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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. “If they’re heterosexual, they may fear people will doubt their sexuality. And if they’re gay or bisexual, they may blame the assault on their sexuality in a way that further stigmatizes their being gay or bisexual.”
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. Regardless of the targeted man’s sexual orientation, 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 lecturer in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Yale University in Connecticut.
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
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.”
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…
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. In particular, avoid assumptions about your friend’s sexual orientation or gender 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.
“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 flirting with someone at a party, 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.
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 changedGet help or find out more
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.
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Whether we’re taking an online class, catching up with friends, reading the news, checking our favorite Reddit thread, or watching videos of baby pandas sneezing, we all spend a lot of time online. Our online communities are full of opportunities for connection, sharing, and positivity, but sometimes we may encounter negativity and downright nastiness, to put it mildly.
We can all play a role in shaping online communities in which everyone can thrive. Disrespect and harassment are less likely when digital spaces reflect our values. For example, building supportive communities makes sexual harassment and violence less likely. Creating respectful spaces online is a critical part of these efforts. So how do we make the online communities we participate in feel more positive, especially in an era where we might feel particularly divided? And how do we respond when we see negative posts in a group page we’re in charge of? Or when we notice a hurtful comment in a community we participate in?
Whether you have a leadership role in an online space or you’re just a casual participant, there’s plenty you can do to help keep things positive.
Here’s how to use your role to create the online space you want
If you create, manage, or moderate an online space, you have a key role to play in building a supportive community. But being a member matters just as much. You get to model and shape the online community you participate in. Here’s a four-step guide to making it work—no matter your role.
Whether you’re starting a new group or taking over an existing one, start by reflecting on your goals.
Consider the following questions:
- If this group is new, why are you starting it? If you’re taking over an existing page, what are the group’s shared goals?
- How do you want members to experience the group?
- What would be the best possible version of this group?
It’s essential to define your goals even if your group is small and informal. For example: Imagine that you create a GroupMe for the people living on your res hall floor. The following goals could take the group in three very different directions and would call for different leadership:
- Planning large parties for everyone in the hall
- Upholding community standards (e.g., reminding people to be quiet during finals)
- Meeting new people
Goals matter for members too. In fact, knowing what they are and communicating them effectively sets the tone for the rest of the group. This doesn’t have to be formal. It’s about having a shared purpose.
Think about this: If you share a group chat with your friends from high school, what’s your purpose for doing so? How can you make sure others are on board? Your personal goal might be to stay in touch while building stronger connections with everyone. What are some small steps you can take to reach this goal?
- Model what you’re looking for by offering it first: Share updates about your life and ask others to do the same.
- Open participation: Invite other people to participate and pull quiet, shy, or disengaged people into the conversation.
- Make concrete plans: Suggest group activities or meet-ups.
By actively engaging in the group in a positive way, you’re setting an example for other members. A significant body of research shows that when we believe our peers expect us to behave a certain way, we’re more likely to behave that way (this is called social norms theory). This means that when we’re positive and don’t tolerate harmful behavior in an online setting, it sets the tone for others to follow suit.
Explicitly communicate your expectations. People are surprisingly attentive to group guidelines. A 2016 analysis of the Reddit thread r/science (which has more than 13 million subscribers) found that posting page rules increased users’ compliance with the rules and even increased the number of comments made by newcomers on certain posts.
“It’s important that the standard be set right from the beginning that mistreatment of any kind will not be tolerated,” says Dr. Justin Patchin, professor of criminal science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center.
How you can put this into practice
Let’s say you take over the Facebook page of a campus multicultural center with several hundred members. How might you create guidelines for the group?
It’s also important to create guidelines for informal groups. If you created a small Facebook group for your friends in the multicultural center, you could casually communicate your expectations. Try statements like:
- “Let’s use this group to stay in touch over the summer!”
- “If anyone has questions about this group, I’m happy to help out.”
Point out behaviors that positively reinforce your group standards and support the community guidelines—you can keep it casual. This sets the expectation that people will interact in positive ways. Try out statements such as, “It’s awesome how we can disagree without things getting ugly.”
It’s easiest to take action at the first sign of disrespect or someone behaving outside of the group guidelines. Don’t wait for problems to escalate before you step in.
Just like in social situations or in the classroom, you can practice bystander intervention by stepping in to address disrespect and prevent harm. In a 2015 study of adolescents and young adults, bystanders stepped in at similar rates when someone was being harassed online as they did when an incident happened in person (Journal of Youth and Adolescence). In fact, bystanders were most likely to step in when someone was being harassed both in person and online.
What this might look like
Imagine that you’re the moderator of an online study group. You all use the group to share study tips, ask questions, and set up times to work together. One day, the posts start to stray from the class material to people complaining about the course and insulting the professor’s looks. How do you handle it?
Try privately messaging the people involved, or leave a comment of your own. Assuming good intent can make these conversations easier. For example:
- “You probably don’t mean any harm, but your comments came off negatively.”
- “Please refer to the community guidelines.”
Comments to redirect the group
- “We have that big test coming up, so let’s focus and be prepared.”
- “Let’s stick to the focus of this group.”
It’s not just the leader’s responsibility to uphold community standards; it’s on you as a community member to redirect group members who fall short of your goals. It can be as easy as asking a different question.
Here’s how you might step in as a community member in the study group scenario:
- Distract the group with a question that relates to the original goal (e.g., post a question about the homework).
- Redirect the group: “We have to get through this critical analysis, so let’s focus and be prepared.”
- Find an ally: Talk to a friend in the group about the behavior and come up with a plan for approaching it as a team.
- Go undercover: Anonymously post a comment saying the behavior is unacceptable.
- Ask for help: Ask a moderator to reiterate the group values—or establish them if there aren’t any.
What can you do if serious disrespect, harassment, or hateful behavior emerges in an online space that you manage?
For example, imagine you’re managing a student publication’s website. Debate in the comments section is usually respectful. One day, a regular commenter calls another a slur. Here are four options for how to intervene:
1) Delete the harmful content, and consider banning the commenter.
