Help a Friend

How to Help a Friend

When someone has been sexually assaulted, chances are that they will turn to a friend for help. You are an important person to the survivor; this is why the survivor shared this experience with you. Knowing how to respond will be very helpful in your friend's recovery. This page offers guidance on how to best support your friend. There are also resources available to you, because when get support for yourself you will be better able to support your friend.

When a person is sexually assaulted, keep in mind that their power has been taken away from them. As you are helping, allow your friend to maintain control over what happens next. Offer information, and then let your friend make their own decisions including who they talk to, what services they access, and what actions they decide to take or not take. Even if you disagree with your friend, supporting them in making their decisions will help them feel more in control. When your friend remains in control, they will be better able to regain a sense of strength, power, and safety. 

What if the sexual assault happened in the past few days?

There are some time sensitive decisions your friend may want to make. If there is the possibility of pregnancy, your friend can take emergency contraception within 120 hours (5 days) of the assault. Emergency contraception is most effective when taken as soon as possible. Collecting physical evidence must occur within 96 hours (4 days). Medications to prevent the development of some sexually transmitted infections and HIV can be provided by Health Services. HIV prophylaxis treatment needs to be started within 72 hours. Screening for date rape drugs may be done up to 72 hours after the incident, but is optimally done within 12 hours and must be done at a hospital emergency room. Health Services does not do drug screening or evidence collection. It may be helpful to inform your friend of this information, provide the options, and then let them decide what to do or not do next.

Brown students can call the Health Services nursing line (401.863-1330) for confidential medical advice. The nurse is available 24 hours a day when classes are in session. You can call to get information for your friend without giving their name. For more information about what to do immediately after a sexual assault click here. 

What should I do if my friend doesn't feel safe?

There may be times when your friend is physically or emotionally unsafe.  If your friend needs immediate medical attention, is suicidal, or at risk of hurting themselves or others you should call the Department of Public Safety (401.863-4111) 24 hours a day. If you are off campus, call 911.

If your friend is not in immediate danger, help them think about what changes, if any, they would like to make that will help them feel safer, whether related to their physical surroundings or how they interact with people. You may want to consider a safety plan resource like this one, by Love is Respect. There is support at Brown available to help your friend think about ways to feel safer and decide if they want a restraining order or a University no-contact order.  Your friend can speak, confidentially, to the SHARE Advocates in BWell Health Promotion (401.863-2794), Counseling and Psychological Services(401.863-3476), or the Crime Victim Assistance Unit advocate at Department of Public Safety (401.763-2542). 

Should my friend report the sexual assault to the police?

Whether the assault happened recently or a long time ago, your friend may consider reporting the assault to the police and/or Brown University. Reporting the incident is a personal, difficult decision. This decision can only be made by the person who has been assaulted. It is best to avoid pressuring your friend to report the incident. You or your friend can confidentially discuss reporting options, and what it may be like to report, with the SHARE Advocates in Health Services (401.863-2794) or by calling the Sexual Assault Response Line, available 24-hours a day (401.863-6000). If your friend wants to report the crime, they can notify Brown's Department of Public Safety at 401.863-4111. For some, reporting the crime can help regain a sense of personal power and control. 

What are some of the tactics that offenders use?

It's very difficult to recognize someone who would commit sexual assault. They can be of any gender identity and sexual orientation and they live in all communities and on all college campuses. They are a very small percentage of the population but they will typically commit multiple sexual assaults. They can seem very friendly and charismatic; but behind closed doors, they act very differently and may use force, coercion or manipulation against a victim.

Common tactics include:

  • Planning and preparation, including establishing trust with a potential victim.
  • Assessing someone's vulnerability as a means of identifying a potential victim (i.e. seeking out a first year student or someone who appears socially isolated, and testing a person's boundaries).
  • Ignoring verbal and non-verbal signs that someone gives to convey non-consent, also known as a lack of attunement to other’s actions.
  • Using only the amount of force that is necessary. Body weight is frequently used as a means of force.
  • Using alcohol or other drugs to create vulnerability.
  • Afterwards, denying the harm caused by calling the assault consensual and/or by continuing to contact the victim.
  • In college, an offender often counts on the "hook up" culture to normalize what they have done. 

