Most of us have supported friends through difficult times, such as a breakup, academic pressure, or family issues. But how do we step up and provide support when friends and loved ones experience sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence? Does this change if the person who experienced the assault is male?
Social pressure and stereotypes about gender can make it particularly challenging for men who’ve been assaulted to talk about their experiences. “Social constructions of masculinity can make it especially difficult for males to come forward and seek support with their experiences of being victimized by sexual violence,” says Cari Ionson, Sexual Violence Response and Awareness Coordinator at Mount Royal University in Alberta. “Social constructions of what it means to be a man include: don’t be vulnerable, don’t talk about feelings, be hypersexual, be strong.”
“Some men fear that they will be seen as less of a man,” says Dr. Jim Hopper, a researcher, therapist, and instructor at Harvard Medical School. “If they’re heterosexual, they may fear people will doubt their sexuality. And if they’re gay or bisexual, they may blame the assault on their sexuality in a way that further stigmatizes their being gay or bisexual.”
A common belief is that sexual violence only affects women. In fact, many men have unwanted sexual experiences, as both children and adults. Twelve percent of sexual assault survivors are male, according to police-reported data from the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey (2010). But the true prevalence is likely much higher. The General Social Survey from Statistic Canada suggests 88 percent of sexual assaults aren’t reported to the police (2009). In the same survey, 15 out of 1,000 Canadian men reported that they had been sexually assaulted (2009).
“Sex, gender identity, and race can all influence how an experience like this affects someone, but it’s very important you have no presumption about what it feels like to your friend—so listen,” says Dr. Melanie Boyd, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs and Lecturer in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale University in Connecticut.
Talking to your friend about what happened
Everyone is different. People’s varying personalities and circumstances affect how they respond to an unwanted sexual experience and what we can do to help. For example, some people want lots of hugs, while some prefer verbal support. The most important thing is to relate to your friend in a way that can help him feel empowered and connected. As a friend, you’re in a great position to do this.
When a friend discloses an experience of violence, it’s normal to feel a wide range of emotions, such as shock, confusion, sadness, or anger. In the moment, keep the conversation focused on your friend’s emotions, not your own.
“Self-blame is very common for people who’ve experienced a sexual assault,” says Ionson. “Partially, that’s just what people do when something bad happens: We go over the events in our head, hunting for things we could have done differently,” says Dr. Boyd. “It’s a way of regaining a sense of control. In the case of sexual violence, though, survivors also have to contend with victim-blaming patterns that run through our culture. So it’s important that friends help them push back against that. Be careful not to say or ask anything that might suggest blame—and affirm for your friend that he did the best he could in a difficult, complicated situation.”
Here are four ways you can be there for your friend
As challenging an experience as a sexual assault may be, it’s not as though your friend has become an entirely different person. The “othering” of people who’ve been assaulted—treating them differently—can be just as dangerous as ignoring or minimizing unwanted sexual experiences, according to researchers Nicola Gavey and Johanna Schmidt (Violence Against Women, 2011). Avoid thinking of the assault as something that cuts your friend off from the rest of the world; in fact, it’s up to you to be supportive and counteract that.
- Because of stereotypes about gender and sexual violence, male survivors may feel particularly othered: “It’s difficult for men to come forward with sexual assault because there are limited services and our claims are often not taken seriously,” says Alan B.*, a fourth-year graduate student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. To avoid othering, you can demonstrate that you take your friend’s experience seriously by using phrases like “that wasn’t okay” or “that sounds really messed up.”
- While it’s important to give your friend opportunities to talk about his experience of violence (if he chooses to), remember to maintain the other parts of your friendship too. It may be a relief to your friend to spend some time on normal activities that he enjoys. You can try statements like, “I’m happy to talk more about this if you want, but it’s also fine if you want to take a break from processing and go for a run together.”
Make sure to listen and focus on your friend’s feelings. “Listen to what the person is saying and then soak it in,” says Gabrielle Bouchard, Peer Support and Trans Advocacy Coordinator at the Centre for Gender Advocacy in Quebec. “Don’t try to find an answer.”
- Avoid pushing your own ideas. “Reassure them that it wasn’t their fault, no matter what the circumstances were. You want to be supportive and understanding and communicate your belief that healing is possible. Support the survivor’s decision in regards to their own healing, even if it’s to do nothing,” says Joan Tuchlinsky, Public Education Manager at the Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region in Ontario.
- Don’t try to investigate the situation. It’s not important for you to find out exactly what happened or to delve into the details beyond what your friend wants to share.