“Delete the person whose posts are negative. By proactively doing this, [you show] that [you] have had enough and will not engage in their negative and hurtful behaviors.”
—Ross Ellis, founder and CEO of STOMP Out Bullying, a national bullying and harassment prevention organization
“If [people] see hurtful posts quickly removed and frequent violators banned, this will set the tone that online abuse is not allowed here.”
2) Reach out to the people who were targeted.
Write to the targeted commenter. Let them know that you have deleted the content, you support them, and offer to direct them to university resources.
3) Report the incident—if the targeted person wishes that you do so.
Consider reporting the behavior to a campus official, such as a dean. Check with the person who was targeted to ask for their permission first.
4) Reiterate your group expectations.
After you have dealt with the harm, work with other members of the publication team to refocus on your core goals.
What if you see this happening in an online community you’re a part of? As an active member of the community, stepping in reinforces the standards of the whole group and sends the message that this behavior isn’t tolerated here. Here’s how to do it:
- If the behavior affects someone you know, privately reach out and express support. Try language such as, “That was messed up. Is there anything I can do?”
- Consider contributing some positive words. Offering encouragement and support is a simple way to mitigate the effect of online harassment. Manners (good and bad) are contagious. Modeling civility and constructive commentary online can potentially dissuade others from trolling, according to a 2017 study by researchers at Cornell University.
- Ask before you act on someone else’s behalf. If you want to confront the aggressor or request an apology on behalf of the person who has been wronged, this isn’t a decision to make alone. Work with the targeted person and respect their wishes about how to proceed. They might prefer to not confront the aggressor or to report the issue to the relevant site directly. Except for situations of acute danger, don’t take action on their behalf if you haven’t been asked to do so.
“At the beginning of the year, we have a discussion about what’s appropriate to post and what isn’t. If something negative is posted, it’s removed, and we have a discussion with the person who posted.”
—Jeanette A., fourth-year undergraduate, Kutztown University, Pennsylvania
“It’s not a controversial forum. We have rules, but we’re relaxed and work together in a group rather than talk about conflicting ideas.”
—Eliot A., recent graduate, Metropolitan State University of Denver
“I monitor the page though my manager app that I’ve installed on my phone. I posted guidelines and must approve all comments and posts before they’re allowed to be posted. If someone complains about harassment or being messaged, I’ll check out the situation, take proper steps to stop it, and prevent it in the future.”
—Angel P., fourth-year undergraduate, Governors State University, Illinois
“Anything that’s posted that’s disrespectful is deleted and that person is warned through a personal message. If they continue, they’re removed from the page.”
—Leah H., third-year undergraduate, Northern Illinois University
Strategies developed by the Communication and Consent Educator program at Yale University.
[school_resource sh101resources=’no’ category=’mobileapp,counselingservices, studentservices’] Get help or find out more
Ross Ellis, founder and CEO of STOMP Out Bullying, a national bullying and harassment prevention organization.
Justin Patchin, PhD, professor of criminal science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center.
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Most of us have witnessed online harassment. For that matter, most of us report that we’ve experienced it, according to surveys. Young adults are the most likely to be abused online. That experience can make it harder for students to attend class or concentrate on learning, according to a survey by Hollaback!, a coalition to prevent harassment. Online harassment can raise the risk of suicide in adults who are already experiencing emotional or situational stress, according to a 2011 study in Educational Leadership.
How can you respond if you or a friend is harassed online? How can you make sure your own online presence is positive? The prevalence of trolling, roasting, stalking, and other forms of harassment gives us all opportunities to intervene. Online behavior is contagious, studies show. We are all well positioned to model respectful behavior on social networks, influence a comment thread that’s veering toward abuse, and help build more positive online spaces in which everyone can participate freely. Leaders in the tech industry have our backs on this as they work to make online spaces more accommodating for all. For six steps to keeping the cyber-peace, see below. For resources and tools, see Get help or find out more. For guidance on how to argue constructively online and off, see Tame the tension: Science-backed ways to talk it out in this issue.
Online harassment includes one-time incidents as well as cases of cyberbullying that unfold over months or years. It includes attacks based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, appearance, and more. Severe harassment online has been linked to notorious controversies, such as “GamerGate,” when harassers targeted women in the video game industry. In a polarized political environment that has seen documented increases in hate crimes, online harassment has made for alarming headlines, as when the writer Milo Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter for inciting racist abuse.
Online harassment takes various forms:
- Trolling (sometimes called flaming) means posting comments with the intention of triggering distress in others.
- Roasting is a direct attack on another person’s view or position.
- Exclusion involves singling out someone and not letting them participate in group chats or threads, and/or making negative comments toward them.
- Harassment means repeatedly attacking a person, often by insulting their racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, or religious identity.
- Cyberstalking involves repeated, unwanted online contact with the purpose of tracking, threatening, or harassing someone.
- Doxing means using online sources to trace someone’s identity and gather information about them, then using that information to harm or harass the person.
- Outing involves the malicious release of personal and private information about a person.
- Masquerading means creating a fake identity in order to harass someone anonymously or impersonate someone else.
Some communities are targeted by cyberbullying more frequently than others. Young people, women, and LGBT youth report especially high rates of harassment online. Here’s what that looks like:
- Two in three (65 percent) of young adult internet users (aged 18–29) have been the target of at least one of six identified types of online harassment, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center.
- 10–28 percent of college students experience cyberbullying, according to an analysis of seven recent studies (Sage Open, 2014).
- Men seem more likely than women to report online harassment overall (44 percent versus 37 percent), especially name-calling, being purposefully embarrassed, and physical threats, according to the Pew study.
- Young women aged 18–24 seem more likely than other demographics to experience certain severe types of harassment. In the Pew survey, one in four young women had been stalked online, and the same proportion had been sexually harassed online.
- Sexual harassment in general is often targeted at women who are perceived to violate stereotypical gender norms, according to “The Sexual Harassment of Uppity Women,” a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology (2007). This finding helps explain the later “GamerGate” online abuse directed at women in the video game industry.
- LGBT youth are cyberbullied at significantly higher rates than their heterosexual peers, with 54 percent experiencing it within the past three months, according to a national study in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy (2010).