How does someone react after a sexual assault?

Sexual assault is a traumatic event and survivors will have similar reactions as those who have been through other types of trauma. Some research has found that sexual assault and combat exposure are the two types of trauma most likely to cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Your friend may feel in shock, act like nothing has happened, or feel numb. While some people experience an overwhelming amount of emotions immediately after an assault, others find that days, months, or even years pass before feelings surface. Similarly, some survivors never report symptoms like those associated with PTSD, as every situation is different and every person processes what happened to them in unique ways.

Emotions that may surface include sadness, guilt, powerlessness, hopelessness, embarrassment, shame, anger, and fear. There may be periods when a person is preoccupied with thoughts and feelings about the assault. They may have unwanted memories, flashbacks or nightmares. 

Since most often the perpetrator is known to the victim, many survivors will find it difficult to trust other people. Here are some of the issues to be aware of:

  • It's normal for survivors to have a range of reactions, including depression, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, social withdrawal, and impaired memory.
  • Sometimes survivors will experience a brief period following the incident in which it is more difficult to sleep and eat than it was previously.
  • Some survivors will use alcohol or other drugs to "numb the pain,” or engage in other activities which may be considered higher risk. 
  • Survivors may have a different relationship to their sexuality and sexual expression.
  • Victims who knew the offender may have longer recovery periods.
  • Survivors may have complicated reactions to this experience. It's important to listen to what they have to say without judgment. If you analyze what happened or ask questions about the victim's behavior, you may unintentionally cause your friend to blame themselves and shut down. Because the brain stores traumatic memories differently from normal memories, it's very common for people who have experienced trauma to have gaps in memory and/or be unable to relate the experience in a chronological way. 

What if my friend is a man?

Gender stereotypes about men and boys make it particularly difficult for men to seek support. If your friend has shared with you that he has been sexually assaulted it's important that you believe him, avoid reinforcing gender stereotypes about men and boys, and understand how he may react to the incident. Many people believe that only women are victims of sexual assault. The fact is that 1 out of every 10 men is sexually assaulted. Although most perpetrators of sexual assault against men are men, women are offenders as well. A man assaulted by another man may question his sexuality and struggle with internalized homophobia. Research has consistently found that victims of all genders experience similar effects: fear, anger, shame, isolation, substance abuse, low self-esteem, depression and issues with sexuality. Men may be more likely to outwardly express their anger and use substances to cope with difficult emotions; but, like all survivors, individual reactions will vary and can depend many things such as personal history and support from family and friends. The stereotype that men and boys are supposed to be tough, in control, and unemotional minimizes the trauma that survivors experience. 

How can I help my friend?

Validate and believe
If your friend feels ashamed or guilty, reassure them that the incident was not their fault and that their feelings are normal. Often survivors feel that others will question or minimize what has happened. Let your friend know that you believe them. Your friend may not disclose the sexual assault for days, months, or years after it occurred. Limit the number of questions you ask as this can make a person feel as if you doubt them or that they need to prove what happened. Avoid questions that could imply blame such as "Why did go back their room?" "Why didn't you tell me sooner?" "Why didn't you fight them off?" You can be supportive without knowing the details of the incident. Use open-ended questions such as "How are feeling?" or "What can I do to help?" Give your friend time and space to share with you as they are ready to do so.

One of the greatest gifts you can give a friend is your ability to listen. Avoid judgment, giving advice, and sharing your opinions. Just listen. Some survivors will want to talk more than others. Let your friend know that you are available to listen when they are ready to talk.

