Surviving a sexual assault can be a traumatic experience, and reactions can be varied, in time and in kind. You may be supporting a friend or family member who has survived a sexual assault, and many questions may arise in how to best support them, how to ask the right questions, and offer the best help.
It can be difficult to know how to handle such situations. We can help guide you in understanding your experience as a helper, and the ways to understand and support your loved one. These skills can be utilized regardless of the relationship, whether you’re a friend, faculty, staff, or parent. To talk more about how to help a friend or family member call the Wellness Exchange anytime to speak with a counselor confidentially at (212) 443-9999. We have also established local phone numbers to reach the Wellness Exchange around the world — whether you are in NYU Abu Dhabi, NYU Shanghai, or at an NYU global site.
What to do if the assault recently occurred:
Sexual assault is a crime of violence and removes power and control from the survivor. It’s important to return that power and allow the survivor to have some control over next steps.
- Do they want to call the police?
- Do they want to receive medical attention? NYU students can receive routine medical attention at the Student Health Center or urgent treatment at a local emergency room. There is no obligation to receive a rape kit; they are only performed if requested.
In certain instances, a person may not know what actually happened. They may have woken up and are unsure whether they were raped. Again, empower them to make their own decisions.
- Do they want to get checked out medically just in case?
- Do they want to speak with a member of NYU public safety?
- Do they want to speak with a counselor over the phone? The Wellness Exchange hotline is confidential and available 24 hours a day, every day at (212) 443-9999.
NOTE: Members of the NYU community can speak with a counselor over the phone confidentially, and are not obligated to report the incident to Public Safety or commit to counseling.
While your friend or loved one may not choose to make a decision in the moment, nor are they obligated to commit to counseling or to filing a report with Public Safety or the police, we can help by offering assistance in navigating services and reminding them of what’s available. Don’t hesitate to call the Wellness Exchange hotline at (212) 443-9999 to speak with a Crisis Response Counselor about your concerns.
- Do they need someone with them?
- Do they need you to call someone for them?
- Allow them to make their own decisions, but offer your assistance.
Do's and don'ts of helping someone who has experienced sexual assault:
- Believe them unconditionally. Only 2% of reported rapes are false reports. This is no different from any other crime. It is important to assure your friend that you support them.
- Listen. Let them speak until they're done. If you don’t know what to say, just listening can make a difference.
- Listen actively. Nod your head, make eye contact, lean forward and upright. Try not to interrupt, give your opinion, or tell your own story until they’re done.
- Express empathy. Saying something as simple as "I'm so sorry that happened to you" or "thank you for telling me" can demonstrate that you understand the intensity of the situation and that you appreciate that they chose you to confide in. Using such "I statements" can also prevent you from sounding critical.
- Withhold judgment. You may want to comment on your own thoughts about what they've just told you, but this is not the time to critique their story. Providing an attentive and positive reaction to their narrative is one of the most helpful things you can offer.
- Ask thoughtful questions. If you want to ask questions, make sure they're for the other person's sake and not for your own curiosity. Sometimes stories are confusing or lacking detail. It's understandable that you might want to know more, but make sure any question you ask is only to help the other person further. Open-ended and judgment-free questions such as "how do you feel about that?" or "can I help in any way?" can communicate you care.
- Have patience. There is no time frame in which one must "get over" a sexual assault. Give them time and space to heal.
- Recommend professional help if someone seems to be really struggling. Remind them that seeking help does not mean they are crazy or damaged; it's just one more opportunity for support and assistance. All NYU students have access to counseling services.
- Take care of yourself. Consider speaking with a counselor if you find yourself feeling particularly affected by the content of the story. Listening to a disclosure can be overwhelming in and of itself. You will not have to break the other person’s trust by seeing a counselor about your own reaction.
- Do not blame. It is very common for people to blame the victim, but remember: no one ever deserves to be raped. Don't question actions; a survivor's behavior does not cause sexual assault. No one asks to be sexually assaulted. Be careful of asking blaming questions such as, "Why didn't you scream?" or, "What were you wearing?"
- Do not try to be a detective. Due to the nature of how trauma affects memory and the brain, sometimes stories — particularly from the past — can come off as hazy or even unbelievable. False reports are very rare, equaling roughly 2 to 8%, a number consistent with false reports of other violent crimes. Remember: it is not your job to figure out the details or determine whether someone is lying.
- Do not try to provide simple solutions. Sexual violence is not a simple issue and, therefore, it cannot be "fixed" or "solved."
- Do not try to lighten the mood. Letting someone have the space and silence to feel angry, sad, or confused is more helpful than trying to make them feel better through jokes or changing the subject.
- Do not keep a secret if someone mentions current thoughts of hurting themselves or someone else. If you are unsure of their intention, ask them directly or call the Wellness Exchange Hotline at (212) 443-9999 for guidance.
- Do not try to handle this yourself. Listening and providing a supportive reaction to someone’s disclosure is essential, but that does not mean you must manage the situation on your own. If you do not feel close enough to the person or if the issues seem overwhelming, refer to the Wellness Exchange for additional support.
- Do not judge yourself too harshly. Sometimes we don't react the way we want — we may smile when we're nervous or freeze when we're taken off guard. If you feel you did not handle a past disclosure in an effective way, it's probably not too late to go back, apologize, and try again.
- Do not ignore your own need to discuss your feelings. Supporting someone through a traumatic experience can be overwhelming, so remember to take care of yourself. You can also contact the Wellness Exchange for information and support.