- Disabled people are targeted for online abuse, though the current research is slight. A 2016 study involving 19 disabled people concluded that harassers targeted people with disabilities and the impact was more severe for reasons relating to the disabilities (Disability and Society). Grade-school students receiving special education services are more likely than their peers to report being victimized online, according to the Journal of Special Education (2013).
Online harassment and cyberbullying have widespread and well-documented consequences. For example:
- Distress More than one in four people who’d experienced online harassment found it “extremely upsetting” or “very upsetting,” in the 2014 Pew survey.
- Isolation Students who experience online abuse report higher rates of isolation. One in four people harassed online withdrew from social media, the internet, or their phones as a result, according to a 2016 report by the Data & Society Research Institute.
- Emotional and behavioral health risks Children and teenagers who are cyberbullied or harassed online are nearly twice as likely as their peers to experience depression and substance abuse, a 2007 study in Child Maltreatment found. Cyberbullying negatively affects grade-school students’ school attendance and academic achievement, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of School Violence.
- Suicide risk Online harassment can raise adults’ suicide risk by exacerbating loneliness and hopelessness among those with preexisting stressors, according to Educational Leadership (2011). Among young teens, both the perpetrators and targets of cyberbullying are more likely than their peers to attempt suicide, the same study found.
- Censorship Online harassment appears to curtail free speech. One in four Americans censor themselves online out of fear of online harassment, Hack Harassment reports.
Not all online harassers have antisocial traits such as lacking empathy. Even ordinary people (who don’t have personality issues) can be induced to troll in certain circumstances, researchers from Cornell University, New York, found. Here’s what can drive us to trolling:
- We’re in a bad mood (this helps explain why trolling intensifies late at night and on Mondays).
- We’re participating in a thread or conversation that started with a “troll comment” or in which trolling is already underway (the more trolling is happening already, the more likely we will troll too).
In the online environment, we can choose to be anonymous, a factor that lowers the behavioral bar. That can make it easier for even those of us who are generally well- intentioned to dish out sarcasm or insults, and disconnect from others’ feelings. In our survey, many students acknowledged that they’d done this and regretted it.
The research paints a predictably unflattering picture of some habitual online harassers. Perpetrators may be motivated by the following:
- A perceived way to stay popular Harassing others online may make the perpetrator feel powerful, and may be their response to low self-esteem, according to Delete Cyberbullying, a project aimed at parents and grade-school students.
- A sense of failure or threat In a 2010 study, men who harassed women players during a video game appeared to be less skilled at the game than their peers, according to a 2010 study in PLOS One.
- Low empathy In a 2014 study of college students, lower empathy toward others was associated with a higher likelihood of cyberbullying, according to Computers in Human Behavior.
- Other personality disorder traits Persistent trolling is associated with narcissism, a willingness to inflict harm, and a willingness to manipulate and deceive others, according to a 2014 study in Personality and Individual Differences.
- Anger toward victims Online stalking tends to be associated with the perpetrators’ distress and anger toward their targets (though personality issues can be a factor), a 2000 study in Aggression and Violent Behavior suggests.
1. Set a respectful and considerate tone and standard
The majority of our online presence is communal. Every contribution we make adds to the overall tone of the online space. Kindness is contagious. By engaging respectfully with others, you reinforce the expectation that others do the same.
2. Practice engaging constructively on difficult or contentious topics
Disagreeing with a friend’s opinion or disputing someone’s argument is all well and good—depending on how we go about it. For a guide to constructive arguing and how to influence someone’s opinion, see Tame the tension: Science-backed ways to talk it out in this issue of SH101.
3. Apologize when it’s merited, even if your slight was unintentional
If you hear that you have hurt someone, apologize. Communicating digitally can sometimes obscure the very real three-dimensional people who are reading and hearing our words. It’s important to remember that, even in the midst of heated or highly charged conversations. If the platform allows you to delete, retract, or qualify a contentious comment, do so.
4. Ask for clarification if you need it
If you don’t know why what you said was hurtful, you can ask for clarification. To the best of your ability, do so with respect and compassion. You could say something like, “I’m sorry that I upset you with my comment. Could you tell me why that word is hurtful? I want to be sure I don’t make the same mistake again.”
5. Stay chill when you feel misunderstood
Resist calling people out personally with inflammatory and divisive terms. If you think a comment has racist or sexist implications, try assuming those were unintentional and pointing them out gently. By the same token, if you see yourself as a fair person and someone says that your comment was discriminatory, try to resist getting defensive. We are all coming from our own complex places. If you’ve asked for clarification and didn’t get it, reiterate that your intention was positive, and let it go.
6. Use the reporting tools
Platforms and sites rely on their users to report abusive or disrespectful behavior that violates community standards. You can help create a safer environment by reporting harassment and abuse when you see or experience it.
7. Use your moderator powers for good
If you’re the administrator or moderator of an online group, forum, or list, take initiative to set the tone for positive, respectful interactions. You can do so by:
- Establishing community standards or guidelines (pinning a post about rules to the top of a page helps reduce trolling, according to a 2016 experiment by r/science, a Reddit community)
- Creating a clear reporting structure for harassment or abuse
- Reaching out for help and support if you run into trouble
- Being open to feedback from your community and others
8. Support people and platforms doing good work
In recent years, the tech industry has been taking a more active approach to preventing and addressing cyberbullying and harassment. There are several great initiatives you can learn from and support, including:
Facebook’s Bullying Prevention Hub
This online resource, developed in partnership with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, offers information on and strategies for addressing cyberbullying. It includes detailed and practical conversation starters and step-by-step plans for students, parents, and educators looking to address a bullying incident, whether they are speaking with the person being bullied or the person inflicting the bullying. This resource also offers concrete strategies for proactively preventing online harassment and cyberbullying.
This coalition, led by Intel, Vox Media, and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, aims to build a more inclusive and supportive online community. You can get involved and commit to building that more inclusive and supportive online community through the Hack Harassment website. There, you can sign up to be a Campus Ambassador, host a #HackHarassment hackathon, or apply for a grant to fund your own harassment-hacking project.
