When we were nineteen my friend started having memories, flash backs, of her childhood. These memories were not very welcome as they brought with them pain, confusion, and shame. All of which were already there, but didn’t have a name. As she began to piece together these memories with what she already knew of her childhood, she began to realize and remember that she had been repeatedly molested around the time she was six years old. She was brave enough to trust her story to me and together we started figuring out how to help her heal. How to set her free from that shame. And how to integrate this newly remembered reality into her story.
Current statistics say that 1 in 4 women in the US have experienced sexual abuse and 75-95% of women coming out of commercial sexual exploitation have experienced sexual abuse prior to their exploitation. The likelihood that sexual abuse is part of her story for you or for a woman you call friend is sadly very high. So what do you do when a friend confides in you that they have been abused? What do you do if you yourself have been abused?
While each situation is unique and some situations will warrant the need for medical care or police involvement due to their recency, here are some things you can do or say to be a good friend to someone who has experienced sexual abuse.
1. Tell her your believe her: One of the major struggles for survivors of sexual abuse is that they are afraid no one will believe them, they are afraid people will think they are crazy, they are afraid no one will legitimize what they have been through. Saying I believe you helps undo all these fears. Saying I believe you builds a bridge of trust that is vital if you are going to be a good friend.
2. Do not minimize: No matter how small what she went through may seem to you, it was devastating to her. Do not minimize her experience or reflect that at least “insert something worse that could have happened here” didn’t happen. Going along with this, is do not tell her you understand, or that you know how she feels. Even if you have an experience of sexual abuse in your story too, your experience is different than hers. The time will come when telling your story may be helpful, but for now, all she needs to know is that you care. It’s about her story, her experience right now, not yours.
3. Let her decide: Now is not the time to take over and make decisions for her. Now is not the time to tell her what to do. She needs to know she is in control and gets to make the decisions about her. If you think she should file a police report and she disagrees, her decision is what you go with. You should encourage her to do the hard but healthy things like seek medical attention or file a police report, but do not try to force or control her. Be supportive and let her know that no matter what she decides you are there to help in whatever way she asks.
4. Be respectful of her story: Don’t ask for more details. Don’t discuss this without her present and without her approval. This is a case where your husband, boyfriend, mom, best friend, and whoever else you still tell everything does not need to know. Let her tell her story on her terms and to whom she feels safe to tell it. (Which I did with mentioning my friend in this blog)
5. Don’t be afraid of tears: or anger, or whatever other emotion she is feeling or not feeling about it all. She needs to feel the freedom to feel. Be honored that she feels safe to show you how she is feeling.
6. Be available: This is especially true of the twenty-four hours following her disclosing her abuse to you. Without being intrusive, text or call to check in on her. If she’s not reaching out still make sure she knows she is not alone and that you are available whenever she does need you.
7. Be a voice of truth: Remind her that it is not her fault, she did not ask for it, she did not deserve it, she is not dirty, she is not tainted, she is not damaged goods. This was not God’s plan for her. His plans for us are good and sexual abuse flies in the face of the beauty and good He intends for us.
8. Encourage her towards help: While I was able to be supportive to my friend and was the first person she disclosed her experience to, I was not her counselor. Ultimately the help of a trained and licensed counselor was the help that really got her the freedom and healing she needed.
9. Be patient: This process of healing is going to take time. Do not rush her. Do not give up on her. Be patient and allow her all the time she needs.
10. Educate yourself: This is a preemptive step so that you are ready when a friend comes to you with a story of abuse. Know the resources available in your area. Read helpful books like “Rid of My Disgrace” by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb that can help you better understand sexual abuse and how to be a good friend. And get the healing you may need from your own story, if you haven’t dealt with your own story of abuse you may feel triggered by someone else’s and suddenly overwhelmed by your own experience.
By Leah Lesesne, Clinical Care Coordinator for Serenity’s Steps