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What to Do If Someone You Know Is Raped

What to Do If Someone You Know Is Raped

Please Don't Tell author Laura Tims on the experience that inspired her new book. 

One in five. That’s the number of girls and women nationwide who have been raped.

Every woman probably has at least five other women they’re close to. Sisters, mothers, best friends. Which means there’s a pretty good chance that every woman has experienced the boiling mixture of rage, horror, and helplessness of something horrible happening to someone we love.

There’s a lot of incredible literature out there about what it’s like to be a rape survivor. All the Rage by Courtney Summers, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith are some of my favorites. But sometimes it’s not you. Sometimes it’s the girl next to you, and all you want to do is help...but how?

When I wrote Please Don't Tell about the turmoil a girl goes through when she learns her twin sister was raped, I was hoping that if Joy (the main character) could sort through those feelings, maybe I could too. Several of my friends have dealt with sexual assault. The explosion of emotions–anger, guilt, sadness–clearly want to go somewhere. You want to do something, even if it’s just thinking dark thoughts. Even if it's thinking "I could kill him..." Hasn’t this run through the mind of everyone who’s loved a rape survivor?

I wrote Please Don't Tell to find out what would happen if someone might have gone through with that thought, in a forgotten moment of drunken fury. What if that anger could make someone capable of something they’d never ordinarily do?

While I was writing Please Don't Tell my sophomore year of college, one of my classmates was raped by a fellow student. The rapist was allowed to stay on campus. The outpouring of rage was felt everywhere—in the flyers with the rapist's face that students slipped under dorm room doors, in the hunger strikes that others undertook. In an open meeting in front of the entire school, the survivor took the mic and asked the president of the college directly how he could do this to her. And yet, the rapist was never asked to leave our school.

It’s hard to have faith in the justice system when only about 6% of rapists will ever see jailtime. And that’s only for reported rapes. RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) estimates that 68% of sexual assaults are not reported to police. This is understandable, considering that rapists are often well-known to their victims and social groups, and reporting a rape runs the risk that you’ll be stigmatized or cast as a liar. There’s a cloud of secrecy and shame over rape that doesn’t apply to other crimes. But what happens when the person close to you asks you not to tell the authorities?

While it may feel like there’s nothing you can do to help, that’s far from the truth. Here's some advice for what to do when someone close to you tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted:

1. Reaffirming that you love them and that you’re their friend can help dispel fears that you’ll pull away at the difficult news.

2. Ask what you can do. If they can’t think of anything, you can always get specific. Smaller gestures (are you OK with a hug right now?) can be just as reassuring as broader questions (do you want to talk about it?). However, don’t start grilling them about what happened. They might not be comfortable sharing details like names and dates. If they want to keep things private, let them.

3. Research. It’s important to understand some basic truths about sexual assault in order to get a better idea what this means to your friend. The more you know, the better equipped you are to help.

4. Take care of yourself. Secondary survivors can be deeply affected. There are plenty of support groups for secondary survivors. You can also call RAINN’s hotline: 1-800-956-HOPE.

No matter how much it feels like there’s nothing you can do to fix things, your presence means more than you realize. Your support and love is a gift to the person you care about. Just by being there, you’re helping. Which means you’re not helpless at all.

By Laura Tims

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