People who are harassed online tend to turn to trusted friends, teachers, and family members for help, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of School Violence. Receiving support, both online and off, can have a tremendously positive impact on how someone copes with and responds to online harassment. Here’s how to go about it:
1. Think about what you can potentially accomplish
“Your goal might be to approach a friend involved in a bullying incident, but you don’t know how to approach them or what to say. Or you might choose to report something that you see online that seems unsafe for one of the people involved,” says Dr. Robin Stern, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University, Connecticut.
2. Reach out and offer support
You can reach out directly to the person experiencing harassment. Express your alarm at what’s happened and ask what you can do to help. Bear in mind that responding with emojis or “likes” can sometimes be misleading.
3.Add positive comments to a negative thread
If you see insults or attacks online—for example, against a writer discussing sexual violence—consider contributing some positive words. Offering encouragement and support is a simple way to mitigate the effect of online harassment. Manners (good and bad) are contagious. Modeling civility and constructive commentary online can potentially dissuade others from trolling, according to a 2017 study by researchers at Cornell University. That said…
4. Ask before you act on someone else’s behalf
If you want to confront the aggressor or request an apology on behalf of the person who’s been wronged, this is not a decision to make alone. Work with the targeted person and respect their wishes about how to proceed. They might prefer to not confront the aggressor, or to report the issue to the relevant site directly. Except for situations of acute danger, do not take action on their behalf if you have not been asked to do so.
5. Check in with your own feelings
“It is important to reflect on your own feelings before talking with someone affected by a bullying incident because you want to make sure that you are in a place where you can have that conversation,” says Dr. Stern. “If you yourself are emotionally activated, which is understandable and may well be the case, then you won’t be able to have that conversation from a place of calm. If you lower your own emotional activation, you are going to be able to more effectively help the person in the interaction regulate their own emotions.”
6. Seek support, off-line and on
“It is important to talk it through with someone you trust and who you believe is wise about this sort of thing. You might turn to a trusted peer or RA or dean who can help you think about how to approach the incident, depending on your goal,” says Dr. Stern. Tell someone you trust and who is in a position to help. Alternatively, you might report the incident to the site or platform, group administrator, or moderator. If someone is being harmed, about to be harmed, or threatening harm, take that seriously and get help immediately.
Most online platforms give you tools to curate what content you see and with whom you interact online. Explore the options available to you and decide what you share online and who can see it. These approaches can help:
Take advantage of customization tools
Online platforms frequently give you control over the level of connection you want to have with someone. You can choose to block content or people whose content you don’t want to see. On some platforms, this decision can be separate from whether you remain friends with those users (e.g., on Facebook you can unfollow a person’s posts without unfriending the person).
Pick your friends
There is a lot to be said for trying to work through differences with people who hold varying opinions and making sure we’re exposed to viewpoints that are not the same as ours. However, if you are experiencing harassment from a user online, especially someone you don’t know or don’t have a strong relationship with off-line, you can choose to prevent that user from contacting you.
Protect your privacy
Review your privacy settings on all social media. You have control over who sees your posts and what online activity is viewable to others.
Consider making online magic
Several free software options and plugins allow you to make more customized and creative choices about what you see online. For example, Sweary mary is a Chrome Extension that replaces swear words with witty alternatives.
Be aware that not all sites are created equal
Some platforms do a better job than others of giving their users the tools and support they need to have a safe and fulfilling online experience. As an informed user, you can decide which sites you want to trust with your time and information, and which you’d rather pass on.
[school_resource category='counsellingservices, studentservices']
Robin Stern, PhD, associate director, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Yale University, Connecticut.
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What do you know about opioid abuse and addiction? Take our quiz to see how your knowledge compares to other students’, and find answers to questions like these:
- Is it risky to take prescription pain meds?
- Who’s at risk for addiction?
- How rare is opioid abuse among college students?
- Does opioid overdose reversal always work?
The US is experiencing a brutal opioid epidemic. In 2015, 33,000 Americans died from overdoses involving prescription painkillers, heroin, and synthetic opioids, according to the National Institutes of Health. Many opioid overdoses can be reversed with timely medical treatment, however—someday, you may be in a position to save a life. This brief guide shows you how.
The illicit use of heroin and prescription painkillers is rare among college students. Yet this epidemic is affecting demographics that were previously considered relatively immune to drug crises. “My freshman year of college, my older sister went to rehab for heroin addiction. People from all ethnicities and social classes are struggling with opioid addiction,” says a third-year undergraduate at Saint Louis University, Missouri.
In this article, “opioid” covers heroin, prescription painkillers, and synthetic opioids sold on the street. For info on getting help with abuse and addiction, see Get help or find out more.
What to do if someone may have overdosed: Call 911 immediately
- Act quickly: Most deaths occur one to three hours after the overdose, so you have a window for intervention.
- Get medical help: When people survive an overdose, it is because professional help was available. You do not need to be sure the person has overdosed on opioids (or any other substance) before calling 911. Calling 911 usually ensures quicker medical help than taking the victim to the hospital yourself.
- Tell the 911 dispatcher: Let them know if the person’s breathing has slowed or stopped and if they are unresponsive. Give the dispatcher the exact location.
- Be aware of Good Samaritan laws: In most states, people who seek help with a suspected overdose are immune from drug-related criminal charges under Good Samaritan laws (also known as 911 Immunity Laws). Your college may have similar policies (sometimes called medical amnesty). For information about your state, see Get help or find out more.
What does an opioid overdose look like?
» The signs of opioid overdose include:
- Small pupils
- Droopy arms and legs, and the inability to stand or walk
- Slurred speech
- Shallow and uneven breathing
- Being unresponsive
- Loss of consciousness
» As the window for intervening narrows, signs include:
- Pale face
- Blue lips
- Gurgling chest sounds
Could I be at risk for opioid abuse?
Opioid addiction is difficult to treat. Avoiding illicit drug use is the safest strategy. Here’s how to look out for yourself:
- If you are using a prescription opioid medication that was not prescribed to you, seek help.
