Why women don’t report sexual harassment or assault?
‘Me Too’ movement was founded in 2006 by Tarana Burke a 45-year old African-American from New York to help survivors of sexual violence, particularly young women of colour from low wealth communities. The initial idea behind me too was empowerment through empathy, letting other women know that they’re not alone in the journey. The life-changing movement began when Burke was talking to a girl who revealed that her mother’s boyfriend had been sexually abusing her. She didn’t know what to say, she just said ‘me too’.
She was able to create a storm with just 500 Twitter followers.
The movement became an internet sensation when actress Alyssa Milano stumbled upon this phrase and tweeted on October 16, 2017 that “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me Too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”.
Now, it is being used by women across the globe to share their anguish against sexual harassment. This movement spread to multiple languages, including Arabic, Parsi, French, Hindi, and Spanish. Today, women in 85 different countries are using the hashtag to bring attention to the violence and harassment they face in daily life and to demand change.
Despite such a popular movement, every time a high-profile sexual harassment or assault case is reported people tend to ask “Why don’t the victims of sexual harassment come forward sooner?” This question seems to shift the blame onto the alleged victims, asking why they waited until now, rather than trying to understand the agony these women experience. Studies of victims of sexual harassment have indicated that roughly three to four people experiencing such harassment never tell anyone in authority about it. Instead, the women typically “avoid the harasser, deny or downplay the gravity of the situation, or attempt to ignore, forget, or endure the behavior.” It is indeed very common for victims to delay disclosing their trauma. Even highly educated people are continually baffled by why women don’t come forward.
Research on the psychology of abuse and an analysis of the experiences of victims of sexual abuse, sexual assault, and sexual harassment has led to the identification of some of the reasons why victims of sexual harassment don’t come forward.
The most fundamental reason why women don’t come forward to report sexual harassment or assault is shame. Shame is at the core of the intense emotional wounding women experience when they are sexually violated. The victim feels invaded and defiled, while simultaneously experiencing the indignity of being helpless and at the mercy of another person. Shame is a feeling deep within us of being exposed and unworthy. The strong sense of shame often causes victims to a) blame themselves for the sexual misconduct of their perpetrator (want to hide), b) feel isolated (different from the rest) c) feel humiliated (unable to defend self, feel helpless) d) be blamed by others (way they dressed). This sense of shame has a cumulative effect. Depending on how much a woman has already been shamed by previous abuse or by bullying, she may choose to try to forget the entire incident, to put her head in the sand and try to pretend it never happened.
The tendency to blame themselves and being overwhelmed with shame makes these women even deny or minimize the sexual harassment. They may refuse to believe that the treatment they endured was actually abusive. They downplay how much they have been harmed by sexual harassment and even sexual assault. They may compare themselves with others who were brutally raped and would feel that what they have experienced is nothing. They would like to move on and forget the whole thing. However, they would become victims of depression, a major after-effect of sexual harassment or assault. There would also be some women who are good at making excuses for their abusers. Victims of sexual assault have reported being sorry for the abuser or feeling that he could not help himself. As a part of the process of minimization, it is possible that some women convince themselves that they are the only victim of a sexual harasser or abuser. It is only when other women step forward that they were abused by a perpetrator, they realize that they are dealing with a serial abuser. Me too movement has led to more women being ready to report abuse.
Fear of the Consequences
Fear of the repercussions is a huge obstacle women face when it comes to reporting sexual harassment or assault — fear of losing their job, fear they won’t find another job, fear they will be denied a promotion, fear of losing their credibility, fear of being branded a troublemaker, fear of being blacklisted in their industry, fear of their physical safety. This is true whether it is a case of a young woman in her first job being harassed, an actress trying to make her way in the entertainment business, or a career woman desperately trying to break through the glass ceiling.
One significant fear reported by many victims is that won’t be believed. People tend to believe that these women are making up these stories for attention or to get back at a man who rejected them. The victims’ reports are thoroughly scrutinized and in high-profile cases, they are often labeled opportunists, blamed for their own victimization, and punished for coming forward.