- Avoid questions that might feel blaming (e.g., “Were you drunk?” or “Did you say no?”). “Being blamed was like being punched in the stomach and created huge amounts of self doubt. It took many years to realize it wasn’t my fault and it never was. I learned if anyone ever told me they were assaulted, I would absolutely, unconditionally, believe them,” says Tim G.*, a second-year student at Nova Scotia Community College.
- Don’t speculate about what you would have done in the situation (e.g., “If someone tried to do that to me, I’d fight them off”) or project emotions onto your friend (e.g., “You must feel like a whole different person”). Let your friend lead the conversation, and respect what he’s feeling.
Try statements like…
Avoid pronouns that assume the gender of the perpetrator or that make other assumptions about the experience. “These are very real issues, and shouldn’t be stigmatized by gender,” says Victor M.*, a second-year student at Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.
- Make it clear that you’re not making presumptions about your friend’s experience based on his identity. In particular, avoid assumptions about your friend’s sexual orientation or gender identity. “Drop in phrases or words that don’t put them on the spot but that signal your openness to hearing a more complex narrative, about, for example, ‘people of all genders,’” says Dr. Boyd. “Pay attention to what’s going on for the person in front of you.”
- It’s not your role to define the experience for your friend. Some people don’t use the word “rape” or “assault” to describe what may seem to you to be sexual violence, or relate to the terms “victim” or “survivor.” “You want them to feel like you’re connecting with their experience, not trying to impose your views or language on them,” says Dr. Hopper.
“As a friend, you want to relate to them in a way that gives them power, including by giving them choices and respecting whatever choices they make on whatever timeline,” says Dr. Hopper.
- Your friend might be interested in working with the police, pursuing disciplinary action, or working with other university resources. It’s up to him to decide. While it’s not your job to steer him to the police or school administrators, providing information about his options can be a great way to help. “Most schools have options for students to take (if they choose) after a sexual assault—for example, every post-secondary institution in Ontario must have a stand-alone sexual violence policy,” says Beth Blackett, Peer Health Outreach Coordinator, Student Wellness Services at Queen’s University in Ontario. Figure out what resources your school has, such as hotlines, therapists, heath care providers, disciplinary processes, chaplains, or survivor advocates; different provinces are in different phases of introducing new resources. “I was sexually assaulted and have since received counselling. It helped me understand that I was a victim,” says Jim G.*, a fourth-year student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.
- Talk with your friend about what makes him feel empowered and safe. Everyone’s different, so whether your friend feels like watching TV, working out, or flirting with someone at a party, you should ask and see how you can help. Sometimes people want to spend time on their own, sometimes people want to be social. It’s not your job to judge, but to be supportive.
Look after yourself
“Sexual violence impacts not only the individual who has experienced the violence, but those who support that person as well,” says Ionson. “It can be exhausting and affect your ability to be supportive, especially if you’re ‘vicariously traumatized’ by what you hear or affected in other ways. Just like trauma, ‘vicarious trauma’ symptoms can include intrusive thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks, and difficulty sleeping.”
Be mindful of your own needs, and make sure that you’re getting support.
- “It’s OK to set boundaries and recognize that you have limits in your ability to support your friend,” says Ionson. If you’re finding a conversation with your friend overwhelming, say so. Try language like, “I really want to be here for you, but I’m finding it hard to handle this conversation. I want to be able to support you as well as I can, and I think I can do that better if I take a break for a few minutes.”
- Reach out to university resources for support. Consider speaking to a trusted mentor, a dean, a survivor advocate, or a health professional about how you’re doing. Respect your friend’s privacy by not sharing his story with peers or classmates.
- Practise self care—whether that means taking a bubble bath, hitting up the gym, or grabbing a cup of tea. Whatever you need to help you take care of you. Even finding a counsellor of your own can help.
*Names changedGet help or find out more
Beth Blackett, MA, Peer Health Outreach Coordinator, Student Wellness Services, Queen’s University, Ontario.
Gabrielle Bouchard, Peer Support and Trans Advocacy Coordinator at the Centre for Gender Advocacy, Quebec.
Melanie Boyd, PhD, Assistant Dean in Student Affairs; Lecturer in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Yale University, Connecticut.
Jim Hopper, PhD, Independent Consultant and Clinical Instructor in Psychology, Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts.
Cari Ionson, MSW, RSW Sexual Violence Response and Awareness Coordinator, Mount Royal University, Alberta.
Joan Tuchlinsky, Public Education Manager, Sexual Assault Support Centre of Waterloo Region, Ontario.
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