- If you are using an opioid medication prescribed to you, be self-aware about your reasons: Opioid medications are prescribed for long-term pain associated with various medical issues or for short-term pain control after surgery or an injury. If you are using opioids for other reasons—e.g., to get high or buzzed—seek help.
- If you are using opioids for pain relief, and your pain is becoming more difficult to control, discuss that with your physician immediately.
- If you have a family history of drug abuse/addiction and need medication for short-term pain, consider asking your physician for a pain medication other than opioids. Having a family history of drug abuse/addiction puts you at a higher risk for abuse/addiction.
- If you are abusing opioids or may be addicted, you will need support with your recovery. See Get help or find out more (below).
Where can I get help with opioid abuse or addiction?
- Ask your physician or other health care provider for a referral to an addiction specialist.
- If you have health insurance, check the insurance company website for addiction specialists covered by your plan.
- Ask at your student health center, counseling center, place of worship, or community center about addiction assistance.
- Call your local hospital for help finding medical professionals with addiction expertise.
- Look at community directories or online for a specialist in your area: Make sure the person is licensed or certified in mental or behavioral health, or is a licensed counselor in social work or professional counseling.
- Try Narcotics Anonymous for local, free, anonymous support groups.
- Many detox centers offer free initial consultations.
- For more key info and resources, see Get help or find out more (below).
What are the options for accessing reversal treatment?
Many opioid overdoses can be reversed with treatment. The opioid reversal medications naloxone and naltrexone can be delivered via a nasal spray, by injection, or intravenously. These reversal drugs (or antidotes) are also known by various brand names (e.g., Narcan®).
Naloxone treatment can be accessed in several ways:
- At hospital emergency rooms
- Via police departments and paramedics (ambulance responders), after calling 911
- Via some fire departments
- In most states, via some trained laypeople (not medical professionals) who may have a history of opioid abuse or family members who are abusing opioids
- Some states allow pharmacies to dispense naloxone to people meeting certain criteria without a physician’s direct involvement (this is often reported as over-the-counter availability, although that term is technically incorrect)
What exactly does “unresponsive” mean?
Here’s what being unresponsive looks like, according to the Harm Reduction Coalition:
- Not answering to their name
- Not responding to information they may not want to hear (e.g., “I’m going to call 911”)
- Not responding to physical stimulation (e.g., rubbing your knuckles into their sternum, the place in the middle of their chest where the ribs meet, or pinching their earlobes)
- If the person wakes up but their breathing seems shallow or their chest feels tight, call 911 anyway
See Where can I get help with opioid abuse or addiction? in the article.
Free, confidential, 24/7 helpline (English and Spanish): SAMHSA
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No one wants to think that our friends or acquaintances might have been sexually assaulted or abused. Yet statistics suggest that we all know survivors, whether or not we’re aware of it. Sexual assault and abuse survivors who receive positive social support are less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or substance abuse issues, research shows. “When a survivor of sexual violence chooses to disclose to a friend, this friend can help set the tone for the recovery process,” says Kelly Addington, founder of One Student, an advocacy organization addressing sexual assault in student communities. “Focusing on the survivor and how you can support them is much better than focusing on the attack.”
On campus: Consider discussing the situation with a counselor, Title IX coordinator, trusted dean, or RA. Before disclosing assault or abuse to campus faculty or staff, ask about the implications for confidentiality.
I believe you
It means a lot that you trusted me with this
You did not cause this
May I look for some resources that might help?
If you need someone to come with you, I will
I’m here for you
Tell me as much or as little as you want
I’ll support whatever you choose to do
How do you want me to act when I see [the perpetrator]?
The decision about what to do next is yours
It wasn’t your fault
What can I do to support you?
What would help you feel empowered and safe?
I won’t share this unless you ask me to*
*Or, if you are a mandated reporter, discuss up front the implications for confidentiality.
I’m sorry this happened to you
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Want to hang out or do something fun?
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Romantic relationships can be a great source of joy and fulfillment. But when a relationship is unhealthy or abusive, it can cause major harm. Relationship abuse is characterized by a pattern of control, disrespect, and emotional manipulation. Sometimes that pattern involves sexual or physical assault or coercion.
“My boyfriend refused to listen to my explicit ‘Nos’ or even ‘It hurts,’” wrote an undergraduate in New Hampshire. “At the time, I didn’t realize it was considered sexual assault. I thought that because we were dating, that wasn’t a thing.”
When sexual assault or coercion happens within the context of a relationship, it is still sexual assault or coercion. Most likely it isn’t an isolated incident but instead part of a pattern of abusive behaviors. “After I broke up with him, I started to realize how abusive the relationship was and how badly it impacted my self-esteem and grades,” the student said (in a recent survey by SH101). “It took a long time for me to realize that this problem did not have to define my time in college.”
Abuse can be emotional or physical
Sexual assault or coercion within relationships is only one category of abusive relationship behavior. It is common for abuse to be entirely or largely emotional, not physical. That said, studies suggest that sexual violence by partners is not rare. Like all unmistakable signs of abuse, it tends to happen out of sight. We are more likely to witness the “small things”—incidents of disrespectful or belittling behavior by one partner to another. These may signal that abuse is happening, or will happen in future.
We can look out for each other
Most of the steps for supporting a friend are actions that people appreciate whether or not they are experiencing abuse. Being an active bystander is about the things we do every day to look out for our friends and communities. In short: Know the warning signs of relationship abuse, and if you’re not sure, check in anyway.
Why does this matter so much? Unconditional support via social networks is vital to coping with relationship abuse, research shows. Supportive friends may be especially important for people of color, who tend to receive less backup than white women (Women’s Studies International Forum, 2004).
Abuse does not target any one type of person
Research has traditionally focused on abuse experienced by women in heterosexual relationships. Male and LBGTQ survivors have been overlooked until relatively recently. Men and women may experience emotional abuse at similar rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2014). “Anyone can be in an abusive relationship: female/male, gay/straight, any ethnic or cultural background, any physical size, ability, or strength,” says Dr. Rachel Pain, a professor of human geography at Durham University in the UK, who studies relationship abuse. “We all have a strong tendency to think it would never happen to us, but abusive partners are not abusive when we meet them.”
