Asking a woman to reflect upon her experiences of sexual harassment is like asking her to recollect the patterns of her breath in a given day. The frequency of gendered improprieties is so deeply embedded into our daily experiences that their occurrences can easily be masked in their normalization. From the time we are young girls, we have been victims. We have listened to comments about our bodies, experienced unwanted touching and awkward gazes, and suffered at the explicit and implicit references at gendered sexualization. Some of us have also survived sexual violence, and many of us have been violated and exploited by the hands of those in power. We have experienced this ourselves, and we have witnessed it toward others. If it was a new experience, we might take pause or react, as we should, with anger and offense. But because it is so common, we are conditioned to adapt to these forms of harm, naturalizing their occurrences and inadvertently embedding them deeper into our consciousness of what this world feels like as a woman. And when the world is continuously colored by our oppression, our injuries continue to deepen and our perceptions both internal and external become skewed.
When forms of sexual harassment are regular occurrences over the course of life, views of self are unconsciously impacted, manifesting in behaviors such as reluctance to speak up in social situations or pursue professional or personal aspirations — choices often tied to emotions of insecurity or feelings of inadequacy.
In my own story, I became a victim of sexual harassment from the time of first grade, when boys would flip up my skirt as play without ever being penalized. My most trusted high school teacher massaged my shoulders, and no one made a comment, nor did I. I recall my college professor making the implication that he would change my grade in exchange for my company. And my supervisor said he wished he was younger so that he and I could date. These events occurred before the age of 20. At each of these points, no one was held accountable and no one spoke up. I also chose not to speak up. Collectively, these experiences perpetuated evidence — whether I accepted them or not — of the notion that women were naturally inferior. And, like many women, my experiences were compounded by my being a woman of color and the lived truths of historical and cultural patriarchy, not to mention gendered socialization.
My experiences, as those of many others, impacted the choices I made in life, love, and health, because we are whole people whose access to sense of self has the ability to either empower or undermine our access to confidence, care, and assertiveness. Many studies show the links between marginalization and mental health conditions, such as depression, suicide ideation, and anxiety. And sexual harassment is simply one form of our marginalization.
We feel the impact of internalized gender inferiority on levels individual and collective. Our abusers are both those in power (e.g., supervisors, teachers) and, at times, our peers. The reality is that our communities continue to heal from sins of our past. Of these sins include misogyny. I raise this not as an excuse for the existence of sexual violence and harassment, but rather as a point of consideration when thinking of ways to heal and move forward. When harm has already been done and its influence has created patterns of practiced behavior, there is undoing to be done. The problem is that we need to undo while we do.
In the context of oppression being normal, we develop a voice of pragmatism to “deal with” these things because they feel like what “is.” We respond by adapting — as humans do in response to adversity and trauma — to navigate the harm, forced to pick our battles because there are too many. How do we maintain the spaciousness and conviction necessary to radically transform into a new “norm” and the hegemonic sense of what “is”?
There has been much traction around consciousness-raising. Movements such as #MeToo bring to light the prevalence of this harm. Media attention spurs people in power to be revealed as perpetrators, and then raises collective curiosity and inspires advocacy. There is political drive to pay attention. But this issue is not news. Sexual harassment and sexual violence are age-old issues that can occur in all spaces; there is evidence of its frequency in fields of technology, education, health care, and all male-dominated industries. Raising awareness of this matter is simply not enough. In fact, manifesting pervasiveness of majority experiences maintains the risk of normalizing behaviors to the point of acceptance, and that is a place that we need to vehemently resist.[pullquote-1]
We need to begin to hold each other and ourselves accountable. Change is more than legislative and organizational policy reform; it’s also about the actual day-to-day practice. If you are a leader of an organization or have the ability to influence leadership, begin looking at how you are actually implementing policies around sexual harassment and training your personnel. If you are simply using videos and online modules, you can do better. Work around preventing sexual harassment takes time, investment, and difficult dialogue. This issue is not just one you can simply check off on your list of new-hire orientation topics. You can do better to hold your staff accountable and maintain equity under your leadership. The onus for preventing and intervening should not fall on the victim; it should fall on those in power and those in company and community. Pay attention to what you are doing to hold yourself and others accountable, and respond if you see or hear about an incident of sexual harassment or abuse. Communities are also a part of addressing the issue and helping the healing process. Victims need all these things to happen. There needs to be whole system approaches (which means engaging all staff and organization partners) and whole person care (considering every part of a person’s experience, including family and their communities).
Adults and parents, begin to challenge yourselves to have conversations early with the children in your lives about consent, boundaries, and the values of our bodies. And, survivors, we stand with you, we support you, and we will continue to fight for your justice and healing. Most importantly, we want you to know harm should never happen, is never deserved, and is never justified. It is the world that needs to recognize our absolute humanity, and that means recognizing our power and equity. Irrespective of whether or not you chose to speak up or act, you deserve justice. Healing looks differently for each individual and what might work for one person may look very differently for another. All of these ways of trying to “move past” harm have a process. Survivors have the right to take the time to learn their own path, but they ought never to be expected to do this alone. Accessing people or communities you trust is one way to begin talking about the injuries and learning possible next steps. Mental health interventions, advocacy, and emotional support are some of the many free resources available to the public and can be accessed confidentially. This support is here for you and without judgment. Organizations, leaders, communities, and all individuals who have been guilty of engaging in the harm to whatever extent — there is support for you, too, without judgment to help end the harm. Contact the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault to learn more about the options available. And to find a local sexual assault center near you, visit Centers.RAINN.org. We all have the responsibility to participate in this change.