Sexual harassment is not just about sex. It is really more about power and control. Although sexual harassment and sexual assault does also happen to men, more often it happens to women. Reportedly 1 out of 3 women experience sexual harassment or sexual assault in the workplace and seventy-five percent of those women who file a complaint of sexual harassment experience some type of retaliation.
It is no wonder then, that sexual harassment and sexual assaut are sorely underreported and all pervasive. If it wasn’t awful enough to experience the fear, violation and trauma from the sexual harassment itself, then to be retaliated against by the perpetrator and others is just unfathomable.
Don’t Blame The Victim
There are individuals who don’t understand the paralyzing effect of sexual harassment and sexual assault or comprehend that the person responsible for it is the harasser. That he or she is fully responsible for the harassment and the person being harassed is not. It’s not their fault. It’s nothing they did. They are not responsible in any way.
Fashion Designer Donna Karan initially defended Harvey Weinstein by stating that women invite sexual harassment by how they dress or present themselves. She later repented and apologized and referred to her comment as a huge mistake. Unfortunately, the reality is one does not make such a statement without it being part of their true belief system. Large parts of the population, including women, really have the belief system that somehow the victim is to blame. Whether it’s conscious or unconscious, it’s still present. Thus further complicating a women’s desire to share about their sexual harassment or sexual assault. Furthermore, this makes it even more difficult for women to share with a friend, or someone close, even without reporting the harassment. This causes further alienation of the victim.
There Isn’t Usually A Simple Solution
It is distressing to have to walk into work each day and not feel safe and not know if the harassment is going to happen again today, or not. Some might suggest that the victim, “Just get another job”, or “Just tell them, no”. If it were so easy to just get another job, or just say no, then most women would do just that. It’s not that simple. The lack of understanding or minimizing that so often happens has a devastating effect that might make women stay silent.
Most women need their jobs. It might be the only way to pay bills or support their family. The concern of ruining future career prospects, the fear of retaliation, damage to reputation, or enduring the embarrassment of reporting the incident and risking becoming a pariah in the workplace might make women hesitate to report. When we have been sexually harassed and those around us such as friends, or coworkers, that we might have shared this with, minimize it or negate the experience, it is further traumatizing.
We don’t want to hurt our careers or harm relationships. We anticipate retaliation and need our jobs.Shawn M. Burn Ph.D. Professor of Psychology and Author
Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault is About Power and Control
If we have a history of childhood or adolescence sexual abuse, or have been a victim of rape, then our physiological or emotional response to sexual harassment may be even further magnified. The emotional reaction when being sexually harassed is very similar to the emotional reaction a child or adolescent experiences from sexual abuse. This is because the person is in a position of power.
To a child they might be a parent, or a neighbor. An adult suffering sexual harassment or sexual assault might experience this abuse of power from a boss or other authority figure.
There is a parallel that others don’t understand. We feel powerless so that when we are in this heightened emotional state, it makes it particularly difficult to just say “No”. To just say, “This is not okay,” particularly when the person is in a position of power.
We often experience:
- A sense of powerlessness
- Being incapable of stopping what’s happening
- Feeling as if we are frozen
- Extreme anxiety and fear
The Courage To Report
It takes a great deal of courage to report sexual harassment and sexual assault. It is vital to know, however, that those who are not able, or ready to do so, do not lack courage. They are just too afraid, or anxious, to do so. Reporting sexual harassment for most is not just an action. It usually follows a long and arduous emotional process. This process that begins with considering reporting it. It isn’t just an action. It takes a lot of working though the feelings, and receiving lots of support to be ready to report.
Over ten years ago, Tarana Burke created the Me Too campaign to help victims of sexual harassment and assault have a voice, find support, not feel so alone and feel more understood. After the recent sexual harassment scandal of Harvey Weinstein, actress Alyssa Milano brought the Me Too campaign into the social media spotlight. Twitter was flooded with the #metoo hashtag of women and men supporting each other.
Is It Sexual Harassment or Flirting?
The sense of powerlessness felt when being sexually harassed is palatable. It is indescribable. Initially there is shock, particularly if the harassment is of a more subtle nature, which often it is in the beginning. Some of us wonder, how do I differentiate the difference between harassment and say flirting, or a compliment?
If we use our bodies as a barometer, we will often know the difference between sexual harassment and flirting, because we will feel it. We may begin to feel anxious, scared, sad, or angry. Our emotions and our physiological response may also help us gauge what is happening.
If we notice:
- A flittering in our stomach
- A tightness in our muscles
- We start to perspire or get chills
- Our heart beat quickens
- We have trouble catching our breath.
These physiological sensations can tell us that what is happening here is not okay. It is not flirting. It is not simply a compliment. I’m being harassed.
How Can We Help Ourselves or Others?
There are steps we can take to begin the process of helping ourselves, or making ourselves available to help others. One step might be to find a friend, a therapist, or someone in our life that we feel emotionally safe with that we believe would be able to hold this space for hearing what’s happened. Someone who is not critical or judgmental yet understands, and is empathetic and emotionally supportive. This can begin the process of healing. Then if reporting is something we want to do, then this may be the first step to working toward that.
We can be that emotionally safe person for a friend or someone we know who is suffering from sexual harassment or sexual assault. We can help them by saying I believe you, it’s not your fault and you don’t deserve this. We can support them and let them share talk cry and scream if they need to, or refer them to a psychotherapist if they aren’t comfortable talking with us or need more than we can offer.
We Are Here If You Need To Talk
If you struggling with emotional pain from past, or present, sexual harassment or sexual assault, speaking with a trusted psychotherapist at Nassau Guidance and Counseling located on Long Island can help. Our licensed therapists have helped many people find ways to work through these feelings and begin the process of healing.