Guy with a hood over his face

Rate this article and enter to win

Most of us have supported friends through difficult times, such as a break-up, academic pressure, or family issues. But how do we step up and provide support when friends and loved ones experience sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence? Especially when the person who experienced the assault is male?

Social pressure and stereotypes about gender can make it particularly challenging for men who’ve been assaulted to talk about their experiences. If one of your male friends or loved ones is assaulted, it’s important that you know you’re in a position to help.

Many of the challenges men face reflect social pressure: ideas that sexual assault makes them less masculine, that women can’t assault men, or that “real men” don’t talk about or get help for painful experiences. “Some men fear that they’ll be seen as less of a man,” says Dr. Jim Hopper, a researcher, therapist, and instructor at Harvard Medical School.

Addressing stereotypes

A common belief is that sexual violence only affects women. In fact, many men have unwanted sexual experiences, as both children and adults. One in six men in the US is sexually assaulted before age 18, according to studies from the 1980s to the early 2000s. In 2015, seven percent of men reported being sexually assaulted while attending college, according to a study by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. Both men and women perpetrate these assaults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2013).

“Sex, gender identity, and race can all influence how an experience like this affects someone, but it’s very important you have no presumption about what it feels like to your friend—so listen,” says Dr. Melanie Boyd, assistant dean of student affairs and head of the Office of Gender and Campus Culture at Yale University in Connecticut.

Guy and girl looking uncomfortable

Talking to your friend about what happened

Everyone is different. People’s varying personalities and circumstances affect how they respond to an unwanted sexual experience and what we can do to help. For example, some people want lots of hugs, while some prefer verbal support. The most important thing is to relate to your friend in a way that can help him feel empowered and connected. As a friend, you’re in a great position to do this.

When a friend discloses an experience of violence, it’s normal to feel a wide range of emotions, such as shock, confusion, sadness, or anger. In the moment, keep the conversation focused on your friend’s emotions, not your own.

“Many people who experience sexual violence also experience some degree of self-blame,” says Dr. Boyd. “Partially, that’s just what people do when something bad happens: We go over the events in our head, hunting for things we could have done differently. It’s a way of regaining a sense of control. In the case of sexual violence, though, survivors also have to contend with victim-blaming patterns that run through our culture. So it’s important that friends help them push back against that. Be careful not to say or ask anything that might suggest blame—and affirm for your friend that he did the best he could in a difficult, complicated situation.”

Here are four ways you can be there for your friend

1. Be careful not to “other” him

As challenging an experience as a sexual assault may be, it’s not as though your friend has become an entirely different person. The “othering” of people who’ve been assaulted—treating them differently—can be just as dangerous as ignoring or minimizing unwanted sexual experiences, according to researchers Nicola Gavey and Johanna Schmidt (Violence Against Women, 2011). Avoid thinking of the assault as something that cuts your friend off from the rest of the world; in fact, it’s up to you to be supportive and counteract that.

  • Because of stereotypes about gender and sexual violence, male survivors may feel particularly othered: They might worry that people won’t take their experiences seriously, or that they’ll be viewed as weak. “It took me almost two years to come to terms with it, and I still feel like the few that I told sort of wrote it off because I’m a male,” said Chris*, a second-year undergraduate at the University of Kansas. To avoid othering, you can demonstrate that you take your friend’s experience seriously by using phrases like “that wasn’t okay” or “that sounds really messed up.”
  • While it’s important to give your friend opportunities to talk about his experience of violence (if he chooses to), remember to maintain the other parts of your friendship too. It may be a relief to your friend to spend some time on normal activities that he enjoys. You can try statements like, “I’m happy to talk more about this if you want, but it’s also fine if you want to take a break from processing and go for a run together.”

Friend consoling sad guy

2. Truly listen and ask questions

Make sure to listen and focus on your friend’s feelings. “Pay attention to their specific issues,” says Dr. Boyd.

