What do you do when your mate tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted?
Sexual assault is sadly something that is fairly common in Australia, with some experts saying that as many as 1 in 10 men and 1 in 5 women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. If your friend has experienced sexual assault, it can be hard to accept that this is something that has happened to them. You might feel confused about what you’re meant to say or feel, or feel guilty that you couldn’t prevent it. You could feel angry, or upset, or both. And you might be wondering what sexual assault is, and how you can best support your friend.
Sexual assault is a general term, which includes rape as well as other offenses like indecent assault. It is considered to be any unwanted sexual contact that you either didn’t or couldn’t consent to, which can include sexual harassment (sexual comments, dirty jokes and wolf whistling), unwanted kisses or hugs, or being forced to be a part of any sexual act, including oral, vaginal and anal sex. Sexual assault is considered a serious crime, and it can be reported to the police.
To consent to sex (or any other sexual activity) in Australia, you have to be aged 16 or over (except in Tasmania and South Australia, where you need to be 17 or over), sober and conscious. You also have to freely agree to sex, without feeling pressured or tricked. If you haven’t given consent to have sex, then the law says it’s a crime.
So what should you do if your mate confides in you? We’ve spoken to the Sexual Assault Resource Centre (SARC) located in Perth for answers, providing a scenario in which a friend of ours may have been sexually assaulted.
Given that she doesn’t want to talk you can’t force her to. Sometimes people need time to process events. However you don’t want to miss the opportunity to show that you are concerned about her, as it could look like you don’t care. It may be useful to state that you think she may be upset and you are thinking about her and are there for her if she wants help. You could say something along the lines of; “It seems like your going through a lot at the moment, I understand that you don’t want to talk about it and may need time to think about stuff. I’m here for you, I’m your friend whenever you want to talk.” You could add that you are not sure if it is helpful but you feel like you should mention that there is a service that you have heard of that helps people who have been sexually assaulted. You may want to say that this might not be what happened to her. If it seems right to give further information you could let her know that she can call the Sexual Assault Resource Centre (SARC) if she thinks that she may have been sexually assaulted. It is important not to judge her for what she does or doesn’t do regarding accessing services. It may also be important for her to understand that she is not able to give consent to sexual activity if she is intoxicated.
Overall your main role as a friend is to provide support by listening, believing and validating her distress. Different people react differently; there is no right or wrong way to react. Some reactions may include; guilt, shame, anger, and betrayal. It can be hard being in the role of a friend, you may feel a bit powerless to help. So it is important to take care of yourself and remind yourself that you are doing the best you can.
Her social network will be important for her talk to, only if she feels ok to do so. She may feel that it is not safe or of benefit to her to talk to all people in her social network. She also may feel concerned about being judged by some. In addition she may be concerned that she will be a burden to some if they are dealing with their own stress or that they will get distressed if she confides in them. Friends and family may be able to provide useful emotional support provided they have the capacity to do so. If she feels that she has been sexually assaulted she can talk anonymously to a counsellor from SARC. A counsellor will be able to give her information and options.
A counsellor won’t necessarily tell her parents but the limitations will be explained from the beginning. SARC is a confidential service and what is said between a client and counsellor is private but there are some exceptions. The exceptions do depend on her age. If she is under 18 years mandatory reporting may be an issue. This means that the SARC staff may have to inform another agency that a young person has been at risk. In addition if there are concerns for her safety, in that she is at risk of taking her own life, a counsellor may have to tell her parents to develop a plan to keep her safe, this would be fully discussed with her if required. Despite pointing out these exceptions the SARC counsellor will always endeavour to maintain confidentially and work directly with their client.
If she feels that she has been sexually assaulted or wants more information about sexual assault she can call SARC and speak to a counsellor. SARC can offer her a number of services. SARC provides free services for males and females who are 13 years and over who have experienced sexual assault or sexual abuse. You can contact SARC on (08) 9340 1828 or 1800 199 888 24 hours a day in regards to a recent sexual assault (less than two weeks ago). Or in another state, search sexual assault support to find your local service. If no more than two weeks have past she can be offered an urgent appointment and be seen by a doctor and a counsellor. The appointment will provide an opportunity to discuss medical, forensics and counselling services available to her. The doctor will discuss medical services available, for example taking the morning after pill, risk of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), STI testing and STI medications and will give her the opportunity to decide what she wants to do, if anything. The doctor will also explain forensic services, especially if she is contemplating reporting to the police. This may include collecting DNA or documenting injuries on her body. Although SARC does not work for the police they can liaise with the police if a client wants them. The counsellor will provide emotional support, information about trauma and discuss the possibility of getting further counselling. SARC can also be contacted for counselling support between 8.30am and 11pm regarding a sexual assault that happened more than two weeks ago and any form of sexual abuse. If the person is under 13 years the service to contact is Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH).
The main role for you as a friend is to believe and listen to her. Make yourself available to her if she wants to talk. She may need somebody to take her to an appointment or somebody to call a service to get some information for her if she is not feeling up to doing it. At times you may well feel powerless to help her and that you aren’t doing much but if you are available, by listening and believing her you are doing what you can.
If she is concerned about STIs and attends a SARC appointment the doctor will discuss the risks of infection with her and provide medication, and if appropriate STI testing. If she does not want to come into SARC and is concerned about STIs there are other options available. She could go to a GP, or a sexual health clinic. Some services include Family Planning WA (FPWA) in Northbridge, the Quarry in Fremantle, and the Royal Perth Hospital (RPH) Sexual Health Clinic in the city to name a few places. In addition if she goes to university she can make an appointment with one of the university based doctors or if she goes to high school she can get some advice from the school nurse.
Sometimes it is simply that we are vulnerable to bad things happening and there is not much that we can do. However if she stays with her friends when she is out at nightclubs, pubs and parties she may be able to limit her risk, provided that the friends look out for each other. If the group of friends stick together and if somebody in the group is ill, taken too much drugs or alcohol or wants to go home it may be that the group then heads home together. When leaving a venue it makes sense to do this as a group and do make sure that nobody is left on their own if they choose to stay. If it is possible limiting her use of drugs and alcohol may help her to respond to difficult situations the best that she possibly can.
We get a lot of young people asking these questions, it is unfortunate but young people do get sexually assaulted and sexually abused, and we are there to help. We are happy to answer any questions that a young person has.
If you or a friend has experienced sexual assault, you can contact the Sexual Assault Resource Centre on 9340 1828 (WA Only). Otherwise, you can call the National Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Helpline on 1800 200 526 (Australia wide). Both services are anonymous and available 24 hours a day. Also check out our topic page on sexual assault for further info.
Many thanks to the team at the Youth Affairs Council of Western Australia (YACWA), especially Dan who is one of the peer educators and wrote the article!
Also check the related topics:Sexual assault Types of STI’s Alcohol