Common signs of abuse
You don’t have to be sure that this is abuse, but it’s helpful to know the signs. Abusive behaviors form a pattern of control, disrespect, and emotional manipulation. Click for info and examples.
Isolating the other person from friends and family
In a healthy relationship, each person talks to and communicates with their friends as they’d like. Abusive behaviors include preventing a partner from spending time alone with friends or family, or constantly calling or texting to keep tabs on a partner. “If he starts to notice that your family and friends are concerned about your relationship, he may be looking to keep you away from them,” says Dana Cuomo, coordinator of victim advocacy services at the University of Washington. (Because of this dynamic, don’t give up on your friend if they stop calling you—be there for them and stay supportive.)
Checking the other person’s phone, email, or social media without permission (or pressuring them for access)
In a relationship, each partner is entitled to privacy. Violating that privacy is a major warning sign.
Intruding on another person’s private communications may also be a means of changing or influencing their decisions and opportunities. “Maybe you get a job interview, but your partner deletes the email so that you never know about it,” says Casey Corcoran, a program director of Futures Without Violence, an advocacy organization working to end violence against women and children.
Red flags include:
- Checking a partner’s emails, texts, social media, and so on without their permission
- Obsessively keeping tabs on the partner via texting, calling, or social media
- Monitoring where a partner goes, whom they see, or what they do
- Making personal decisions on behalf of a partner, or pressurizing them in their decisions, such as who to hang out with, or where to study or work
Using social status or peer pressure to manipulate the other person
Abusive partners may use the threat of social pressure, gossip, or lies to manipulate their partners. Often, they’ll also claim to be the authority on how men or women, or romantic or sexual partners, are supposed to behave. This is a way of justifying their own behaviors or condemning their partner’s.
Leveraging their power as “gatekeeper” to a social community
Some partners provide an important link to a social community (e.g., a group of friends, a club or organization based around a shared interest or identity, or an academic or professional group). Abusive partners may try and use that community link as a way to pressure their partner to stay in the relationship. Abusers may similarly use financial resources or pressure to control their partner.
Example “If a partner who’s abusive is someone’s main link to an LGBTQ community, or maybe was that person’s first same-gender partner, that relationship can be very much tied up in their sexual identity,” says Gabe Murchison, senior research manager at the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy organization. “They may be especially afraid to end that relationship, and they may feel they’ll lose a concrete part of their LGBTQ identity by ending it.”
Making belittling comments and put-downs
Calling a partner names, making them feel small or ashamed, or humiliating them are common warning signs. No one should use shame to control their partner.
Getting angry suddenly
“This can be a sign of a bigger issue, especially if your partner becomes physically or emotionally abusive when they ‘lose it,’” says Corcoran.
Example You can’t ever be sure you’re saying the right thing. It seems like anything might set your partner off. “You may feel as though you are on a roller coaster all the time,” says Corcoran. “One minute everything is fine, and the next he’s yelling.” In these cases, you feel like you can’t relax because you don’t know what to expect.
Being possessive and jealous
Warning signs include suddenly becoming jealous or angry, or making false accusations of infidelity.
Example You’re at the bar and run into someone you’ve been intimate with before. When your partner finds out, they get very upset. “This happens when the abuser sees you as their property,” says Cuomo. “It is part of the pattern of power and control in abusive relationships in which you aren’t allowed to make choices about your own life.”
Those choices may include what you wear. They may be thinking that “if you’re wearing something sexy or flirty, you’ll draw the attention of another person, and that will be your fault,” says Cuomo. “It is very manipulative because it isn’t your fault at all; it’s because they don’t trust you not to act on another person’s advances.”
Making over-the-top gestures
Expensive gifts at the beginning of a relationship, or a rush to spend a ton of time together, can be red flags. Overcompensating is a distraction tactic—maybe she doesn’t want you looking too closely at other aspects of the relationship—and can also be used as leverage.
Extravagant gestures can also be part of the pattern of abuse and making up, which is common in abusive relationships. For example, “He might get so angry that he hits you during a fight. Then later he brings you a bouquet of flowers,” says Corcoran.
These episodes of kindness and hope can position the targeted person to deny the fear and anger that they feel toward the abuser, research indicates (Feminism & Psychology, 2011). “This is the time when the abuser tries to regain control,” says Cuomo. “The cycle has three stages: The tension builds, it turns into a fight, and then they apologize and say they’ll never do it again.”
Engaging in “gaslighting”
“Gaslighting” (the term references a 1938 play) is when an abusive partner manipulates the other by trying to make them doubt their own reality, experiences, and emotional health. The abusive partner might say, “It’s in your head,” or “It didn’t happen like that.” They may trivialize their partner’s emotions or pretend not to understand what they are talking about.
Using physical violence, the threat of violence, or fear
This can mean anything from destroying possessions—phones, glasses, tables, or other property—to physically harming a partner. Sometimes violence will be used or threatened in connection to sex. Some abusers threaten self-harm as a kind of manipulation.
Making someone nervous or uncomfortable can be a deliberate power tactic. “In unhealthy relationships, your partner does things that are meant to make you fearful,” says Corcoran.
Example There’s no excuse for driving recklessly, especially with someone else in the car. If it’s intended to frighten the other person, this is abusive.
Pressuring or forcing sex
This includes sexual pressure, coercion, or force. It is common in physically abusive relationships, research shows. For example, in a 2005 study, two out of three women who’d been physically assaulted by a partner had also been sexually assaulted or coerced by that partner (Department of Justice).
Red flags include:
- Threatening or using alcohol or drugs to pressure a partner to have sex
- Ignoring a partner’s lack of interest in sex or even their explicit “nos” to sexual activity
- Demanding sex in return for a gift
- Refusing to use condoms or other kinds of birth control
Example “When your partner doesn’t respect your decisions around sex, she may try to manipulate or blame you,” says Corcoran. “Why do we need to use a condom? Is it because you are sleeping with someone else?”
