Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Why Victims Don't Report--Because for some reason people still do not get it

     I'm seeing all over TV and social media that there is still a lot of confusion regarding why victims don't report sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape. Despite that many victims have stated their (legitimate) reasons publicly; last week's trending hashtag #whywomendontreport, which listed several (valid) explanations; and--quite frankly--common freaking sense (if one would only take a few seconds to think about it logically); victims are still being questioned for why they don't report right away, or at all. There are too many ignorant people in the world who just do not get it. In my opinion, this subject will not be closed until people do get it.

     For this post, I am going to use the word victim, to account for the fact that both women and men are victims. I am going to use the word perpetrator, to account for the fact that both women and men can be perpetrators.

     In my last post, I recounted a situation I was in at the part-time job I held in high school. My male supervisor continuously sexually harassed me, and at least one other female co-worker. I'm not going to get too into that (because I already did), but one of the reasons I never reported him was fear. Among other things, I was afraid of not being believed, and what would happen to me and my job if I reported. 

     Fear plays a huge role in why people don't report. I'd say it's the motivating factor behind the myriad of reasons people stay silent. I think that people who've been fortunate enough to not have experienced a situation in which they were made a victim, don't understand this fear and how strong it is. In order to achieve universal understanding, we need to dig deeper. We need to understand what victims are going through and what they may be thinking.

     As someone who has been the victim of more than one type of harassment and assault, holds a psychology degree and continues to research trauma and its effects, and has worked professionally with victims of abuse, I feel that I can say with a fair degree of confidence that something victims want most (or at least near the top of the list) is to move on. They want the situation to be over. They want to be safe. They want to escape the person/situation that victimized them and move on and retake their lives. Not reporting is one way to accomplish this. As many people know from watching the news and social media, when a victim reports, they are not left alone for a very long time. They are judged again and again by friends, family, and acquaintances and also by perfect strangers who have no business judging them. They are forced to relive the trauma of what happened over and over and over again. They are not made to feel safe and protected. They face the fear of not knowing how long the judgment will go on, and the fear of wondering what the full repercussions will be. Not reporting is a way of letting go, moving on, and being safe. 

     I would like to specifically address sexual assault and harassment. Imagine a victim in a situation (possibly in a public place) where they are touched or grabbed inappropriately. This can happen more easily than one might think. A perpetrator could be hugging a victim and slide a hand to an intimate place, or even give the victim a non-consensual kiss on the lips. In these cases, the assault may only last a few seconds. The victim is most likely in pure shock for several seconds or even minutes or hours. The victim may be thinking something along the lines of: "Did that really happen?" By the time the victim has processed what has just occurred, the situation is likely over. The victim may then be thinking : "Why say something? It's over. I'm safe now." Fear also plays a factor in these situations. Inappropriate touches can easily be explained by things like, "it was an accident" or "that's just how I greet people." Statements/explanations like that are not okay, but unfortunately are made. Why would a victim, who is already feeling shame, fear, confusion, and violation want to risk causing a scene? What they really want is to move on and be safe. Staying silent is a way to ensure that safety. 

     I feel it's necessary to address this trend: after one or two victims come forward, more and more victims (often of the same perpetrator) start coming out of the woodwork. Many people are baffled by this, wondering why these victims had stayed silent and how/why there are so many suddenly speaking up. Critics also question the legitimacy of these claims. I admit that it does seem strange, but that's only if one doesn't understand trauma and what it's like to be a victim. Victims feel more comfortable when they know they are not alone. When victims realize that others have had similar experiences, some of the shame and self-blame goes away. They think: "If this happened to those others, then maybe it wasn't my fault after all. How can all of these people be at fault?"

      One effective form of trauma therapy is group therapy in which the group members have all shared similar traumas, like groups for war veterans, battered wives, victims of childhood sexual abuse, etc. If you've never been a victim, all you need to do to understand this is to think about how you feel when you meet someone and realize they share your love of mountain climbing, or French cuisine, or stamp collecting or whatever. Knowing we have something in common with someone automatically makes us feel closer to them. It's human nature. So of course victims are going to be encouraged to come forward when they've learned that others who shared their experiences had. They see the bravery in their fellow victims, and feel brave themselves. 

     I said it in my last post, and I'll say it again: things need to change. We need to stop blaming and shaming and ridiculing victims. We need to stop living in the ignorant bliss of pretending that bad things do not happen, that abuse, assault, and rape do not happen. We need to support victims and make them feel comfortable reporting, not immediately scorn them. It's the 21st century for crying out loud. It's time to get our acts together. 

Friday, October 14, 2016

We Need to End the Silence

     When I was seventeen I had a part-time job at Burger King. I have a number of entertaining stories about the joys of fast food, like the constant smell of french fries, the customers who think "fast" means instantaneous (even when there's a long line), and the co-worker I had a crush on who introduced me to the yummy goodness of french fries dipped in mayonnaise, which most people think is disgusting. It's not. It's wonderful.

