Disclosures of sexual violence are often made to people the victim-survivor trusts, usually a friend. Whilst you can’t rescue your friend and you can’t change what has happened, you can listen, believe and support your friend in a positive way that can greatly help their healing process. Victim-survivors often experience trauma whether the violence happened once or many times, recently or many years ago, as an adult or as a child.
It can feel difficult to know how to act and respond to a friend when they disclose. You may feel horrified, shocked and angry that this has happened to them.
When thinking about how to respond when someone discloses sexual violence, at BSU we use the acronym BLOG - Believe, Listen, Offer Options and Resources, and Get Help for Yourself. (Humphreys & Towl, 2020)
- The most common reason people choose not to tell anyone about sexual abuse is the fear that the listener won’t believe them. Therefore, it is important that they are believed. People rarely lie about sexual violence; the percentage of false allegations is thought to be less than 3%.
- To believe means leaving behind your own judgements about what you might have done in their position and accepting that they did their best to cope.
- You do not need to know what happened in order to help them, and it may re-traumatise them if they have to go over it in detail. Don’t be surprised if what they say to you doesn’t seem to add up, as trauma and shock can affect memory.
- Sexual violence is NEVER the responsibility or fault of the victim/survivor. No one asks to be sexually assaulted by what they say or do, or how they act. So remember that your friend is not responsible for the abuse. If your friend blames themselves, it may help if you remind them that they are not to blame and that the perpetrator had a choice about how they acted.
- Listen to your friend with empathy and kindness.
- Allow them plenty of time to talk, try not to hurry them or interrupt, and be careful not to question their account.
- Welcome silences and do not feel as though you have to fill the silences with questions or solutions.
- During silences, your friend will have time to organise their thoughts.
- It takes a lot of courage to talk about these experiences, so you could acknowledge that by telling them how brave they are being in telling you.
- Use active listening skills to reflect back the words the reporting party has used and respond with phrases that demonstrate empathy and understanding.
Things you could say...
It can be hard to know what to say to a friend when they confide in you. Refrain from asking a lot of questions. Instead, support your friend with phrases such as these:
- It’s not your fault
- I’m sorry this happened
- I believe you
- How can I help you?
- I'm glad you told me
- I’ll support your choices
- You’re not alone
This is also a good time to share with them your belief in the possibility of healing. Let your friend know that you believe that they have strength and capacity to heal.
OPTIONS AND RESOURCES
- Sexual violence is about power and control, so it is important that your friend has control over what they do next.
- By listening, you have already helped your friend enormously.
Respect their privacy
- Don’t tell others what your friend has told you.
- If you do need to share information for your friend’s safety, get permission by letting your friend know what you will share and with whom it will be shared. If you are worried that your friend or someone else is in imminent danger, you can explain that you will need to tell someone in this instance. If you are unclear about what to do, you can speak with Student Wellbeing Services any time.
Respect your friends’ autonomy
- While you may think that a certain course of action is clear, it is important that your friend decides for themselves, finds their own solutions, sets their own boundaries and takes back control.
- You may think your friend should report the abuse to the police. However, it is not for you to approach the police or other services on your friend’s behalf, unless they ask you to do so, a child is at risk, or you are very scared and think your friend is in immediate and serious danger.
- Your friend will be struggling with complex decisions and perhaps feelings of powerlessness. By making decisions for them, you may increase that sense of powerlessness.
- You can be supportive by helping your friend to identify all the available options and then supporting their decision-making process.
- You can tell your friend that even if they do not want to report to the police, specialist agencies can offer confidential advice and support. Depending on when the violence happened (if within the last 7 days), they can collect forensic evidence which can be stored should your friend decide they want to go to the police at a later date.
- Don’t take things into your own hands such as confronting the perpetrator, threatening them, assaulting them, telling them to ‘lay off’ and so on. This is unhelpful, unsafe and could also be criminal.
- Be patient and avoid putting pressure on your friend. It can be tempting to think or say things like ‘it happened years ago, forget about it’. But abuse, trauma and their effects are persistent. Even after someone has come to terms with what happened, and has healed from the immediate trauma, they may react to some trigger years later.
- Try to find out what your friend needs from you, if anything. Don’t assume what they want or need. Just let them know that you are there for them.
- An important part of being supportive is to help identify ways in which your friend can work on re-establishing their sense of physical and emotional safety. Ask them what would make them feel safe and how you can help them accomplish this.
- SWS and the local and national specialist agencies will all be able to help to establish safety by providing resources, support and safety planning.
GET SUPPORT FOR YOURSELF
- Receiving disclosures can leave a mark on you; therefore it is important that as the person hearing the disclosure, you have space to process your own emotions.
- Student Wellbeing Services can provide space and support for any student who has received a disclosure whilst respecting the privacy of you and your friend. SWS is confidential unless there is an imminent risk of serious harm.
- You can also contact external specialist agencies for your own support as a responder.
Staff can speak with their line-manager, a Harassment Advisor, contact HR and access Lifeworks, the University’s employee assistance service.