Most of us have supported friends through difficult times, such as a break-up, 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? Especially when 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. If one of your male friends or loved ones is assaulted, it’s important that you know you’re in a position to help.
Many of the challenges men face reflect social pressure: ideas that sexual assault makes them less masculine, that women can’t assault men, or that “real men” don’t talk about or get help for painful experiences. “Some men fear that they’ll 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. One in six men in the US is sexually assaulted before age 18, according to studies from the 1980s to the early 2000s. In 2015, seven percent of men reported being sexually assaulted while attending college, according to a study by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. Regardless of the targeted man’s sexual orientation, both men and women perpetrate these assaults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2013).
“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.
“Many people who experience sexual violence also experience some degree of self-blame,” says Dr. Boyd. “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. 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: They might worry that people won’t take their experiences seriously, or that they’ll be viewed as weak. “I was terrified to tell anyone because I didn’t think they’d believe me. When I finally told someone, she said, ‘Well, you shouldn’t have been there alone—why didn’t you leave?’ It was like being punched in the stomach and created huge amounts of self doubt,” said Chris*, a second-year student at Nova Scotia Community College.
- 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. “Pay attention to their specific issues,” says Dr. Boyd.
- Avoid pushing your own ideas. “Allow them to talk without being interrupted, and especially don’t put any more pressure on them (e.g., telling them that you think they need the police or a therapist),” says Tom*, a third-year student at Ripon College in Wisconsin. “Ask what you can do to help.”
- 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 reminded that I wasn’t the one at fault felt reassuring,” said Taylor*, a second-year student at Wake Technical Community College in North Carolina.
- 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. “I think one of the most important issues is breaking down the stereotype that only women are abused,” said Lena*, a second-year student at Tarrant County College in Texas.
- Make 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. Figure out what resources your school has, such as hotlines, therapists, heath care providers, disciplinary processes, chaplains, or survivor advocates. “Since I was assaulted, I have learned that it wasn’t my fault and that therapy does help,” said Josh*, a second-year student at the College of the Desert in California.
- 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
“Supporting someone through the healing process can be stressful, hard, and exhausting. That’s why it’s important for supports to take of themselves,” says Bella Alarcon, a bilingual clinician at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center who facilitates a support group for partners, friends, and family of people who’ve experienced sexual violence. Paying attention to your own needs isn’t selfish. “If you’re exhausted and overwhelmed, you’re not going to be able to support the survivor,” says Alarcon.
Be mindful of your own needs, and make sure that you’re getting support.
- “It’s okay to set limits and boundaries. If you need a break, it’s okay,” says Alarcon. 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 their story with peers or classmates.
- “Be kind to yourself and take care of yourself: Take a bath, go to the gym, have a cup of tea, go out with friends, have fun, have a good cry, take a deep breath, or get your own counseling,” says Alarcon.
*Names changedGet help or find out more
Bella Alarcon, bilingual clinician, Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, Massachusetts.
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.
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