Another fear is that of retaliation. Sexual harassers, especially if they are in positions of power, frequently threaten the lives, jobs, and careers of their victims. Victims have reported that they lost their jobs, and that their careers or reputations have been destroyed. This fear of retaliation among victims is seen in all industries – movies, politics, media, technology etc.
Some victims have such low self-esteem that they don’t consider what happened to them to be very serious. They don’t value or respect their own bodies or their own integrity, so if someone violates them, they downplay it. A victim who had been sexually violated by a boss when she was in her early twenties felt it was no big deal. She did not anticipate the short and long-term consequences. She took up drugs because she felt she had nothing to lose because she stopped caring about herself.
Sexual violations wound a woman’s self-esteem, self-concept, and sense of self. The more a girl or woman puts up with, the more her self-image becomes distorted. Little by little, acts of disrespect, objectification, and shaming whittle away at her self-esteem until she has little regard for herself and her feelings. Even the most confident girl cannot sustain her sense of confidence if she is sexually violated. She feels so much shame that it is difficult to hold her head up high. She finds it difficult to have the motivation to continue on her path, whether it be college or a career.
Feelings of Hopelessness and Helplessness
Research has documented that victims who cannot see a way out of an abusive situation soon develop a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. Learned helplessness is a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed and they tend to simply give up and accept their fate. Women feel it is useless to come forward, because they have seen the way others have been treated. They feel it is hopeless, because they won’t be believed, and their reputations will be tainted, if not ruined. Women who have already been sexually assaulted or harassed feel especially helpless, since the chances are extremely high that they did not receive the justice they so desperately needed. These fears can cause women to think there is nowhere to turn, to feel trapped and even hopeless.
A History of Being Sexually Violated
Women who have already been traumatized by child sexual abuse or by sexual assault as an adult are far less likely to speak out about sexual harassment at work or at school. Research shows that survivors of previous abuse and assault are at a higher risk of being sexually assaulted again. Those who experienced previous abuse will likely respond to overtures of sexual harassment much differently than women who have not been abused. Those who have previously been victimized are more likely to keep quiet about the abuse, since they may have already had the experience of not being believed and not receiving justice.
Lack of Information
Recent statistics show that a very high percent of women suffer sexual harassment on the job. And yet many women, even highly educated ones, are uneducated about exactly what constitutes sexual harassment, don’t recognize sexual harassment as a real threat, don’t understand how sexual harassment or assault affected them, nor do they understand the real world consequences of not reaching out for help or not reporting it. For example, the emotional effects of this type of harassment can have devastating psychiatric effects, including anxiety, loss of self-esteem, post traumatic stress disorder and suicidal behavior.
Disbelief, Dissociated, or Drugged
Finally, sometimes women don’t report sexual harassment or assault, because at the time of the abuse they were drugged, inebriated, or dissociated. It is not uncommon for women and girls to have been drugged by their abusers and, because of this, to have only vague memories. Others may have been so drunk before the assault that they doubt their memories, and as we know, some are so traumatized that they dissociated during the attack and have only vague memories. It usually takes one woman coming forward before a woman is able to trust her own memories of the experience. Unless other women come forward to make a complaint about someone, most will continue doubting themselves and assuming they will be doubted if they report.
We need to understand that women have a difficult time coming forward for a number of reasons. These women deserve our recognition about how difficult it is and our compassion for what they have been through. Women need to be encouraged to begin to push away their internalized shame with anger and to learn how to give the shame back to their abusers.
Instead of focusing so much energy on trying to figure out why victims don’t report, it would be far more productive to ask, “Why do we allow men to continue to sexually harass and assault women?” Perhaps even more important, we need to stop asking why victims wait to report and instead focus on how we can better support victims in their quest for justice and healing.
I have completed 30 years of teaching and research in psychology at the Department of Psychology and Parapsychology, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam, India.