  • Avoid pushing your own ideas. “Allow them to talk without being interrupted, and especially don’t put any more pressure on them (e.g., telling them that you think they need the police or a therapist),” says Tom*, a third-year undergraduate at Ripon College in Wisconsin. “Ask what you can do to help.”
  • Don’t try to investigate the situation. It’s not important for you to find out exactly what happened or to delve into the details beyond what your friend wants to share.
  • Avoid questions that might feel blaming (e.g., “Were you drunk?” or “Did you say no?”). “Being reminded that I wasn’t the one at fault felt reassuring,” said Taylor*, a second-year undergraduate at Wake Technical Community College in North Carolina.
  • Don’t speculate about what you would have done in the situation (e.g., “If someone tried to do that to me, I’d fight them off”) or project emotions onto your friend (e.g., “You must feel like a whole different person”). Let your friend lead the conversation, and respect what he’s feeling.

Try statements like…

It means a lot that you trusted me with that. What can I do to help? Do you think you’d like to talk to a crisis center or a counselor on campus? It wasn’t your fault. What would be an empowering/fun/relaxing thing to do? I’m here for you.

3. Be thoughtful about your language

Avoid pronouns that assume the gender of the perpetrator or that make other assumptions about the experience. “I think one of the most important issues is breaking down the stereotype that only women are abused,” said Lena*, a second-year undergraduate at Tarrant County College in Texas.

  • Make clear that you’re not making presumptions about your friend’s experience based on his identity. “Drop in phrases or words that don’t put them on the spot but that signal your openness to hearing a more complex narrative, about, for example, ‘people of all genders,’” says Dr. Boyd. “Pay attention to what’s going on for the person in front of you.”
  • It’s not your role to define the experience for your friend. Some people don’t use the word “rape” or “assault” to describe what may seem to you to be sexual violence, or relate to the terms “victim” or “survivor.” “You want them to feel like you’re connecting with their experience, not trying to impose your views or language on them,” says Dr. Hopper.

4. Give him choices

“As a friend, you want to relate to them in a way that gives them power, including by giving them choices and respecting whatever choices they make on whatever timeline,” says Dr. Hopper.

  • Your friend might be interested in working with the police, pursuing disciplinary action, or working with other university resources. It’s up to him to decide. While it’s not your job to steer him to the police or school administrators, providing information about his options can be a great way to help. Figure out what resources your school has, such as hotlines, therapists, heath care providers, disciplinary processes, chaplains, or survivor advocates. “Since I was assaulted, I have learned that it wasn’t my fault and that therapy does help,” said Josh*, a second-year undergraduate at the College of the Desert in California.
  • Talk with your friend about what makes him feel empowered and safe. Everyone’s different, so whether your friend feels like watching TV, working out, or going to a social event, you should ask and see how you can help. Sometimes people want to spend time on their own, sometimes people want to be social. It’s not your job to judge, but to be supportive. 

Two friends talking, sad guy

Look after yourself

“Supporting someone through the healing process can be stressful, hard, and exhausting. That’s why it’s important for supports to take of themselves,” says Bella Alarcon, a bilingual clinician at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center who facilitates a support group for partners, friends, and family of people who’ve experienced sexual violence. Paying attention to your own needs isn’t selfish. “If you’re exhausted and overwhelmed, you’re not going to be able to support the survivor,” says Alarcon.

Be mindful of your own needs, and make sure that you’re getting support.

  • “It’s okay to set limits and boundaries. If you need a break, it’s okay,” says Alarcon. If you’re finding a conversation with your friend overwhelming, say so. Try language like, “I really want to be here for you, but I’m finding it hard to handle this conversation. I want to be able to support you as well as I can, and I think I can do that better if I take a break for a few minutes.”
  • Reach out to university resources for support. Consider speaking to a trusted mentor, a dean, a survivor advocate, or a health professional about how you’re doing. Respect your friend’s privacy by not sharing their story with peers or classmates.
  • “Be kind to yourself and take care of yourself: Take a bath, go to the gym, have a cup of tea, go out with friends, have fun, have a good cry, take a deep breath, or get your own counseling,” says Alarcon.