8 steps to supporting a friend in an abusive relationship
People experiencing abusive encounters and relationships tend to tell a friend, studies show. If you are that friend, you can make a difference. If you are experiencing abuse, these steps can help outline what seeking support may look like.
1 Be there and listen
This sounds simple, and it goes a long way. Abusive relationships often function by isolating the abused person from their support network, especially friends and family. Being present for your friend can be powerful in and of itself, counteracting the isolation they experience.
When people reach out for support, it’s usually to a friend. For example, in a small study of college women who had experienced unwanted sexual contact, three out of four had disclosed the assault or abuse—the vast majority to a friend, according to Feminism & Psychology (2012).
Listening has many benefits. In a classic study of abuse survivors, people said they had valued the opportunity to talk and vent about their experiences, to receive comfort and emotional support, and to observe their friends’ anger toward abusers (Feminism & Psychology, 1993).
Be aware of factors and feelings that may make it harder for someone to disclose. Frequently, people in unhealthy relationships minimize the abuse they are experiencing (“It’s no big deal”); this may be especially likely if the abuse does not involve extreme physical or sexual violence. Some are concerned that others won’t understand and/or may respond in unhelpful ways. Some may be held back by embarrassment or shame, or fear for their safety if they tell anyone.
Self-blame is another powerful obstacle. In a 2015 study, people who had experienced sexual violence and understood it was not their fault were more likely to disclose it than were those who blamed themselves (Violence Against Women).
2 Be open to individual experiences
Stay attuned to your friend’s needs, regardless of whether or not their relationship conforms to what you’ve heard before about abuse. Be alert to common misconceptions about what abusive relationships look like and who they happen to.
While abusive relationships have similarities—the pattern of controlling behavior, for example—no two are the same.
Keep in mind:
- Abuse can take place in relationships of all types.
- Abuse can take place in relationships involving people of any sexual orientation and/or gender combination.
- Abuse can happen to anyone. Men can be abused in relationships. Outwardly strong, assertive people can be abused in relationships. Experts on relationship abuse can be abused in relationships.
How professionals moved past victim blaming
Professionals’ understanding of relationship abuse has shifted in recent decades. “In the mid-20th century, psychiatrists believed that only certain types of women ‘fell into’ abusive relationships,” says Dr. Pain. “Now it’s widely recognized that they were mistaking the symptoms of being abused (especially the mental health effects) for factors that predisposed certain people to being abused. This was a kind of medically sanctioned victim blaming that meant hefty challenges for the women’s movement and others trying to end relationship abuse. It also left men and LGBT victims out of the picture until relatively recently.”
3 Be clear that your friend is not to blame
Part of your role is to emphasize that the abuser is responsible for the abuse. Aggressors try to shift the blame: “I wouldn’t have to shout if you listened the first time”; “It wouldn’t be like this if I could trust you.” Self-blame is a common and powerful obstacle to disclosing abuse and seeking help.
4 Show your support
Ask: “What can I do to help?” The answer may be something seemingly small, like having breakfast with your friend regularly or walking them to class. Maybe you can help schedule an appointment with a doctor or counselor. In any case, follow your friend’s lead on how to help. Avoid saying anything that might trivialize your friend’s experience.
5 Remind yourself that your friend is in charge
Abusive relationships often involve repeated violations of a person’s autonomy. It is crucial that you not replicate that dynamic when you offer help. Your friend is (and should remain in) the driver’s seat. The decision of what to do and when is theirs.
6 Resist advising your friend to leave the relationship
Dumping the abuser may seem like a no-brainer. But many people find this advice unhelpful, in part because it can come across as victim blaming. Consider asking for guidance: “I’m not here to tell you to leave. That said, if you ever want to leave, I’ll support you. I’ll have your back, whatever your decision.”
It may seem baffling that someone does not immediately walk away from an abusive relationship. Researchers have found that the dynamics of abuse, and the decision to stay or leave, are highly complicated (Behavior and Social Issues, 2005).
People’s reasons for staying in abusive relationships are often rational and considered (for example, relating to safety, children, and finances), studies show. Individuals’ sense of belonging is important in deciding how to respond to abuse. For nonwhite people, the decision to leave a family or community can be especially seismic, research suggests (Women’s Studies International Forum, 2004). Researchers now understand that leaving an abusive relationship is a process and may take multiple attempts (Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 2003).
Is it ever helpful to advise someone to leave?
Here’s the caveat: Some people report that the advice to leave an abusive relationship was helpful. This difference appears to depend on where each individual is at, research suggests. In a 2011 study, some women who had already considered leaving or had made preparations for leaving found it helpful to be advised to leave (Feminism & Psychology). For those who had not considered leaving, the same advice was unhelpful. Check in with your friend and ask what kind of support they need.
7 Suggest helpful resources
Suggest additional sources of support that might help your friend. These may be on campus, in the community, or online. Whatever you suggest, the decision on how to proceed belongs to your friend.
Researching the available support resources is a quick and practical way to help a friend. For example:
- On campus: Your friend could consider discussing the situation with a counselor, the Title IX coordinator, a trusted dean, or an RA. Most campus staff and faculty have reporting obligations that require them to share any reports of violence or abuse with the Title IX coordinator. You may want to ask staff or faculty about this before disclosing.
- In the community: Your friend may be interested in discussing their experiences with a rape or sexual assault crisis center, or other victim advocacy organization.
- Online: Your friend may find it helpful to talk with an advocate via an anonymous, confidential hotline or online chat service. This may be a general relationship abuse resource or one that supports a specific community (e.g., LGBTQ). For resources, see Find out more today.
When is it OK to take the decision to seek further help out of their hands?
Only if someone is experiencing an acute threat or might harm themselves or others. In that case, talk to a campus counselor, the campus safety office, or Title IX staff.
8 Seek out support for yourself too
Supporting a friend through an abusive relationship can take a toll on you. Seek support whenever you need it from friends, family, mentors, or professionals. Relationship abuse hotlines are for you too (see Find out more today). Respect your friend’s privacy throughout.
