Over decades of Ministry I’ve counseled women who have dealt with various forms of sexual harassment. With the recent #MeToo movement, the topic has become big news, and it is starting to get the attention it deserves.
Let’s lay all of the cards out on the table. Sexual harassment is one of those insidious evils that surround us. It lurks in the background and we don’t really pay much attention to it until it directly affects us in some way.
As women, we are often told we need to “move past” any “uncomfortable” situations we’ve experienced. As in the situation made us uncomfortable, but that’s the extent of it, giving the impression the woman is overreacting. All too often, sexual harassment is swept under the rug, or dealt with quietly so the situation just goes away.
I want to do two things in this post. First, I want to look a little closer at sexual harassment: what it is, who it affects, and what kind of damage it causes. Then I want to look at the steps someone who is sexually harassed can take to find healing and how we can help.
What It Is
Sexual harassment is legally defined as something that happens in the workplace, or in a structured learning environment. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), it includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature in the workplace or learning environment.
Stop Street Harassment defines sexual harassment as including: “ verbal sexual harassment (e.g., sexually explicit talk, homophobic slurs, repeated requests for a date after a person has said no), cyber sexual harassment (the use of text/phone and Internet to sexually harass), and physically aggressive sexual harassment (flashing or indecent exposure, being physically followed and being touched or brushed up against in a sexual way without consent).”
The Equality Act of 2010 in the UK defines it as: “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.”
Who It Affects
Sexual harassment affects each and every one of us in one way or another. Statistics show that at least 1 in 4 women experience sexual harassment in the workplace. A new national online survey from Stop Street Harassment (SSH) reported that 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men said they had experienced sexual harassment or assault over their lifetimes. Think about that.
According to SSH:
- More than 3 in 4 women (77%) and 1 in 3 men (34%) experienced verbal sexual harassment;
- 1 in 2 women (51%) and 1 in 6 men (17%) were sexually touched in an unwelcome way;
- Around 4 in 10 women (41%) and 1 in 4 men (22%) experienced cyber sexual harassment;
- More than 1 in 3 women (34%) and 1 in 10 men (12%) were physically followed;
- Close to 1 in 3 women (30%) and 1 in 10 men (12%) faced unwanted genital flashing;
- More than 1 in 4 women (27%) and 1 in 14 men (7%) survived sexual assault.
- Among those who reported experiencing sexual harassment and assault, 57% of women and 42% of men said it had happened by age 17. High school-age, 14-to-17-years-old, was the most frequently selected age people reported being for their first experience (27% women, 20% men).
The Damage It Causes
Harassment must be taken seriously. It is emotionally and physically damaging, and in severe cases the effects can last a lifetime. Of those who reported experiencing sexual harassment in the SSH survey, 31% of women and 20% of men said they felt anxiety or depression and many changed their route or regular routine to avoid their harassers.
Women especially are conditioned to smooth over difficult situations. Many women are taught from a young age that if something makes them uncomfortable they need to remove themselves from the situation if possible, but whatever they do, do it quietly. That kind of thinking becomes hard-wired in the brain and it is difficult to change when in a crisis situation. The #MeToo movement has pointed out the dangers of that kind of thinking.
Victims of sexual harassment react in many different ways. There is no one response. They can appear calm, they can dampen their emotions, they might be distraught, or they might be visibly angry. If the abuse is serious enough, victims may self-medicate, engage in high-risk sexual behavior, withdraw from those around them, or attempt to regain control in some way.
The victim’s claim in sexual harassment is often questioned more than that of victims of other crimes. Especially if they don’t fight back in some way. This questioning can lead to doubt and confusion for the victim, and it is the reason many never report it or seek help. Neurobiological research has shown that the fight-or-flight response in harassment or assault situations might be more accurately called “fight, flight or freeze.” Victims may be rendered involuntarily immobile, becoming either paralyzed or limp as a result of the brain and body’s protective response.
The emotional damage victims of sexual harassment face must not be downplayed or disregarded. They have faced real trauma, and it not something that was imagined or a joke that was “taken too seriously.”
In cases of severe harassment, the harasser often incites feelings of confusion and shame and they manipulate the reluctance to identify as a victim. According to Valliere, those harassers she treats give two tactics they use to obscure their actions: they will camouflage the act as horseplay or humor, or they act as though nothing happened. She states, “If they do this enough, the victim can get really confused, like they’re really the bad one for thinking badly about the offender.”
Sexual harassment takes an enormous toll on the victim, and it can have long-lasting effects if the individual is not proactive about seeking healing. Reactions to trauma are different for each person, but it often starts as shock. The person then moves into a state of denial: “this can’t really be happening to me.” Following that are feelings of victimization, which can impact self-esteem and the ability to function.
Steps to Healing
Healing is a process. If you have been the victim of sexual harassment, my heart is with you and you are in my prayers. I hope the steps I’ve listed will guide you as you start your healing process. If you know someone who is struggling with the aftereffects of harassment, I hope these steps will guide you as you offer them your support and love.
Step 1: Acknowledge what happened. Someone violated your dignity. They put you in a situation that was not only uncomfortable, it was damaging to you emotionally, and possibly physically.
Step 2: Don’t blame yourself. Someone else did this to you. You are not to blame. You did not “tempt” them with your actions, your clothing, your makeup, the way you walk, or by being friendly. Their actions are to blame. It was their decision, not yours.
Step 3: Find someone to talk to right away. This is not something you can make go away on your own. You need to process what happened to you and talking to someone else will give you the support you need to face your pain. I would encourage you to consider a neutral party for this step. A trusted family member or friend can be invaluable to the healing process, but they often have trouble separating their own emotions from the situation. Instead, consider a counselor or your pastor or the equivalent. That person is there to listen to you, to be your advocate, and to offer you the support you need to find your own insights. If they don’t do those things, then find someone who will.
Step 4: Take back control of your life. Set goals, make plans, take a class, start a new hobby, do whatever it takes for you to feel in control and comfortable with your immediate future.
Step 5: Take care of yourself. You, my friend, are a blessed creation of God. He loves every molecule of your being, and He created you with great care and thought. You are valuable, and you must take care of yourself just like you would take care of anything of great value. I’ve talked about self-care and would encourage you to make this a priority in your life as you work through the healing process.
Step 6: Surround yourself with people who support you. Don’t underestimate the value of positivity in your life. Especially right now. Spend time with people who make you feel good about yourself. People who will understand and not judge you if you have a bad day. Your connections are always important, but right now they are vital. The flip side of this coin is temporarily removing the negative from your life. If you love someone (friend, relative, mentor) but they are feeding negativity and bad feelings into your life, then you need to remove them from your circle for a while.
This is the time to focus on you. Focus on healing so you can live the life you God intends for you. God is good and His plan for your life is to prosper and thrive. Trauma is not the end, instead it’s the beginning of a pathway to healing through God. Although you may always remember the victimization, God’s Grace has the divine energy to flatten the pain and reframe the loss into your weapon for personal growth. In our weakness, the Bible promises that Jesus will be strong!
Recommend resources for healing:
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D.
Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body by Peter A. Levine, Ph.D.
Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship by Laurence Heller Ph.D. and Aline LaPierre Psy.D.
Walking the Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine and Ann Frederick