Do not confront an alleged offender
While it is normal to be angry at the person accused of hurting your friend, confronting this person can result in the offender escalating behavior (i.e. stalking) against the victim.

Protect your friend's privacy
Brown is a small campus and when someone is sexually assaulted they may feel like everyone knows what happened to them. It's important that you get permission from your friend before you talk to anyone about what they have shared with you. Your friend has confided in you because they trust you. If you talk to another person about the incident, your friend may feel betrayed. At the same time, you may find it difficult to maintain your friend's privacy because the incident is upsetting to you. You can seek support from one of the resources below without identifying who your friend is.

Take care of yourself
When someone you care about is hurt, it is normal to feel angry, sad and powerless. As a friend, it is also common to experience many of the same reactions a survivor does. Consider getting support with how you are feeling. Processing your feelings with the person who has been sexually assaulted can be overwhelming to them and may exacerbate how they are feeling. The resources below are for friends and family members as well as victims.

Believe in the possibility of healing
Let your friend know that you believe that they have the strength and the capacity to heal. People are resilient; they can and do recover from the trauma of sexual assault. 


BWell SHARE Advocates, 401.863-2794, [email protected], Ground Level of Health & Wellness Center, 450 Brook St
The SHARE (Sexual Harm Acute Response & Empowerment) Advocates in BWell Health Promotion are confidential resources at Brown that can provide support to any student from any part of the University (undergraduate, graduate, and medical students) affected by issues or experiences related to: Sexual Assault, Sexual and/or Gender-based Harassment, Domestic/Dating Violence, Relational Abuse, or Stalking, that has taken place at any time in their lives.  Confidential services include acute responses or ongoing empowerment-based support for a survivor or the friends of a survivor, including help filing a complaint (if that is the student's choice) and/or navigating resources at Brown and in the community.*This is a survivor-centered resource for people who have experienced sexual harm.

Sexual Assault Response Line 401.863-6000
Confidential crisis support and information is available for any Brown student dealing with sexual assault. The on-call counselor is also available to accompany a victim to the hospital.

Counseling and Psychological Services 401.863-3476
Clinicians provide confidential crisis support, follow-up appointments, and 24-hour on-call services for any Brown student who has been impacted by sexual violence.  Located on the First Floor of the Health & Wellness Center, 450 Brook St.

Brown Department of Public Safety 401.863-4111 (emergency response).
Emergency response available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You may also call Public Safety's administrative number, 401. 863-3322, for non-urgent matters, questions, or complaints.

University Health Services 401.863-3953
Confidential medical care, testing and treatment. Emergency contraceptive pills and treatment for sexually transmitted infections are available. Located on the First Floor of the Health & Wellness Center, 450 Brook St.

Sexual Assault & Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-494-8100 
If you or someone you know needs help because of a sexual assault or an abusive relationship, call this hotline 24 hours a day. Counselor-advocates provide confidential support and are available to accompany victims of sexual assault to the hospital and police station. Ongoing counseling and support groups are available. (This hotline is specific to Rhode Island.  Contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE if you need help in another state.)


Related Links

Day One: The Sexual Assault and Trauma Resource Center 
Day One is the RI resource for victims of sexual assault and their families. The site provides information on a range of topics, including sexual assault, child sexual abuse, internet safety and sex offender management. Day One offers individual and group counseling for survivors of sexual abuse, child sexual abuse and for their families.

Rape, Abuse, and Incest Network (RAINN) 
This web site offers information and statistics on sexual assault and can locate a local rape crisis center in your area.

The Network/ La Red
This program offers free services in English and Spanish for lesbians, bisexual women and transgender people who are victims of battering. These services include a hotline, emergency shelter and advocacy programs. Located in Boston, Massachusetts.

  • 401.863-2794
    Health Promotion
  • 401.863-3953
    Health Services
  • 401.863-6000
    Sexual Assault Response Line
  • 401.863-4111
  • 401.863-3476
    Counseling & Psychological Services
  • 401.863-4111