*Names changed

Strategies developed by the Communication and Consent Educator program at Yale University.

Get help or find out more

You must enter your name, email, and phone number so we can contact you if you're the winner of this month's drawing.
Your data will never be shared or sold to outside parties. View our Privacy Policy.

What was the most interesting thing you read in this article?

If you could change one thing about , what would it be?

HAVE YOU SEEN AT LEAST ONE THING IN THIS ISSUE THAT...

..you will apply to everyday life?

..caused you to get involved, ask for help,
utilize campus resources, or help a friend?

Tell us More
How can we get more people to read ?
First Name:

Last Name:

E-mail:

Phone Number:

What was the most interesting thing you read in this article?

If you could change one thing about , what would it be?

HAVE YOU SEEN AT LEAST ONE THING IN THIS ISSUE THAT...

..you will apply to everyday life?

..caused you to get involved, ask for help,
utilize campus resources, or help a friend?

Tell us more.
How can we get more people to read ?
First Name:

Last Name:

E-mail:

Phone Number:



HAVE YOU SEEN AT LEAST ONE THING IN THIS ISSUE THAT...

..you will apply to everyday life?

..caused you to get involved, ask for help,
utilize campus resources, or help a friend?

Tell us more.
How can we get more people to read ?

First Name:

Last Name:

E-mail:

Phone Number:



Article sources

Bella Alarcon, bilingual clinician, Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, Massachusetts.

Melanie Boyd, PhD, assistant dean in student affairs; lecturer in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, Yale University, Connecticut.

Jim Hopper, PhD, independent consultant and clinical instructor in psychology, Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts.

1in6. (n.d.). Sorting it out for himself. Retrieved from https://1in6.org/family-and-friends/sorting-it-out-for-himself/

Abelson, M. J. (2014). Dangerous privilege: Trans men, masculinities, and changing perceptions of safety. Sociological Forum, 29(3), 549–570. https://doi.org/10.1111/socf.12103

Anderson, N., & Clement, S. (2015, June 12). Poll shows that 20 percent of women are sexually assaulted in college. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/local/2015/06/12/1-in-5-women-say-they-were-violated/

Anderson, S. S., Hendrix, S., Anderson, N., & Brown, E. (2015, June 12). Male survivors of sex assaults often fear they won’t be taken seriously. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/male-victims-often-fear-they-wont-be-taken-seriously/2015/06/12/e780794a-f8fe-11e4-9030-b4732caefe81_story.html

Beres, M. A. (2014). Rethinking the concept of consent for anti-sexual violence activism and education. Feminism & Psychology, 24(3), 373–389.

Beres, M. A., Herold, E., & Maitland, S. B. (2004). Sexual consent behaviors in same-sex relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 33(5), 475–486.

Brenner, A. (2013). Transforming campus culture to prevent rape: The possibility and promise of restorative justice as a response to campus sexual violence. Harvard Journal of Law and Gender. Retrieved from https://harvardjlg.com/2013/10/transforming-campus-culture-to-prevent-rape-the-possibility-and-promise-of-restorative-justice-as-a-response-to-campus-sexual-violence/

Carmody, M. (2003). Sexual ethics and violence prevention. Social & Legal Studies, 12(2), 199–216. https://doi.org/10.1177/0964663903012002003

Catalano, S. (2013). Intimate partner violence: Attributes of victimization, 1993–2011. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Retrieved from https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=4801

Colorado State University. (n.d.). A Guide for supporting survivors of sexual assault. Retreived from https://wgac.colostate.edu/supporting-survivors

Crome, S. (2006). Male survivors of sexual assault and rape. Australian Institute of Family Studies. Retrieved from https://aifs.gov.au/publications/male-survivors-sexual-assault-and-rape

Crome, S. A., & McCabe, M. P. (2001). Adult rape scripting within a victimological perspective. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 6(4), 395–413.

