College students who have experienced sexual violence often confide in and seek support from fellow students before accessing professional service providers. If a fellow student turns to you for support following an incident of sexual violence, your help could be an invaluable source of affirmation and comfort.
In order to be an effective support person, while also taking care of yourself, you may want to follow the peer support guidelines suggested below. Although some of these things might seem very simple, and each case of sexual violence is personal and unique, these guidelines will help you to ensure that a friend who has experienced sexual violence feels supported and in control—as much as possible—during their time of need.
- Listen. Don’t force someone who has experienced sexual violence to say more than they are ready to, but remind them that you are there if they need to talk.
- Affirm. Too often in our culture, people who have experienced sexual violence are blamed for what happened to them. Or, they are doubted and made to second guess their own instincts and experiences. If someone discloses sexual violence to you, make sure to convey that you believe them and know they didn’t do anything to deserve what happened.
- Help to foster a sense of safety and comfort. Experiencing sexual violence can compromise one’s sense of personal security. Places that used to feel familiar and safe may feel uncertain and dangerous. On a college campus, tasks like walking to class or going to the dining hall may feel daunting. Offer to accompany someone who has experienced sexual violence, making sure that they get where they need to go safely. Offer to spend time with them if they don’t want to be alone.
- Be a resource and encourage professional assistance. Although it is important to be emotionally supportive of a friend who has experienced sexual violence, it is important to remember that you are not a doctor or therapist. If someone discloses sexual violence to you, make sure they are aware of all the resources available at Colby and in the wider community. Make sure they know that there are many people who have been trained to help them face what has happened.
- Follow their lead. After you have informed your friend about the resources available to them, let them choose which path to follow and which professionals to contact. It can be tempting to tell someone who has experienced sexual violence what they should do, but this will only intensify the disempowerment that they may already be feeling. Likewise, allow a friend who has experienced sexual violence to disclose information about their experience in their own time and in their own way. Unless you suspect that your friend is seriously depressed or suicidal, do not disclose information for them. Sexual violence can take away the victim’s ability to make decisions for themselves. It is important that support people help to restore this ability.
- Take care of yourself. If you are struggling to deal with your own emotions about what happened to your friend, talk to someone who is trained to address these issues. Just as there are many people at Colby who can help victims of sexual assault, so too are there many resources available for friends of victims. If you need assistance, consider talking to a CA or contacting Counseling Services (207-859-4460), The Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (207-859-4272), or The Gender and Sexual Diversity Program (207-859-4093).