Since allegations of sexual misconduct came out against Harvey Weinstein in October, women (and men) have been coming out of the woodwork to call out their own abusers. And it’s happening in droves.
Before October, in my years as a therapist I’ve been aware of and angered by how little awareness there is around sexual misconduct both inside and outside of the workplace. Now that new allegations seem to be coming out faster than the news cycle can keep up with it raises several questions:
Why did these people wait so long to speak up? Why now?
Have I personally been a victim of sexual misconduct?
Should I blow the whistle? When? And to whom?
Have I been sexually inappropriate towards others?
Let’s tackle a couple of these questions here.
What are sexual harassment, assault, and misconduct?
“Sexual Misconduct” is an umbrella term capturing all forms of sexual behaviors that may be harmful or inappropriate. Sexual assault and sexual harassment are forms of sexual misconduct.
“Sexual Assault” includes any form of touch that occurs without consent of both individuals, typically through the use of force (whether physical or emotional). This ranges from moments a romantic partner pushes things further physically than consented to all the way to rape.
“Sexual Harassment” includes verbal and visual interactions that are sexually inappropriate, such as sexual “jokes,” sexual gesturing, suggestive staring, comments that are sexual in nature, staying in the room when someone has expressed discomfort, making verbal threats that someone’s job/grade/relationship depends on sexual favors, and much more.
Why not make public accusations immediately after sexual misconduct?
This is such a nuanced question, yet it’s so common. Some are tempted to question whether the accuser is being honest after they waited years or decades to come out with an accusation. Let’s highlight some of the common pieces contributing to this issue, though I imagine I’ll only scratch the surface here:
Societal norms. Women are socialized to defer to men as authority figures. Even for women growing up in more progressive family environments, media, advertisements, and the world around us tell us that we are sexual objects and our purpose is to be consumed by men. There’s no way around it. Even speaking from experience, I can’t go to the coffee shop across the street without someone catcalling at me while they drive by. The porn industry is only an extension of this – a symptom of this already pervasive problem. When people are sexually inappropriate towards us, it’s consistent with what we’ve known to be reality from a very young age. Often women aren’t even able to identify that what they experienced was assault until much later after the event.
“You’re making this into a big deal.” As a result of these norms, there’s a consistent array of messaging around sexual misconduct, even when a woman attempts to confide in someone else what happened. Women are often told by their family, friends, spouses, HR departments, and spiritual mentors that they are making too big of a deal out of the misconduct they experienced and should “get over it.” They may hear other unhelpful go-to statements like, “This happens all the time,” and, “I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way.”
“It was your fault.” Another frequent go-to response is to blame the victim. We can avoid feeling like the world is scary and out of control if we take responsibility for others harming us. Not only do loved ones communicate this to victims, but even more often I hear women blaming themselves: “I was asking for it,” “I should have known he was like that and left sooner,” “Maybe he thought I did consent,” and “Maybe I didn’t say ‘no’ enough times.”
“Boys will be boys.” This excuse is particularly destructive because not only does it communicate to women that the men in their lives can’t help but hurt them, it communicates to men that they are not capable of rising above the history of hurt men have inflicted upon women. Humans will always be human, but we all have a responsibility to reflect on how our behaviors impact others, to own responsibility, and to make change.
“You can’t ruin his reputation.” Often men in positions of power can feel they can get away with victimizing women, either because no one would believe any accusations against them, or because they believe that no one would dare to publicly make accusations against someone in so much power. Many women continue to keep their accusations private because they don’t want to “cause trouble” for the accused. There is also very real concern that others may not believe them, which may not be worth the risk.
Whistleblowing isn’t always helpful to the victim
If you’ve been a victim of sexual misconduct, it’s important to pause before you consider making a public accusation. Making a public accusation of any sort is incredibly stressful on it’s own with all the legal repercussions that ensue. In addition to the headaches that come with any legal battle, there’s the added risk that others may not believe you. You will also be asked to share every detail of your story, which can be re-traumatizing for victims.
Before anyone considers going public, it’s incredibly important that they establish a safe support network at the ready. A therapist can be helpful in evaluating whether you’re emotionally ready to face such a battle. Consulting with a lawyer before going public is also helpful so you know a little bit of what you’re getting into before you take the plunge. Find your people who will stay with you no matter what.
Not every victim may be helped by going public. However, keeping something like this completely secret from the entire world is typically harmful to the victim. Harboring a secret like that often eats away at someone, and there’s value in finding a safe person or therapist to disclose your secret to (see my post What’s so bad about keeping secrets?).
A note on gender
I’ve framed much of this piece to be gendered – with men as the accused and women as the victims. Though this is the most common presentation of sexual misconduct, it’s not confined to this gendered equation. Men can harm other men, women can harm men and other women, and anyone can harm anyone – regardless of gender.
As a final disclaimer, I’d like to be clear that this blog post isn’t intended as professional counseling or clinical advice. If you’re in need of support, please consider speaking to a professional to be evaluated.
Wishing you well,