     Instead of talking about all those wonderful things, I'm going to talk about something less wonderful. I'm going to talk about the reprehensible behavior one of my supervisors, who I'm going to call Ned (not his real name). Ned was in his forties. When Ned talked to me, he liked to stand close. Very close. So close that we no longer had our own personal bubbles, but he was sharing mine. So close that our toes were practically touching. Close enough that I could smell his breath and feel it on my face when he talked.

     What did he talk about while standing so close to me? Anything and everything. Work-related and non-work-related. He talked about the proper way to fill the fry boxes, work skills of mine that needed improving, how I still wore nail polish to work, how my day was going, how his day was going, etc. But let me tell you about Ned's favorite subject, his girlfriend. Yep. Ned liked to talk about his girlfriend, and how they weren't getting along. Guess who reminded him of his girlfriend? Yep, that's right. I did. Ned felt the need to tell me this many, many times. I reminded him of his girlfriend because we were both quiet and petite. He would smile while pointing out my similarities to her.

     What did I say in response to this? Not much. Many times I think I just nodded or said, "Oh" or "yeah." I didn't know what else to say or do. I believe my strategy was to just be a good employee, and not do anything to encourage his creepy behavior. I moved farther away from him when possible, but sometimes he'd come talk to me when I was already up near a wall or counter, so that it was harder for me to create more space between us. What was I supposed to say or do? I was a teenager, he was a forty-something year old man, who was also my boss. Besides, he was just making conversation. That's what I told myself, anyway. I had to repeat it many, many times, because he creeped me out. He never got the hint when I moved farther away.

     One day when Ned wasn't around, I was talking to a female co-worker, we'll call her Jill, who was roughly the same age as I was. Somehow, we got on the subject of Ned, and discovered that we both had the same problem. Ned also liked to stand in Jill's personal space and breathe all over her while talking. Ned also liked to talk about his girlfriend. Jill and I discovered an amazing coincidence: we both reminded Ned of his girlfriend! Crazy, right? Especially considering that Jill and I looked nothing alike, other than being teenage girls who also happened to be Ned's subordinates. We both were creeped out by him and bothered by his behavior. I felt a little better knowing I wasn't alone. Jill and I never reported his behavior. Neither of us even mentioned the idea.

     Why didn't I report Ned? Well, that was nearly twenty years ago, so it's hard to remember exactly what I was thinking, but I can say that the main reason was that he had power over me in two ways: he was my boss, and he was an adult. Let me reiterate that: he had the power. I didn't.

     There was a part of me that believed it was my problem his behavior bothered me. Why? Because I told myself things like: "he's not actually doing anything." He never touched me, he never made a move on me, never threatened my job if I didn't do one thing or another. Those were the definitions of sexual harassment in the workplace that I'd been taught. I believed that because he wasn't violating any of those rules, that it was my problem that he bothered me, that he technically wasn't doing anything wrong.  I thought that I would be looked at as "overreacting" if I reported him for standing close to me and telling me that I reminded him of his girlfriend.

     I also never told him to stop, or that he made me uncomfortable. Why? Like I said, he was my boss. I was a teenager and he was an adult. He had the authority. I didn't. He was a snippy, grumpy boss at times. I didn't want to make him mad. I didn't want to lose my job. I thought it would be less of a hassle if I just continued moving away from him whenever possible and giving little attention to his "you remind me of my girlfriend" remarks.

     Now that I'm an adult I can look back on this experience with greater insight. Just because he never actually made a move or threatened my job, doesn't mean he wasn't doing anything wrong. He was. He made me uncomfortable, and no employee should have to feel uncomfortable at their place of work. He violated my personal space. As an adult, I now fully realize how vastly inappropriate it is for a forty-year-old man to be continuously telling a seventeen-year-old that she reminds him of his girlfriend.  Even if nothing had come of it, I wish that Jill and I had reported him to another supervisor, because at the very least his behavior would've been on record. I know that now, and wish I'd said something, but I'm not angry at my past self. I don't blame myself for having been afraid, because that's the world we live in. That's how insidious rape culture is.

     This is the world we've lived in for so many decades. Victims were/are shamed, ridiculed, and taunted for coming forward. Many victims were taken advantage of by people who wielded some power over them--such as Ned did with me--making it even harder to come forward. Things like this are still going on today, despite the gains made over the decades. It needs to stop. People shouldn't have to be afraid to come forward about harassment, abuse, or rape. People shouldn't be told that their feelings aren't valid, that their situation was all in their mind, or that they caused it, or any of the other insane, ridiculous things that victims are told.

     Over the past week I've been seeing on Facebook many women coming forward with accounts of incidents like the ones I described above, and incidents of assault. These brave people give me encouragement. It's time to end the silence. The more women (and any victims) talk about their experiences, the less afraid others will be to do the same. That is my hope. People aren't going to like the things they learn about the world, but that doesn't mean the problems aren't there.