Davies, M., Gilston, J., & Rogers, P. (2012). Examining the relationship between male rape myth acceptance, female rape myth acceptance, victim blame, homophobia, gender roles, and ambivalent sexism. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 27(14), 2807–2823.

Davies, M., & Rogers, P. (2006). Perceptions of male victims in depicted sexual assaults: A review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 11(4), 367–377.

Dube, S. R., Anda, R. F., Whitfield, C. L., Brown, D. W., et al. (2005). Long-term consequences of childhood sexual abuse by gender of victim. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 28(5), 430–438. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2005.01.015

Gavey, N., & Schmidt, J. (2011). “Trauma of rape” discourse: A double-edged template for everyday understandings of the impact of rape? Violence Against Women, 17(4), 433–456.

Gavey, N., Schmidt, J., Braun, V., Fenaughty, J., et al. (2009). Unsafe, unwanted: Sexual coercion as a barrier to safer sex among men who have sex with men. Journal of Health Psychology, 14(7), 1021–1026.

Graham, R. (2006). Male rape and the careful construction of the male victim. Social & Legal Studies, 15(2), 187–208.

Grand Rapids Community College. (n.d). Step-by-step. Retrieved from
https://www.grcc.edu/studentaffairs/sexualmisconduct/stepbystep

Harrell, M. C., Castaneda, L. W., Adelson, M., Gaillot, S., et al. (2009). A compendium of sexual assault research. RAND Corporation. Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/technical_reports/2009/RAND_TR617.pdf

Hopper, J. W. (2015, June 23). Why many rape victims don’t fight or yell. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2015/06/23/why-many-rape-victims-dont-fight-or-yell/

Kozlowska, K., Walker, P., McLean, L., & Carrive, P. (2015). Fear and the defense cascade: Clinical implications and management. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 23(4), 263–287.

Maine Coalition Against Sexual Violence. (n.d.). Sexual violence against LGBTQQI populations. Retrieved from https://www.mecasa.org/index.php/special-projects/lgbtqqi

Masters, N. T. (2010). “My strength is not for hurting”: Men’s anti-rape websites and their construction of masculinity and male sexuality. Sexualities, 13(1), 33–46.

Monk-Turner, E., & Light, D. (2010). Male sexual assault and rape: Who seeks counseling? Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 22(3), 255–265.

Paulk, L. (2014, April 30). Sexual assault in the LGBT community. National Center for Lesbian Rights. Retrieved from https://www.nclrights.org/sexual-assault-in-the-lgbt-community/

RAND Office of Media Relations. (n.d.). Complete results from major survey of US military sexual assault, harassment released. Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/news/press/2015/05/01.html

Rothman, E. F., Exner, D., & Baughman, A. L. (2011). The prevalence of sexual assault against people who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual in the United States: A systematic review. Trauma, Violence & Abuse, 12(2), 55–66.

Sleath, E., & Bull, R. (2010). Male rape victim and perpetrator blaming. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 25(6), 969–988.

Stanko, E. A., & Hobdell, K. (1993). Assault on men: Masculinity and male victimization. British Journal of Criminology, 33(3), 400–415.

Strauss, V. (2014, August 29). Does “restorative justice” in campus sexual assault cases make sense? Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/08/29/does-restorative-justice-in-campus-sexual-assault-cases-make-sense/

Walters, M. L., Chen, J., & Breiding, M. J. (2013). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 findings on victimization by sexual orientation. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/nisvs_sofindings.pdf

Weiss, K. G. (2010). Male sexual victimization examining men’s experiences of rape and sexual assault. Men and Masculinities, 12(3), 275–298.

Willis, D. G. (2009). Male-on-male rape of an adult man: A case review and implications for interventions. Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, 14(6), 454–461.