kits, and STD testing. If you or a friend are experiencing abuse or violence at the hands of a romantic partner, Hospitality House for Women is a great resource and if you or a friend have experienced sexual assault, The Sexual Assault Center of Northwest Georgia can also be a great resource. Using these resources can help you feel like you have something to offer your friend and a support system of professionals who will help you help your friend.
- Take care of yourself.
While supporting your friend, remember to also take care of yourself. If you feel like you need to share your burden with someone else, it can be hard to decide whom to tell because you want to keep your friend’s experience private. It is normal and healthy to talk to someone about your experience being a support to your friend, only make sure the person you choose is trustworthy and removed from the situation. Even counselors need counseling sometimes. Similarly you may want to reach out for help. If you do not feel like you have someone who is removed from the situation and can keep your conversation confidential, finding a counselor to talk to can be an amazing resource to help you sort through your feelings and thoughts about the situation and find some peace as you support your friend.