The Many Faces of Sexual Harassment and Why Victims Don’t Speak Up

People want proof. Due to the popularity of true crime TV shows, juries expect to see hard evidence like DNA, blood spatter, or ligature marks to prove the accused is guilty. In cases of sexual harassment or abuse, there may not be any forensic evidence available. This lack of proof can leave the victim feeling that it’s not worth telling anyone about the incident, or, worse—wondering if a crime actually occurred.

Consider the following situation: A young woman had a casual consensual sexual relationship with her boss. She ends up dating someone else, but her boss continues to send her sexually explicit text messages. When she doesn’t respond, her boss embarrasses her during a business meeting. He then promotes someone she supervises. A reporter who is privy to this encounter asks the woman if she experienced sexual harassment. It isn’t until this moment that she begins to consider it. Even though this is the premise of the new fictional book, Startup by Doree Shafrir, similar scenarios have occurred in workplaces across America.

It can be difficult to identify sexual harassment and abuse. Often the harassment starts out gradually with a sexual joke or seemingly innocuous comment about another person. It may then evolve to touching, grazing or “accidentally” brushing up against a woman’s body. This slow progression leaves the victim feeling confused and even accepting of the inappropriate behaviors, since they have occurred over time.

A meta-analysis of 10 years of research about workplace sexual harassment found that “less than one-third of victims informally discuss sexual harassment with supervisors, and less than 25 percent file formal sexual harassment complaints with their employers.”

If sexual harassment is considered a crime, then why do victims fail to report it when it happens? There are a variety of reasons why women don’t speak up, according to research studies and feedback from victims.

Victims Blame Themselves

Supermodel Ashley Graham revealed that she experienced sexual harassment at the young age of 10, by the son of her parent’s friend. She never told anyone about the incident when it happened. At the time she asked herself what she could have done to provoke his unwanted advances. Lady Gaga had a similar reaction when she experienced sexual assault at age 19. She wondered what she might have done to bring the assault on to herself.

It’s not uncommon for victims to ask themselves this question. In an interview with LiveScience, Yolanda Moses, a professor at the University of California, Riverside stated, “There’s an outdated cultural belief that good women don’t get raped. Such beliefs can lead victims to think that the sexual assault might have been their own fault.”

Feelings of Shame or Embarrassment

Research by Sable found that one of the main reasons women fail to report sexual assault is due to feelings of “shame, guilt and embarrassment.” In American culture, children are taught to regard their genitals as “private parts.” This belief causes some women to feel embarrassed when they are sexually harassed or assaulted. Furthermore, the assailant may use offensive or degrading language which the victim may feel embarrassed to repeat to other people, resulting in not reporting the incident.

Fear That No One Will Believe Them

Barbara Bowman claims she is one of the women raped by Bill Cosby. Bowman told a lawyer about the incident, but he accused her of making the story up. She continued to tell people for 10 years, yet no one believed her. In 2006, her story was in People Magazine and Newsweek, yet no one seemed to care. People didn’t want to believe Cosby could be capable of raping someone since he was a famous and respected actor.

Behavior Is Considered Acceptable

In some work environments men’s inappropriate or illegal sexual behaviors towards women are considered acceptable which only perpetuates their actions. Since July 2016, over twenty women, including hosts Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly stated they experienced sexual harassment while working at Fox News.

During the lawsuit, Andrea Tantaros stated, “Fox News masquerades as a defender of traditional family values, but behind the scenes, it operates like a sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult, steeped in intimidation, indecency and misogyny.” Research supports Tantaros perception. Pryor found sexual harassment is more likely to occur in workplaces where men perceive the social norms as permitting such behavior.

Lack of Consequences

There are situations when the assailant of sexual harassment or abuse receives either little or no ramifications. In March of 2016, Brock Turner, a Stanford University student, was convicted of three counts of sexual assault. Despite these serious charges and a 12-page letter from the victim, he was only sentenced to six months in jail, but released after three months. This lenient sentence sends a message to women that it might not be worth reporting sexual harassment or rape, being subjected to invasive medical exams, and reliving the experience in court, if the accused doesn’t receive any significant consequences.

Another example of a person receiving no consequences for their alleged sexual harassment behavior is the actor Casey Affleck. Two different women filed a sexual harassment suit against him. People were outraged over the fact that he won an Academy Award despite the sexual harassment claims. They took to Twitter with comments, such as one by Feminist Frequency who stated, “People who commit sexual harassment should lose their jobs, not be celebrated with honor and prestige.” Another person on Twitter, Preston Bradsher commented, “Women get fired for reporting sexual harassment and men win awards for committing it.”

Fear of Retaliation

A common reason women don’t report sexual harassment in the workplace is due to fear of retaliation. In a New York Times story about the sexual harassment cases at Fox News, over a dozen women admitted to experiencing sexual harassment but didn’t report it due to fear of retribution or of being fired. There is a valid reason women fear losing their job since some women actually do get fired after making a claim. Bergman and Palmieri found that reporting sexual harassment often does trigger retaliation which can cause the victim to experience lower job satisfaction and psychological distress.

The Importance of Reporting Sexual Harassment and Assault

If more women reported sexual harassment and assault, it would be less stigmatized in the United States. When women come forward with cases of harassment, it gives other women the strength to come forward to, as we saw in the case of Bill Cosby or Fox News with over dozens of women coming forward in each case.

Preston Bradsher’s Twitter comment, “Women get fired for reporting sexual harassment and men win awards for committing it,” speaks to the current cultural norms in our society. The best way to change these perceptions is by having more women opening discussing and reporting sexual harassment.

Featured image by Núria Estremera and Leia Goiria

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