Why it’s important to reach out
You may have noticed similarities between abusive relationships and abuse or misconduct in other contexts. You can likely tell when someone is experiencing pressure, disrespect, or unwanted attention. This makes your job as an active bystander that much easier.
What to do when you’re not sure this is abuse—and why their relationship is your business
Recognizing troubling dynamics within established relationships is not much different from recognizing such dynamics elsewhere. Whether the interaction involves a couple, acquaintances, or strangers, you can likely tell when someone is experiencing pressure, disrespect, or unwanted attention.
What if I’m not sure this is abuse?
You might be thinking of a friend whose relationship is not entirely respectful or fulfilling. Low-level disregard and disrespect are not the same as a pattern of controlling behaviors. Still, we should be wary. Everyone deserves to have their boundaries and desires respected. As a good friend, you would still be concerned for your friend, their well-being, and their happiness. These skills and strategies—listening, being present, showing support—are still useful in these contexts.
And what if it’s actually abusive?
The negative consequences of relationship abuse are far-reaching, both for individuals, communities, and society. These examples may surprise you:
“Many high-profile mass shooters are also domestic abusers, and most ‘mass shootings’ are actually domestic violence incidents,” reported Vox, following the shooting at Fort Lauderdale airport in January. Researchers are exploring the parallels between relationship abuse and acts of terror. “While the two forms of violence are different in important ways, they are similar in the way that they work: largely, through fear,” says Dr. Rachel Pain, who co-directs the Centre for Social Justice and Community Action at Durham University, UK. “The physical incidents of violence are only part of the story; the threat of violence is used to exert control. And the fear that creates—either for the individual, children, or for a wider community—is one of the most important effects.”
Relationship abuse accounts for enormous costs in healthcare services, lost productivity, missed work, homelessness, and the ripple effects of intergenerational trauma (the impact on children and teens who are exposed to relationship abuse in their families). In the US, the cost of relationship abuse exceeded $5.8 billion a year, in a 2003 study for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Students share: What we learned about relationship abuse
The frequency and health impact of sexual assault by partners
Abuse of all types can affect people in relationships of any sexual orientation or gender-identity. The research on sexual assault and coercion within relationships is limited. Existing studies focus primarily on women experiencing abuse in heterosexual relationships.
- Sexual assault and coercion in relationships is not rare: In several studies of women who had been married or cohabiting, 8 to 23 percent reported having been sexually assaulted by an intimate partner, according to a 2003 review in Trauma, Violence, & Abuse. The study definitions of intimate partner and sexual assault varied.
- Sexual violence may be relatively common in young people’s relationships: In a UK study involving teens, 31 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys reported some form of sexual coercion or assault (NSPCC, 2009).
- Physical and sexual violence may go together: Many abusive relationships that involve physical violence involve sexual violence too, research shows (Department of Justice, 2005). Within relationships, the mental and physical health impact of sexual assault can be worse than the harms caused by physical violence, according to the same study. Sexual assaults by partners are more likely to cause physical injury than sexual assaults by strangers or acquaintances are (Partner Abuse, 2012).
- Sexual assault by partners can cause serious physical and emotional harm: Women who have been sexually assaulted within relationships had more post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, more pregnancies resulting from rape, more sexually transmitted infections, and more suicide attempts, compared to women who had been physically but not sexually assaulted by partners, according to the 2005 study for the Department of Justice.
- Sexual assault by partners is a risk factor for drug use: In the 2005 study, 27 percent of the women began or increased their use of nicotine, alcohol, or illicit drugs (usually cocaine) after they were sexually assaulted by an intimate partner.
- The sexual assault risk can vary according to circumstances: Women who are disabled, pregnant, or attempting to leave their abusers are at greatest risk for intimate partner rape, says the National Coalition Against Domestic Abuse.
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Hana Awwad and Evan Walker-Wells contributed to this article.
Casey Corcoran, program director, Futures Without Violence.
Dana Cuomo, coordinator of victim advocacy services, University of Washington.
Gabe Murchison, senior research manager, Human Rights Campaign.
Rachel Pain, PhD, professor, Department of Geography; co-director, Centre for Social Justice and Community Action; Durham University, UK.
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All students have a vital role in the effort to build safer and socially comfortable campuses. Research shows that only a small number of men on campus are responsible for most of the sexual assaults. “The truth is many more men would prefer to interrupt this stuff than buy into it,” says Lee Scriggins, an expert in bystander intervention education at the University of ColoradoBoulder. Much of the time, it’s not even about preventing a potential assault. “We ask students to act when they see anyone looking even a bit uncomfortable. By making bystander intervention low-key and routine, we create a safety net that also supports mutuality and respect. Everyone has a role to play,” says Melanie Boyd, assistant dean of student affairs at Yale University, Connecticut.
Feeling empowered to take effective action
“For men, feeling that you have to solve the whole situation, and that confrontation will result in a fight, is a barrier,” says Scriggins. Bystander intervention efforts emphasize a range of direct and indirect ways to help make sure everyone is comfortable. These include resisting other people’s derogatory comments, which signal a potentially toxic environment, and creating openings for someone to extract themselves from a situation if they want to…
What you can achieve:
- Active bystanders can reduce harm and establish a safer community.
- Active bystanders shift the blame away from victims and foster a sense of community responsibility.
- Active bystanders model interventions for others, who may apply similar strategies in the future.
Ways to disrupt potentially harmful situations
A classmate makes a sexually suggestive comment to another student
- Direct response: “Whoa! That’s awkward.”
- Indirect response: “That was awkward and a bit much.”
At a party, a guy seems to be paying way too much attention to another student
- Direct response: “What are you, desperate? Knock it off.”
- Indirect response: “Hey, I’ve got someone you need to meet.”
Walking across campus with friends, a student suggests you all follow someone
- Direct response: “What’s your point? No, that’s stupid.”
- Indirect response: “Let’s get out of here and catch the event in the quad.”
Drunk and Aggressive
A drunk guy announces he’s going to get with a girl that night
- Direct response: “I dare you to get with someone who wants to get with you.”
- Indirect response: “Keep tabs on the situation through the night to see if he’s blowing smoke or if sex is his goal no matter what.”
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