Here are six ideas for the right things to say from a survivor who has had dozens of these conversations.
1. “I’m sorry that happened to you.” Simple as that. It’s the “I’m sorry for your loss” of the rape conversation. It doesn’t matter if everyone else saying it too. It’s validating, sensitive, and it shows that you’re taking your friend seriously and that you’re on their side. If you’re not that close with your friend, you can stop here.
2. “How are you doing?” Acknowledge that your friend is probably in a healing process, and that self care is especially important for them right now. Also point out that there are places for them to get help with this process. If you don’t know resources offhand, offer to look into free/affordable counseling services and/or support groups, ideally specific to sexual assault survivors. If they’re not interested, let it go. If they are, research it later and remember to get back to them! Following up is a great supportive gesture.
3. “What he/she/they did to you is not okay.” It seems obvious, but it’s really important for your friend to hear. Even if they seem like they know it already. Explicitly confirming that they were mistreated is validating and it helps to combat any shame they might be feeling.
4. “Is there a chance of pregnancy or STIs?” While it isn’t normally your place to take charge of your friend’s health, they might be overwhelmed by the trauma, so ignoring the health risks of sexual assault might feel like the easiest option right now. If they’re not seeking treatment for any possible health risks or unwanted pregnancy, it could be really helpful for you to be the annoying, pushy friend who won’t leave them alone until they do.
- Your friend is at risk for STIs if the assault consisted of any kind of unprotected vaginal, oral, or anal sex, or exchange of body fluids (other than just saliva exchanged with saliva).
- Your friend is at risk for pregnancy if the assault was a heterosexual situation and semen got anywhere near a vagina (without a properly used condom).
- There are actually some good options for greatly reducing these risks.Read 4 things you can do to help your friend take care of their health after a sexual assault.
5. “I’m here if you ever want to talk about it.” Make it clear that they are welcome to trudge through every detail with you, or not share any details at all. But only say this if it’s true.
6. “In the future, is it okay if I ask you how you’re doing in regard to this? Or would you rather I wait for you to bring it up?” Your friend might want to talk about this with you in the future (i.e. the next time you talk), but if they’re the only one who ever brings it up they might feel awkward and think you’re sick of hearing about it. Or they might not be ready to talk about it more yet. Ask them to find out how you can continue to support them on their terms.
- Avoid freaking out when your friend discloses this to you. Don’t put your friend in a place to comfort you. You can freak out to someone else later if you need to. Right now, you can tell your friend how you feel calmly, and keep the focus on their feelings and experience.
- This whole conversation doesn’t have to be solemn. Gauge your friend’s disposition. You should probably be serious while they’re disclosing that the assault happened, but you might be able to goof around (not about the rape) after that part. Your friend might be having this same conversation with a lot of their friends, and maybe they’re sick of every fun hang out being ruined by this heavy topic. Or, on the other hand, maybe they’re mourning and they’re not in the mood to laugh. If you can’t tell, you can ask.
- Be gentle. Go out of your way to make it extra clear that you’re not putting blame on them, that you trust their account of what happened, and that you want to support them.
- Focus on their strengths. A comment like, “You’re handling this really well,” “I’m impressed with how strong* you’re being,” or “Thanks for sharing this with me” can mean a lot at a time like this.
- Use the words that your friend is using. If they’re not calling the incident rape, don’t casually refer to it as rape. You can, however, tell them that what happened to them constitutes rape (if it does). But don’t pressure them to call it that if they don’t want to.
- You don’t have to be perfect. You might accidentally say something that is triggering for them. If so, apologize and take note of what triggered them, so you can be careful around that topic in the future. The best you can do is to approach the conversation with a focus on gentleness, support, trust in your friend, being non-judgmental, and prioritizing their feelings** and experience.
**They might not be clear on what their feelings are, or they might be in shock and not have any feelings about it yet (even if it’s been a while since the traumatic incident). These are both okay. Be supportive of your friend wherever they are in their healing process.