Why it’s so difficult to discuss sexual harassment

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People who suffer sexual intimidation can also find it very difficult to talk about it.

Many people are ashamed about what they experienced. Eliane, herself once a victim of sexual harassment, and researcher Lotte De Schrijver explain where the source of this shame lies.

“Your initial reaction tends to be highly subconscious.” Eliane once experienced sexual harassment from a fellow student. “I immediately realised that the situation was inappropriate. Yet even if you think beforehand how you would respond in such a situation, it can still be difficult to do what you thought when it actually occurs. While some people say something or become angry about it, others are so shocked they are unable to say or do anything.”

Lotte De Schrijver from the International Centre for Reproductive Health carried out in-depth interviews with more than 100 Belgians aged between 16 and 99, who had experienced sexual abuse. “Some only realised it was sexual abuse when asked whether someone had ever done anything against their will, or if they had heard such a story from somebody else. The cliché is of someone battling hard against an unknown offender who is physically much stronger. Although in reality, sexual abuse is often a slow process in which boundaries are crossed further and further, and the perpetrator is just as likely a partner or acquaintance.”

Frightened of reactions

One of the most common reasons not to talk about sexual abuse is shame, according to Lotte’s research. This shame often arises from earlier reactions in which your own story or someone else’s was not considered credible or taken seriously. Eliane felt a similar fear: “You wonder how people will react. Will they believe me or will they think I’m the bad guy and ignore me? Whose side will they take? I believe that the first conversation makes all the difference. If someone fails to listen properly or gives you the feeling that you did something wrong, it can shut you up and stop you from taking further action. I found it hard, even though I’m someone who usually finds it easy to discuss difficult experiences, so it must be so much harder for introverts.”

Eliane shared her secret with her sister and friends. “I specifically chose people who I feel comfortable with and who I knew would support me. It helps when you know that someone else has already been through something similar. After much hesitation I told a friend in the group, because I didn’t want other people to suffer the same fate. “You too?”, she responded immediately. It turned out there were other victims. Although you wouldn’t wish it on anybody, it was still quite a relief. I felt understood and no longer alone.” Reactions can also be disappointing. Eliane: “Some friends still give the other student the benefit of the doubt and want to help him above all. Or don’t dare to say anything because they are scared to lose friends.”

The guilt sensed by victims

People around you don’t always know what to say, or subconsciously blame the victim: the reaction that places blame on the victims, such as that you provoked it or could have avoided it. Eliane: “Personally I was not ashamed about what happened, but became ashamed when hearing what others said. If you lack self-confidence, you start to doubt yourself. Even though you did nothing wrong and have nothing to be ashamed of, regardless of what you did, said or wore. The fact you are a victim says nothing about you, only about the offender. It can happen to anyone.”

Sowing the seeds of shame comes from a black and white mentality, in Eliane’s opinion. “Even when several people tell the same story, there are still people who find it hard to accept the truth. A friend or celebrity who seems nice, is suddenly portrayed as a monster with a problem, which means they need to entirely reconsider their perception of that person. I find it better to think in terms of grey: even those that you get on well with can do something wrong. That’s something you have to face.”

Talking to professionals

The threshold to sharing your story seems even greater when approaching an official organisation. “Yet it’s still sometimes easier to tell your story to a professional in such matters rather than to those you know,” believes Eliane. “They immediately know how to respond in order to support you. It felt good to talk about it with my therapist, with Trustpunt and the police. They listened to me at length and I really had the impression they did their best to help me.” Lotte: “Everyone should be able to talk about sexual abuse in a safe environment whenever they need to.”

As a confidential counsellor and coordinator at Trustpunt, Sara Drieghe creates an environment in which students can feel safe in telling their story: “First and foremost, we make people feel at ease with a caring, open and empathic attitude. Physical meetings are held in a quiet, discrete and comfortable area. We follow their pace when they talk and allow for silences. We try our best to sense what they wish to go into and what they don’t wish to discuss, and avoid questions beginning with why, so that they do not feel any need to justify the situation. And above all: we do not get carried away by emotions, we do not question what is being said and we do not judge. In this way, we create a context in which people feel heard and respected.”

Do you need a safe environment to discuss sexual intimidation? Call Trustpunt on 09 264 82 82 (in the morning) or send a mail to trustpunt@ugent.be.