A Power Struggle: Sexual Harassment

There are two types of sexual harassment. People who have experienced the first type may not realize the huge psychological impact of the second type.

Perpetrators of the first type of sexual harassment are seen as pests, teases, or irritants. They don’t have power over you, and you can easily reject them. They back off when you tell them to, and if you threaten to get them in trouble, they straighten up. Their behavior doesn’t affect your sense of self-worth.

In this first kind of harassment, you have all the power. Saying no means no. They may persist to a point, but you still feel safe because you know that if you put your foot down, they would stop. They might even be embarrassed or sorry if you told them they were making you uncomfortable.

But the second type of harassment is different. It gets in a person’s psyche and stays there like a troll. The person can’t remember the incident without feeling bad. Whenever that memory is recalled, all the person wants is for it never to have happened.

This kind of harassment is aggressive, intimidating, and bullying. It has its roots in a large power imbalance. Clinically speaking, this second type of harassment qualifies as sexual and emotional abuse. These harassers give people a yucky sensation, a creepy feeling that comes from being exposed to someone who is profoundly psychologically unhealthy. People don’t feel safe around them because they make them feel like prey. Even when a person gets away from them, there is an uneasy feeling that they could somehow reach out and do more harm. A person’s boundaries have been so badly breeched she or he no longer feels safe.

No wonder the victims of this second type of sexual harassment remember things vividly so many years later. The experience is indelible and immediate no matter how much time has passed.

To be forced—physically or psychologically—is an intrinsically humiliating experience. To be treated this way by another human being is shocking to the soul. This sudden loss of power is so stunning it can send people into a freeze response in which they cannot fight or flee. In that state, they may appear to go along with the abuse, but nothing could be further from the truth. They freeze up because a deeply animal part of their brain tells them they are already in the grip of the predator, and the best defense is to play dead and avoid further injury.

People who abuse other people are by definition emotionally stunted. They have no restraining empathy for other people’s suffering. Abusers are also so egocentric they are convinced at some level that their targets secretly find them charismatic and irresistible. Their own distortions are all the permission they need.

In spite of their power or position, abusers have low self-esteem and are likely to subconsciously see themselves as repulsive. Many of them were abuse victims themselves. But when they degrade someone else, they feel momentarily free of their own self-disgust. This transfer of self-revulsion can infuse their victims with unwarranted shame, as if they did something wrong. Secrecy makes the victim carry shame that the sexual harasser has tried to get rid of through abusing someone else.

If the abuser is an admired figure, the victim irrationally may feel embarrassed and have a hard time labeling the behavior as abuse. In fact, it seems impossible the perpetrator could’ve acted that way. Too often victims fear they won’t be believed because they can hardly believe it themselves. But if the culture says, “We believe you, and that was abuse,” traumatized people can reactivate themselves and speak out.

Coming forward publically in a receptive, accepting community can aid recovery by sending the shame back to the perpetrator. When we listen compassionately to these abused men and women, the gift of our belief helps them heal. Once the larger culture supports a victim’s right to come forward, that person is no longer a victim. That person can once again act on her or his own behalf. By declaring what the abuser did, the person makes clear who should be ashamed and who really matters here. After living with a sense of humiliation, sometimes for years, the recipients of abuse now realize it’s not an identity they have to accept.

Telling the secret in a me-too forum frees the victim from the abuser’s unresolved shame and puts it back where it belongs. When we listen and understand the impact of sexual harassment, we are helping more than we can possibly imagine. By seeing these dynamics of power and abuse for what they are, we can literally change the power balance in the world. Every time we are willing to listen to a victim’s truth, the posturing of powerful people can no longer blind us to what’s going on. 

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