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Experiencing sexual harassment is an incredibly personal and often an intolerable violation. Throw in a perpetrator’s threats and society’s instinct to blame, judge, and disbelieve victims, and you have victims feeling alone, shameful, depressed, and even more anxious. Speaking up about sexual assault or harassment takes a great deal of risk-taking and courage. In discomfort, it’s often hard to know how to respond. Instead of judging and shaming the victim, support them in the following ways:
Chances are if someone opens up to you about sexual harassment, you are considered trustworthy. Whatever you do, keep your advice to yourself. Refrain from telling them how they should feel or deal with it. Never dismiss their anxiety. Just listen. If you don’t want to know about it, respectfully let the victim know that you are not in the right space to offer your support.
Consider how you may have unknowingly participated in abusive or intimidating jokes, condoned a culture that facilitates sexual harassment, or willingly ignored it because it made you uncomfortable. What steps have you taken to foster a safe and supportive environment in the workplace, online, and in your personal life? Self-reflecting on your own actions is the first step to learn, apologize, course-correct your behaviour, and help support the women in your life.
Never assume anything
Assuming that you know what the victim is going through, comparing their experience with your own unrelated experience, and offering your opinion or perspective invalidates the victim’s experience. The fact that you don’t find certain encounters harassing, abusive, or emotional, doesn’t mean it has no impact on others. Instead, offer support in ways that make the person feel safe and heard.
Ask questions about sexual harassment
The best way to be supportive is to ask questions, such as “How can I help?” but respect their boundaries. Practicing compassionate listening helps others feel more comfortable sharing their experiences and helps you understand how you can offer support.
If someone tells you they feel vulnerable and highly emotional, reserve using it as ammunition against them. It is highly likely that they will no longer trust you, close off, and find refuge somewhere else.
We are all responsible for what we tolerate and how we deal with unwanted encounters in our lives. But society as a whole needs to model zero tolerance for sexual harassment. Discussing sexual harassment needs to be normalized.
This is the only way it will truly take effect.