Someone close to me disclosed they were raped

Dear Alice,

I've been seeing this guy off and on for a few months. We're not a couple, but we're definitely more than just friends. (College is making it a bit difficult for us to actually be a couple.) But that's beside the point.

We were having a very serious discussion the other night, as he and I have already been through quite a bit. And all of a sudden he said that he was raped by one of his friends when he first started college. He's never told anyone that, except for a therapist that he saw for a while after that.

I've had female friends that have been raped (very few, thank god), and it just seems wrong to deal with him on the same level as I deal with my female friends. One, the relationship is different. Two, he's a guy, not a girl. There are obviously different sympathies that I need to give. The only problem is, I don't know how to show him that I am sympathetic towards him, that I am here for him no matter what.

Do you have any advice about how I go about this. I really want to be here for him, whether we remain friends, or become something more. Thank you for anything in advance.

Dear Reader, 

The guy you're seeing is lucky to have such a caring and compassionate person in their life. Figuring out how to show sympathy and support can be difficult especially after a traumatic event like sexual assault. In short, there is no single correct response. Frequently, how you offer support and the type of support you offer may have a significant impact on how someone heals after experiencing sexual violence. Regardless of gender, there are commonly understood and accepted—but false—attitudes and beliefs about sexual violence called rape myths that ultimately minimize the experience of survivors and justify the actions of the offenders. These myths can be upheld within relationships, communities and greater society, making it difficult for survivors to see things differently. This is where you may be able to play an important role. As an intimate partner, you may be in a position to offer different support to your guy that his other friends or family members can’t. You may also notice changes in his level of vulnerability or sexual intimacy with you over time; this isn’t uncommon among people who have experienced sexual violence, and it likely has less to do with your relationship and more to do with the trauma he experienced, leading to a set of internal feelings and various emotions. Having frequent open and respectful check-ins with each other about your feelings may be helpful. 

You bring up an important point, in that men can be—and are—survivors of rape. It sounds like you may already have an idea about some of the nuances regarding rape and gender identity, leading you to be cautious in navigating this situation. Male rape myths, in particular, often erase the experiences of men who have experienced sexual violence or promote the false idea that there are no male rape survivors. The acceptance of rape myths may lead survivors to feel unsupported and stigmatized, further preventing access to supportive people or services and therefore, may negatively impact the healing process. Individuals who buy into rape myths, even unconsciously, are more likely to react negatively to receiving a disclosure of a sexual assault, which may result in actions like blaming the survivor for their experiences, treating them differently, or attempting to control how they take action after the assault. 

Since you have female friends who've experienced rape, you may already know that every survivor of sexual assault has a unique experience which calls for a unique response. In order to be as supportive as possible, you may find it useful to do some reflecting on your own before going into conversations with the guy you’re seeing. What do you already know to be true about him or your friendship that might communicate to him that you’re there for him? Recognizing that he has his own unique experiences, could you ask him what support he needs? The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) offers helpful information about how to sympathize and validate a friend, family member, or intimate partner who has survived sexual violence. One useful strategy for structuring conversations is the 'TALK' method: 

  • Thank them for telling you: Affirm how challenging it can be to disclose a traumatic experience. 
  • Ask how you can help: Avoid giving advice. They also may not know what support they need in the moment, so it may be useful to continue checking in with them over time. 
  • Listen without judgement: Focus on their feelings and experiences without putting too much emphasis on your own. 
  • Keep supporting: Disclosure of sexual assault may be the first of many steps, so continue to be there for them, whether that's helping them find resources or just doing enjoyable activities together. 

Adapted from RAINN

Survivors of sexual assault each have their own motivations for wanting to disclose what happened to them. The decision that the guy you're seeing made to open up to a therapist may or may not be the same reason he chose to open up to you. Many survivors of sexual assault choose to seek support from informal connections first, such as friends, family, or partners. If he ever decides to seek more formal support again, he may find it helpful to seek out resources who are specifically trained in supporting male survivors of sexual assault, such as a licensed therapist or a local rape crisis or advocacy organization. 

For many people, sharing their experiences with a friend or loved one is a first step towards healing. Your commitment to building a supportive and trustworthy space for him can help him in his own healing journey, whether as a friend or something more. 

Last updated Apr 07, 2023
Originally published Mar 13, 2009