Sexual Assault - Not Just Hollywood #Me Too
Harvey Weinstein and allegations of sexual assault have instigated disclosures of harassment and abuse not just in Hollywood but worldwide. Women are talking openly about their experiences of, at best, unwanted sexual attention, at worst, rape.
This planted seeds for me and a colleague to put together a workshop celebrating how far women have come. During this process of research and discussion it became apparent that although legislation had made advances the resounding conclusion was that treatment of women hasn’t come very far.
The conversations I have had and been witness to with women have proved the most illuminating. The most shocking of this whole sorry business is that as women, there appears to be an overwhelming acceptance that unwanted sexual attention is part and parcel of being a woman.
The globally recognisable term ‘casting couch’ is used to denote a process of recruitment and selection in the film industry. There is almost an acceptance that this is the way it is and the aforementioned Hollywood Moghul is not alone in his alleged predatory behaviour. This glib term negates the harm done to women over the years and does not allow for any victim empathy.
Questions have been asked “Why speak out now?” It would appear that many have “spoken out” over the years. There are reports of financial settlements which appear to minimise and bring into question the assaults endured. The reality is any disclosure is going to impact on your employability in your chosen industry, therefore financial hardship is likely. You could almost argue that these reported settlements are redundancy payments as the likelihood of working in the industry would be slim if a victim rejected sexual advances or became a whistle blower.
Sexual harassment is not restricted to the film industry. It is commonplace in all industries. It’s worth remembering that there are many more young, enthusiastic, naïve women beginning a career in ‘show business’ than going into nursing or teaching. Don’t let the scale of the problem cloud the reality of its prevalence in other fields of work.
I have heard comments such as “for every one woman that complains, five will keep quiet and go along with it to secure work.” This is exactly my point, for many women a choice has to be made, retain your principles or sacrifice self worth in order to gain work in your chosen field. Fear can instigate reactive bad decision making. There may not be an obvious physical threat but there may be other underlying fears such as being unemployed / unemployable, financial hardship or reputation damage. It can be as simple as having under developed assertiveness skills.
I noted that during media coverage, alleged victims are paraded for our assessment and judgement as to their validity as victims. You might say they have been cherry picked to garner sympathy as wronged women. I’m sure there are a plethora of women who have been overlooked due to being deemed as ‘unsuitable’ for public consumption due to their lifestyles, past and present, appearance and mental health status. Equally I’m sure the latter
cohort of women will be wheeled out to enhance the alleged perpetrators innocence.
We are all too quick to leap onto presenting behaviours in someone rather than considering what might be going on for them underneath. Don’t forget that often beneath anger can be feelings of fear, being dismissed or not heard.
Over the years I have worked with many vulnerable women who were alcohol or drug dependant and had been subjected to sexual assaults. For some women substance use increased following assaults in order to anaesthetise trauma or cope with criminal proceedings. This then meant a person’s credibility and reliability as a witness being brought into question. I would argue that a perpetrator choosing to target a person influenced by drugs or alcohol is very deliberate in terms of desired outcomes and potentially reduced consequences.
I am aware of workplaces where a male can be viewed as “dodgy.” Once a person has been labelled as such, there follows an acceptance that “this is just how it is.” I am aware, through my working life, of people who made complaints or reports in previous workplaces were then viewed as “trouble” or “complainers.” If they were successful in securing a post an air of mistrust became attached to them.
A friend of mine recently commented on a senior male colleague being viewed as “creepy” she reported this was a commonly held belief amongst colleagues and managers. He had persistently requested that she work with him, rather than being supported and protected, colleagues have questioned why she has been ‘chosen’ by him. This made me feel incredibly concerned. If women are complicit prior to an assault, why on earth would any one feel safe in reporting an offence to peers let alone senior managers or the authorities?
I was going to reflect on my personal experiences of unwanted sexual attention, harassment and assault. Do you know what? There are too many. Many I had forgotten, obviously not completely deleted but certainly archived. My experiences are not impacting on my daily functioning but none the less have a bearing on the person I was and am today. I have given this some thought and discussed with other women. Every woman I spoke to has declared similar experiences.
The word “brutal” often precedes the word rape. This appears to justify suffering and trauma. Anything less than “brutal” becomes a grey area and implies less trauma, therefore, the impetus is to “get over it!”
Any incident of unwanted sexual attention can leave a person with residual feelings of self loathing or leave an imprint on their confidence or view of themselves. We don’t always even recognise how these feelings are connected to our experiences. Therapy can help with this, naming something is so beneficial in making sense of our feelings. Experiences may be historical, however feelings attached to events or experiences can come into the here and now and feel very current. Our senses are powerful and can evoke or trigger a feeling without the memory being recalled. Someone I know once likened the experience to a ghost pulling your hair.
There is often more to address, therapeutically than the incident of abuse. When a person’s decision making, morality and core values are brought into question, therapeutic interventions can be more complex than focusing on a singular traumatic incident. Imagine the impact of your honesty and integrity being brought into question? In addition the view of yourself and how others view and treat you may have altered, relationships may have been fractured due to the stress of managing the emotional fallout of an assault.
Culturally and traditionally our instinct is to focus solely on the assault and consider if it’s ‘true’ prior to considering what the victim may be thinking or feeling. This is not about being unkind or unsupportive but a need to ‘fact find’ and make sense of a situation that is uncomfortable and difficult to process. If as an onlooker we are unable to consider what the bigger picture is or what the repercussions are, imagine what the victim feels?
Making a stand is never the easy choice and the reality is “outing” a perpetrator is not without consequences. It is so tempting to metaphorically take someone by the hand and lead them into a course of action. It is crucial to avoid making decisions for people who have already been placed in positions of powerlessness. Someone’s lack of decision making or inactivity may be frustrating to witness. In time they may take formal action or access specialist support, they may not. It is not helpful for either party and their wellness to repeatedly regurgitate an incident of abuse.
I believe that any experience of abuse can be overcome, I also believe that the impact is vastly reduced dependant on how the victim is supported at the point of disclosure and going forward.
Talking to friends or joining a women’s forum can help but it’s about being mindful that the responses given may not be the desired responses. People may feel a weight of responsibility and also have their own feelings of distress or helplessness around a disclosure.
Psychotherapy is a recognised practice for working with victims of trauma.
Evidence based therapeutic interventions are helpful in addressing associated symptoms such as anxiety, self belief and confidence.
Life coaching is effective in supporting people to move on.
Yoga and complementary therapies can be instrumental in re-learning how to self soothe and self nurture.
Ultimately we are shaped by our experiences but we do not need to be defined by them.
What I am continually heartened by is the strength and power that comes from women joining forces for a collective goal. Women don’t just give birth to small people but to ideas and ultimately to change.