Opening up about sexual harassment closes stereotypes


Sarah Kim

Stigmas silence sexual harassment victims — and conversation is the key to breaking them.

Sexual harassment — it’s a term you’ve most likely heard and/or seen sprawled across the media. Although some victims earn justice, negative stereotypes such as victim blaming still surround those who have been affected by sexual harassment. We need to advocate for more people to come forward about their experiences in order to normalize the conversation and finally put an end to these harmful assumptions.

Let’s start with what exactly classifies as sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is vaguely defined as unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances. These advances include but are not limited to: catcalling, unnecessary touching without consent and making sexual gestures and/or comments. Although harassment cases are common in a workplace setting, students can relate to the experience of being sexually harassed, whether at school or elsewhere.

A student, Kendall*, shares their story about being inappropriately kissed by their dentist. They were reluctant to tell people out of fear that they would be viewed differently, including their own mother.

The bitter truth about sexual harassment is that everyone has either experienced sexual harassment first-hand or knows someone who has.

A study conducted by the Harvard School of Education in May 2017 reports that 87 percent of women aged 18-25 have reported being victims of sexual harassment. Another study conducted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) in 2011 found that 40 percent of male students in grades 7-12 have experienced sexual harassment. These statistics, though already quite high, don’t account for the number of unreported sexual harassment cases.

Mrs. Rebecca Uscian, an AP Literature and English 9 teacher at Dougherty, thinks that people are reluctant to talk about their sexual harassment experiences “because there’s a stigma, and there’s also this fear of repercussions. What happens when your boss is harassing you? What happens when it’s a friend at school? There’s a lot of repercussions that maybe you don’t want to happen, and so that deters you from reporting [it].”

“People perceive sexual harassment victims as weak. I don’t want people to think I am weak. I don’t want them thinking that I was ‘asking for it.’ I was just sitting there. It’s not my fault that I had no control in the situation,” Kendall* says.

Now, of course, no two sexual harassment experiences are the same, but many can relate to the stereotypes associated with them. Most of these negative assumptions place the blame on the victim — “You wore something provocative, didn’t you?”; “You must have said or done something that gave them the wrong idea”; “You should have done something to stop it from happening.”

Another negative result of the stereotypes is the internalized victim blame. Uscian says that victims have “a lot of feelings of ‘Why was I wearing that?’ or ‘What did I do to deserve this? Because clearly it’s my fault,’ based on the narrative that we’re given in our culture.”

Our society has a twisted norm of placing blame on the victim, on making the victim feel like they did something wrong. This prevents them from coming forward about their experiences.

“As much as people are talking about it more now, I still think that there can be a stigma around [sexual harassment],” Ms. Athena Agustin-Vadney, Dougherty teacher on special assignment and health teacher, comments. “I think if it’s in a situation where they might be judged by society, people still might be concerned about putting themselves out there and be judged because of something that happened to them that they may not have had any control over whatsoever.”

When being sexually harassed, victims are put in a positions like they’re trapped in a cage. They can’t do anything to stop the harasser or to get out of it. Unwillingly being put into a situation like that does not make the victim weak; if anything, that person is stronger because they made it through the situation.

People need to come forward with their stories and experiences because it will show the world that victims can’t be stereotyped. Talking about these experiences and adding context to them can help normalize the conversation. Normalizing the conversation in turn emphasizes the fact that all sexual harassment stories are different and that victims should never be the ones to blame.

“Information is always important, talking about things, normalizing honesty. I think silence has been normalized for the longest time. And that’s kind of been what we have encouraged, [these] don’t-ask-don’t-tell kind of things,” Agustin-Vadney says.

Some may argue that normalizing the conversation can normalize sexual harassment altogether. This, however, is not the case. Sexual harassment will not be normalized because these conversations will place emphasis on how disturbing it can be for victims. Why would anyone want to normalize doing something disturbing and inappropriate?

Normalizing the conversation actually encourages more victims to come forward, which can put an end to sexual harassment as a whole. The conversation will allow people to become aware that traumatizing experiences like these do happen. Exposure of the victim’s emotions and how each victim experiences something different can render stereotypes invalid. Ending these stereotypes encourages even more people to come forward and allows them to finally start seeking out the justice they deserve.

“If we really listen to one another, we see how people are impacted by [sexual harassment], and we can move forward and we can realize that we need to treat our victims better,” Usican says.

We as a society need to realize that being sexually harassed is bad enough; yet, there’s another layer of pain that lies within these stereotypes. Victims have to face blame not only from others, but themselves. This can lead to detrimental effects on one’s mental health.

It’s hard to deal with. And it’s not something that just goes away all by itself. So it’s important for them to discuss with somebody that they trust and kind of let it go eventually and get to the place where they can let it go and kind of move forward,” Agustin-Vadney says.

Talking about these experiences have been proven to be helpful. Having people come forward about their experiences encourages others to come forward as well, as seen in the #MeToo movement. Getting rid of these stereotypes and this judgment will make people feel safer when talking about their experiences.

“When people think they’re the only ones that have experienced [sexual harassment], it’s hard to talk about it. But it’s something that’s [being] talked about a little bit more — we talk about it a little bit in health classes. I think we’re trying to build a level of comfort so people can feel that coming forward isn’t going to hurt them in the long run,” Agustin-Vadney expresses.

Talking about sexual harassment and building that level of comfort is critical. We need to normalize the conversation and end these assumptions that prevent people from coming forward with their stories. Victims need to get the justice they deserve and it all starts with putting an end to these stereotypes.

*Name changed to protect privacy.