An Open Letter to Women Who’ve Been Sexually Harassed
To Whom It May Concern, aka, 81% of US Women*:
In these times, when the choices of women are under constant assault, there is one arena in which women will never have to worry about the “opportunity” to make plenty of choices. The arena I speak of is work. It’s the bar. It’s social media. Truth? It’s anywhere and everywhere. The dynamic I am referencing is sexual harassment. We often think about sexual harassment as an organizational hot button…a seminar you go to in order to check a box with HR. Sexual harassment is an overarching issue in the workplace, but the workplace is not the only environment in which it operates. Sexual harassment thrives in any place where anonymity, entitlement, ego, and insecurity reside…and I’m not talking about the insecurity of the survivor, for clarity. Most often the resulting emotions felt by the survivor include shame, guilt, embarrassment, and disappointment. Along with the emotional impact of dealing with a sexual harassment situation, come some very tough choices. In an attempt to provide my peers with a sense of understanding and support, let's discuss some of these “choices”.
To Tell or Not to Tell
Whether you’re considering disclosing to HR, your boss, or your partner, chances are you’ve considered many aspects before making your decision: your own embarrassment (natural to feel, even when you know inside the harassment is not your fault), potential misplaced blame (someone asking a question like, “Well, what were you wearing?” or “What signals might you have been sending?”), whether or not you will be believed or taken seriously, and of course what ramifications for your career or social standing the disclosure will have. These are the “expected” or more talked-about choices women who undergo harassment have to deal with.
To Cut Ties or Muddle Through
For those of us who have disclosed harassment, assuming we were believed, next comes the choice of how, if at all, to interact with the harasser in the future. Coworkers, clients, friends, partners’ friends, and family members. These are all examples of common harassers. When the perpetrator is someone who is normally a regular presence in your life, how do you handle your “relationship” moving forward? If you choose to cut ties, some may see you as “difficult” or “dramatic.” If you choose to “settle” and have your offender remain as part of your life/career, you can be seen as an “enabler” or as part of the larger problem. In some cases, when the harasser is a coworker or client, women are faced with the “choice” between standing up to their harasser and making a sound business decision. The truth is, like all of the choices presented in this letter, there is no right choice, no easy choice, and no choice that takes away the emotional, situational, and mental burden the situation has created for you, again without your consent.
To Seek Help or Armor-Up
If you haven’t had to deal with a case of sexual harassment in your life…yet…chances are you might generally underestimate the time that many women spend making these tough considerations and coping with the emotional aftermath. Many women experience levels of embarrassment, shame, fear, and disappointment that warrant professional counseling, or at least the help of someone like an HR professional. However, even the choice to get the help we need can be a tough one to make. Sitting down and discussing the effects of our harassment takes time and emotional expenditures, both of which tend to be especially valuable and at a premium for women. The alternative is the “handle this on my own” approach, which requires a certain amount of “stuffing it down,” and denial. This option has its own mental and emotional consequences.
To Teach the Reality or Ideal
Some of the hardest things to consider, when dealing with the consequences of a harassment situation, is how we explain it to young people, whether they be mentees or our children. How do you juggle the relentless uglies of the world, like men who harass women in short skirts with the idea that young women should not be preyed upon based on their wardrobe choices? How do you teach kids about the realities we face as women while not jading them against how their world COULD be? For this, I have no answer. It is this dynamic that makes me the angriest. The most hopeless. The most helpless.
In closing, my intent in writing this letter to my fellow harassment survivors is to raise awareness surrounding all that we face in the aftermath of a harassment event. We are forced to make choices where no good ones exist. We didn’t consent to be in these situations, yet we are burdened with the heaviness that comes after them. That heaviness can include isolation, retaliation, labeling, self-hate, shame and so much more. So much thinking and feeling…most often as a result of a moment or a collection of moments in which a man (statistically speaking) wasn’t thinking at all. Emotional and mental distress from a fleeting moment of entitlement. Harassers feel entitled to say or touch what and who they want, with really no knowledge of the chaos they create in the wake of their recklessness. Survivors, I hear you. I feel the fire and fury with which you carry around the burden of these choices. I sense the disgust you feel when you speak the awful words that were spoken to you with all the shame your harasser SHOULD have, but you hold instead. I know it’s easier said than done, but I wish you (and myself) less holding, less carrying and so much less shame and disappointment. Easier said than done.
Sincerely, your forever partner in strength,
*According to 16 Alarming Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Statistics for 2022 (inspiredelearning.com)