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How would you react? What would you say?

How would you respond to a friend disclosing a rape or sexual assault? How would you react?

Sexual violence is something that we all need to be aware of. That’s a bold statement don’t you think? Why do we all need to be concerned about rape? Why should we need to be more socially aware of sexual assault?

The ugly reality of sexual violence is that it is happening to people we care about. It’s happening to our friends and to family members. Whilst we know that women appear to be most at risk of sexual violence, we also know that males can be victims too. We also know that rapes takes place within both heterosexual and LGBT relationships. The use of the term violence is wide and not exclusive to rape and sexual assault. However it is important that we start to understand the extent of this issue. It’s huge and an issue that I, as a father of two daughters am concerned about.

Some people suggest that why does it take for us to think about people we care about becoming victims before we do something? You could say the fact it is happening to girls, women, boys and men full stop is enough. I agree but let’s start somewhere. As a friend or relative, your support could make a big difference to someone.

Put yourself in the shoes of a friend who may have been the victim of a sexual assault. Ask yourself what would put me off discussing this with someone else let alone reporting it to the police. One of the major concerns of any victim is whether they will be believed. If alcohol has been in the mix this is a major barrier. Why is that? Because society is often quick to blame any victim if they had placed themselves in a vulnerable situation. Alcohol as a contributory factor is a classic rape myth and one that needs dispelled. If we as a society maintain a focus on the victim there is a person missing from the conversation, the perpetrator. Also if we blame victims is it any wonder victims blame themselves. Let’s stop defaulting to blaming anyone other than the perpetrator.

Others barriers to reporting are:

Will my parents find out?
What’s the point? Will my attacker be charged?
Will the forensic examination hurt?
What will my work or university think?

These barriers and many others are at the forefront in the mind of any victim. We as friends and classmates need to be mindful at this time. We should never underestimate these barriers and never judge a friend who discloses to us.

If a friend makes such a disclosure the fact that they are speaking to you about an incident should tell you that they want someone to help them. The following will help you in supporting your friend at this time.

Don’t Panic – The reality of rape and sexual assault are that unfortunately these are common occurrences. Try not to look shocked about what they are telling you about. Remember they have chosen you to talk to about this incident. If a friend discusses an incident that happened in the past, even in childhood you should never assume that they have told anyone else. It is likely that you will be the first person they have spoken to about this. Be that friend and listen.

Never feel that you have to go into detail – This is particularly relevant if your friend says they want to report this to the police. If this is the case you could be used as a witness in the case. Don’t let this prospect put you off being that supportive friend. If you don’t go into too much detail then you cannot be asked probing questions at court. Ask yourself do I need to know what exactly happened or do I just need to focus on the welfare of my friend. The latter is the best course of action. Take the lead from your friend.

Your friend is in control – You can offer to report this to the police or be present when your friend reports the incident. You should not take it upon yourself and report this to the police. The crime of rape involves the perpetrator taking power and control away from a victim. It is important that they start to regain some of this control. You should never try to influence the decision of your friend. You may deem it obvious to report this. Put yourself in their shoes and think of the barriers we discussed above.

Don’t react – Your role is not to fix things, it’s to support your friend and give them an opportunity to explore what they think they need to get them through this. You are the support your friend needs at this time. Don’t make promises or threats against the perpetrator especially if you know the other person. Offer support and use language that shows you care: “I’m so sorry this has happened”, “Is there anyone I can call for you?” Try not to show your anger.

Refer – Throughout the United Kingdom there are many Sexual Offences centres and Rape Crisis centres. They have individuals who are able to provide further support and advice to your friend. Consider asking your friend to speak to someone from these organisations. Victims of these crimes do not have to directly go to the police. It may be that speaking with this subject expert may make your friend feel stronger and reporting to the police may be a result. Remember let your friend maintain the control in these conversations.

Believe them – The reality of these incidents are that something is likely to have happened. Yes there are allegations of rape made that are later found to have been fabricated. A very small minority of allegations are false. How would your friend feel if you used language that inferred you doubted their story? Be that friend and listen to what is being said. Never judge your friend.

The above advice has been collected to give you some tools to use should a friend, relative or classmate disclose that they have been the victim of a rape or sexual assault. Year on year the number of disclosures of these crimes is rising. We cannot all be experts but we can educate ourselves on how to respond should a friend put their trust in you.

Don’t be a bystander, be a friend

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