How To Be A Friend
In the sixth in this series, Emily shares how you can be the friend your friend needs you to be.
Welcome to part 6 in my series on ending rape culture. In the first of this series, I shared my dream to end rape culture within a generation, and in the second, I defined what I mean by rape culture. I then took a look at the little things, and invited you to start noticing those little things around you, the ones that help create a culture where women are demeaned, objectified, talked over, used, ignored, minimised and silenced. I invited you to start with a whisper, and become comfortable with questioning the existence of those little things and last week I asked you to become a survivor ally.
This week I am sharing with you how you can be more than an ally, how you can be the friend your friend needs you to be when they tell you their story.
I know you’re thinking that you are already the kind of friend your friend needs you to be. You might be. But, in my experience, most people get it wrong. They’re well-meaning, they’re not judging, or they don’t think they are, but somehow feet get put in mouths and it can all unravel.
I’ll assume to start that you’re not the kind of friend that I also used to have some of, the kind that says, you deserved it, you were asking for it, there’s no sympathy here. There are many people like that, I probably got that response about one third of the time (and I wasn’t just terrible at making the right kind of friends because I also had some truly wonderful ones), it’s just too much for some people to cope with and process and so they respond the way society has taught them to. I’ll assume, because you’re reading this, that you’re not that kind of friend.
Many of those friends who want to help don’t know how. This is for you so that you do, so that the way you help can be helpful. Here are my top ten tips.
1. Believe them. Unquestionably. Unquestionably means, don’t ask questions. The number of friends who said to me, “are you sure? Maybe he thought it was what you wanted?” I wasn’t sure. I had been drifting in and out of consciousness and I wanted for it not to be true. Questioning me in that way made me doubt myself. Doubting myself was not good for my mental health at a time when my mental health was at its most fragile. I needed to be believed. Without question.
2. Don’t ask how it came to happen. Don’t suggest that it could have been avoided if your friend had just taken a taxi / not accepted a drink / not been alone with him / taken any of the ‘good intentions, this is how you can avoid sexual assault advice’ that society doles out as fodder for victim blaming. Never say anything could be construed as blaming the victim. We are already blaming ourselves.
3. Don’t ask what happened. Trying to recall details can be retraumatizing. Even if it happened a long time ago, don’t ask what happened. Let your friend share what your friends wants to share, and volunteers to share.
4. Listen by hearing. Be present. I know it’s a difficult thing to be truly present to, but I guarantee it’s more difficult for your friend who’s doing the sharing. Listen through silence as well. Your friend may not be able to bring words to the turmoil inside.
5. Honour your friend for having trusted you with their truth, their story. Recognise that this is a huge privilege. You might be the first person they have told, your response will be critical in how they feel they will be heard and judged in the future. They might have told others before you, others that judged and criticised and blamed. And yet, they’re open now to trusting you. Honour that.
6. Don’t assume they want a hug. Touch, closeness, proximity may be triggering or frightening. Give them a hug if they ask for one.
7. No judgements allowed. It doesn’t matter what your friend is doing to survive, they’re doing what they need to survive. Their behaviour might start to become aggressive, snapping, lashing out. Or they might become withdrawn. These are traumatic responses, don’t take them personally. They might start self-harming in some ways; alcohol, drugs, cutting, food, etc. Be supportive but not judgemental. When they’re stronger, they’ll naturally replace those behaviours with ones that support their healing more positively. By being supportive, and not judging, you can hasten that switch as they’ll feel less isolated and alone.
8. Don’t encourage your friend to report the attack. Don’t suggest they have an obligation. Reporting is fraught with much more than justice or obligation. (There’s a whole other blog coming on that, but in the meantime you can check out the video here).
9. Don’t expect your friend to behave in a particular way. We all respond differently and outwardly your friend may seem absolutely fine. We sometimes make jokes about it, shrug it off, make jokes about other things. Even at the time. Years later, the last thing we want is to suddenly be ‘seen’ differently by our friends. We minimise. Let us.
10. Community is the most important factor in recovery from trauma. Be the safe, supportive, compassionate friend your friend needs.
I also share the above advice in this video here. Please share this advice widely, your friends’ friends need to know it too. Thank you.
Next week I’ll be illuminating a little more about why sometimes ‘negative’ behaviours are actually positive behaviours.