How can I help a friend who was recently raped? So far, I'm the only person she's told. She's paralyzed with feelings of shame and guilt. She's also afraid that she'll only make a bad situation worse if she reports the incident or goes to the police. What should I do?
Your friend's feelings are understandable. To a certain extent, emotions such as shame, guilt, and fear are to be expected in a case like this. They're normal human reactions to an act of aggressive and invasive violence. Rape is something more than the violation of a woman's body. It's also an insult to her sense of personal identity. Victims of sexual assault often experience anxiety, depression, difficulty in sexual relationships, and many other psychological and physical symptoms. It's no wonder this incident has left your loved one feeling stunned and paralyzed.
We can sympathize with her emotions, then. But we also think it's imperative that she find a way to push past her fears and hesitations. Somehow, she has to find the courage to take appropriate action. What she needs more than anything else at this point is the comfort and reassurance that come from a strong support system. You can help supply this by being a sensitive and compassionate listener. Ask a few key questions such as, "When did this happen? Under what circumstances? Who was the aggressor?" Communicate love, support, and confidence. Make it clear that you believe her story. Tell her that you're available to help in any way you can. Get her to a safe place and make sure that she's supplied with food, water, and all the basic necessities. In many instances, victims of rape are so severely traumatized that they actually forget to eat and drink.
If the victim is underage, this is the time to encourage her – gently but firmly – to let her parents know what has happened. If she has reasons for believing that they can't be relied upon in this situation (if, for example, they're negligent, abusive, or uninvolved), then she should find someone in a position of trust with whom she can share the details of her story: a teacher, a school counselor, a pastor, a youth leader, or the parent of a friend. If she's an older teen or a young adult, encourage her to enlist the aid of as many caring people as possible. It would also be a good idea to have her make an appointment with a professional counselor. It would be best if this counselor were a trained and licensed Christian therapist who specializes in trauma care.
Once you've reached this stage in the process, you should also urge your friend or loved one to contact the police. In the case of a minor, the Department of Social Services should also be alerted. In the emotional aftermath of an assault, the urge to deny what has happened may cause a victim to wait days or weeks to report it. The majority of sexual assaults go unreported because of embarrassment, fear of reprisal, or apprehension about dealing with police, doctors and attorneys. It's in the best interests of all concerned that the truth be known as soon as possible. Among other things, your friend may find that this is an important first step in the direction of taking back control of her own life. It's also a way to rid herself of an unhealthy "victim" mentality. If she doesn't make the report, the authorities may want to know why later on. If she feels that she absolutely cannot do this, friends or family members can make the call for her. For additional guidance, we suggest you contact the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA) 24-hour crisis hotline at 1-800-879-6682.
The officers who take the report will need to ask about specific details of the assault. These questions may be painful to answer but they're necessary for proper documentation of the crime. It's important that the victim be completely honest and straightforward in describing what happened. If your friend has not already done so, you should urge her to refrain from bathing or showering until after she has seen a doctor. If it is too late for this, at least tell her to save the clothes she was wearing at the time. She should do whatever she can to preserve as much physical evidence of the crime as possible. This will make for the strongest case against the attacker.
A medical evaluation should probably also be carried out. This is important even if the victim does not believe she was injured. A thorough examination is necessary to assess her physical condition. It's also a way to collect important evidence and provide counseling regarding the possibility of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. As with the police report, parts of the examination will be difficult and uncomfortable. This is especially true if your friend has not had a pelvic exam before. But the long-term benefits of proper medical care are worth the temporary discomfort.
Rape is defined as any sexual activity attempted or completed by force, threat of force, or coercion against a person's will. If the person you're concerned about knows in her heart that she has been the unwilling victim of sexual aggression, then you must help her realize that this incident was not her fault. If the aggressor was a stranger, it's obvious that she cannot be blamed for his behavior. If he was an acquaintance or friend – for example, if she was the victim of "date rape" – she should remember that even those who are closest to us can sometimes force us to do things against our will. If he was a person in a position of authority or trust, then his actions are doubly blameworthy. They should be brought to light before he has an opportunity to harm her again or anyone else.
If you need additional backup or assistance in finding a qualified Christian therapist for your loved one, call us. Focus on the Family's Counseling department can provide you with a list of referrals. Our staff counselors are also available to talk with either of you over the phone.