The revelations about Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein, and how he has sexually harassed, and in some cases abused, scores of women over dozens of years, have caused two profound reactions. Firstly, allegations about other figures in all public spheres — the arts, sports, politics, business, etc — began to pour in. Secondly, a social media campaign using the hashtag #MeToo was developed as a response to show just how many women (and men) have been subjected to sexual harassment in their lives.
This has led to some very black and white thinking which broadly can be expressed as: Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men are all lustful demons, and the women behind the #MeToo campaign (who were chosen as the influential Time magazine’s Person of The Year) are bringers of truth and light. However, life is not always expressed so simply and many people feel trapped in the grey areas. A lot of men in positions of influence or power have started to fear that any expression of warmth, interest or affection will be misinterpreted, or understood as harassment. And those who have experienced harassment may have shared something about it in the light of all these revelations and then felt they are left to deal with it exposed, vulnerable and alone.
So how do you best respond to a friend’s #MeToo post? And what should you do if you have been sexually abused or harassed?
Say something People often think that it will make their friends feel even more uncomfortable if they acknowledge that something painful or difficult has happened to them. So there is a natural tendency to say nothing. However, bear in mind that it took a lot of courage to make this public, and not responding could leave them thinking that you are part of a culture that tolerates sexual harassment.
Empathy all the way Acknowledge that it must have taken a lot of courage to come forward like that, thank them for being so brave, and send them love and support.
Don’t Ask It is important to respect their privacy. And if you ask a direct question such as “what happened?”, especially on social media, it can leave them feeling invaded. It could even re-traumatise them to tell the actual details of the harassment or assault in public. If they are a close friend, give them a call or send a text to say you are there for them if they ever want to talk about it.
Look within Your friend’s story will bring up a lot of feelings towards them such as sadness, anger, and the need to protect. It might also bring up some feelings about yourself such as guilt at not having known or feelings of rejection that they didn’t tell you first. If this is the case recognise these feelings and consider talking to a friend or counsellor about what this raised for you.
Don’t be their therapist Do not try to second guess what they are going through, analyse them, give them counsel or be their therapist. If you are close to them and they confide in you, and it feels appropriate encourage them to explore the idea of having therapy or counselling.
Don’t go changing Knowing that someone has been through sexual assault may make you think differently about them. You might see them as a cause for sympathy, or as being more vulnerable, and this is understandable but it is important that you continue to see them as the same person with all the same individual qualities you’ve always liked and admired about them.
Sharing is optional Just because so many voices joined in the chorus of #metoo does not mean that you have to share too. It is a very personal thing and if you don’t feel right doing it, don’t.
Recognise the triggers At a time like this when sexual harassment/assault/abuse stories are all over the news it can bring up old trauma symptoms. But if you recognise this, you can reassure yourself that this is a normal reaction and it will pass.
Understand your defences This is painful stuff to be reminded of so watch out for any old patterns of trying to deny or rationalise your experiences. It is understandable to try to ignore or deflect difficult feelings, but it is important to be aware of what you are doing and actually understand your feelings and that they are justified rather than try to push them away.
Get support Talk to your closest friends and relatives about what is going on with you and how you are feeling.
Take care Remember: self-care is never selfish so look after yourself.
Sexual harassment is very real and very prevalent. Last year, a survey by the American Equal Opportunity Employment Commission found evidence that as many as 60 per cent of women have experienced sexual harassment at work, and 75 per cent of those did not report it to a supervisor, manager or union representative. When you look at sexual abuse as a whole, the majority of happens to women — 90 per cent —but also to a sizable minority of men (10 per cent). Harassment at work has been found to lead to stress, absenteeism, reduced opportunities and financial difficulties while psychological research has repeatedly linked exposure to sexual harassment to stress and mental illness such as anxiety, depression.
If you would like to talk to someone about any of the issues raised above, call 020 8673 4545 and they will book an appointment with one of our therapists at our centres in Clapham or Tooting, south London. You can also email us on [email protected]