If only this were “just a joke,” but sexual violence isn’t funny. There are new sexual harassment allegations against public officials in the news. Media accounts tell us that the allegations are serious, but mostly for the potential repercussions for the harassers. Yes, these accused perpetrators will be scrutinized, judged, and possibly punished if they are found to have committed the actions and possible crimes of which they are accused. Any punishment will likely only occur in the Court of Public Opinion however, as criminal harassment cases are rarely prosecuted. Yes, it is a big story when someone with a high profile is accused of sexual harassment- will they be forced to resign, will they be fired, will other accusers come forward?
The story that is ignored, that few headlines will proclaim, are the repercussions for the victims of sexual harassment. More often than not, victims tolerate or defend against the harassment until the perpetrator moves on to another target, or the victims find a way to steer clear of the threat- usually by changing friends, jobs or even careers. A victim’s career trajectory is almost always negatively impacted, especially for younger women and women of color. Their mental health is harmed even by verbal sexual harassment (again, that joke isn’t funny), and one-in-ten women victims experience severe, PTSD-level symptoms. What’s worse, many times the harasser is successful in perpetrating sexual assault- unwanted touching, physical confinement, or coerced sex acts. The victim is then dealing with an entirely new trauma, especially compounded when sexual violence happens at their place of employment.
And while we’re thinking about ignored stories, here are a few facts worth remembering:
- 81% of women and 43% of men report experiencing some form of sexual harassment or assault in their lifetime. That is a lot of us!
- 77% of women and 34% of men report experiencing verbal sexual harassment. It’s never appropriate.
- 51% of women report unwelcome sexual touching/groping. Half of all women!
- 57% of women sexually harassed reported it first happened by age 17. Don’t we want better for our children?
In my experience as the Executive Director of a sexual assault crisis center, always working to support survivors of sexual violence, I sometimes need reminding that not everyone thinks about these issues every day. So I’d like to ask you, reader, to give some thought to the victims of this week’s new crop of “bad guys.” Remember that the people who come forward with their traumatic and personal experience have gone through pain, confusion, shame, and sometimes the complete upheaval of their personal and professional lives, just for being in the proximity of the harasser. Give some thought, too, to the young people in our community, many of them high schoolers, who come to The Rowan Center seeking support for sexual harassment and verbal abuse they suffer at the hands of their peers. These teens experience anxiety, depression, and shame. As one teen reported, “It just really made me feel uncomfortable. Even before, I was insecure about my body, but now I feel really insecure. I should be able to walk the hallways of my own school without the fear of being catcalled.” And the parents who often bring them in- the powerlessness and sadness they feel for their children is heart wrenching; the parents are secondary victims.
We can all help to end sexual harassment and assault: we can all believe survivors, and we can all support survivors. But first, we need to recognize that survivors of sexual harassment are all around us, in many cases, they ARE us. Let’s keep victims centered in our conversations about sexual violence. Let’s show perpetrators we have no space for them in our schools, our offices, our organizations, and our governments. It’s never a laughing matter.
Mary Forman Flynn is the Executive Director of The Rowan Center, a nonprofit agency providing counseling and support to victims of sexual violence and working throughout Lower Fairfield County to eliminate sexual violence with community-wide education programs. Crisis services are always free and confidential. Sexual violence prevention education for schools, community centers, small businesses and corporations is available. Visit our website www.therowancenter.org or call our office at 203-348-9346 for more information.