Recently I had separate conversations with two women who have a lot in common. They are both professionally successful, intelligent, educated, and strong. And both of them stated that women just have to learn to stand up for themselves and say “no” when sexually harassed or assaulted, just as they had done when men tried to pull that on them. While they support the “movement” wholeheartedly, they felt that there was a lot women could do to minimize the problem just by sticking up for themselves. When I explained that offending men have a kind of radar that guides them to victims and steers them away from women like themselves, it seemed a shock to them that there were these two types of women and a multitude of men who are expert at knowing the difference. This is how the powerful get away with it for so long. These accomplished women don’t realize it, but their naïve perspective is a fortunate product of having never been truly victimized in this way. Once I realized that there must be a lot more women like them out there, and millions more men and women who don’t have a clue how this stuff works, I thought I would offer a primer on the subject, as an unfortunate product of having been truly victimized in this way.
When a man is in a position of power, that dynamic can paralyze a victim. It may be an economic reality, fearing the loss of a dream job or a necessary income. Or it may be the absolute knowledge that the power player will be believed and has multiple tools available to him to discredit, humiliate, and even destroy his victim. Or the shame she feels over how she has been treated, how she could have let it happen, and why she didn’t stop it. This paralysis is a normal response to assault or harassment and should, in no way, be construed as weakness or a “why didn’t you” situation. Ever.
How many times have we heard, mostly from the male side, that if this were really true, why didn’t she come forward back when it allegedly occurred? Why wait until now when there is some payoff for her or when she is trying to destroy someone’s career? It is common for women who have been victimized to delay, and sometimes completely reject, their own story. There can be a trigger or a newfound sense of confidence that creates the opportunity to “tell” for the first time. This delay happened to me. While I had full memory of the event, the impact of it was so disturbing and overwhelming in its shock and complexity that I lacked the capability to process it and turn that process into a verbal disclosure. It wasn’t until I received validation from someone I loved and trusted that it felt safe to admit it to myself, and then to others. The impact of the disclosure blew up my life in a way that was very difficult at the time but led to a deep healing later. Telling is hard, trust me. Especially when those whose support you need the most say they don’t believe you. The incredible validation of the #metoo movement has triggered millions of women, far more than you have heard from. While it is sad when that validation has to come from sister strangers, it is a lot better than the absence of it for so many long years. And sometimes the telling will ultimately require courage you didn’t know you had when others find it not in their best interest for the truth to have found the light of day.
Find compassion for the anger and rage that accompanies victimization. Sometimes it can be held below the surface, percolating until it explodes like a volcano. Disclosure followed by being called a liar can provoke nearly uncontrollable rage. This mental state is part of the experience for many and should not be judged outside of that context. Unfortunately, anger and rage are not highly valued female traits in our society and when they start angrily expressing their experiences and emotions, that state of mind can be used against them. They will be characterized as crazy man-haters who cannot be believed. Obviously this cycle complicates matters and can slow down recovery.
Once a woman discloses, especially if a long period of time has passed since the event, she often goes through a period where she must talk about it a lot. It does wear non-vicitms out, even close friends or family who really want to help. Once the support from the close circle has been achieved, it is good to find a counselor, friend or support group who understands all of these issues, thereby taking the pressure off of those who mean well but are themselves overwhelmed by the sudden presence of this difficult subject in their own lives.
You can’t go wrong with old fashioned compassion, kindness, a sympathetic ear, and a desire to be part of a healing environment, even if it is limited to one conversation. Sadly, there are way too many people who can’t handle a conversation about this dark subject but those of us who have lived in that darkness never wanted to be the one who may need that conversation. It may take a while, but there is light to be found. When you reach out your hand, make sure you are standing in that light.