Why victims of sexual harassment don’t speak up — and how to change that

People want proof. Due to the popularity of true-crime TV shows, juries expect to see hard evidence like DNA, blood splatter, or ligature marks to prove the accused is guilty. In cases of sexual harassment or abuse, there may not be any forensic evidence available. This lack of proof can leave the victim feeling like it’s not worth telling anyone about the incident or even wondering if a crime actually occurred.

Consider the following situation: A young woman had a casual, consensual sexual relationship with her boss. She ends up dating someone else, but her boss continues to send her sexually explicit text messages. When she doesn’t respond, her boss embarrasses her during a business meeting. He then promotes someone she supervises. A reporter who is privy to this encounter, asks the woman if she experienced sexual harassment. It isn’t until this moment that she begins to consider, “Was I sexually harassed?” Even though this is the premise of the recently released fiction paperback, “Startup,” by Doree Shafrir, similar scenarios have occurred in workplaces across America.

Sexual harassment and abuse can be difficult to identify. Often, the harassment starts out gradually with a sexual joke or seemingly innocuous comment about another person. It may then evolve to touching, grazing, or “accidentally” brushing up against a woman’s body. This slow progression leaves the victim feeling confused and even accepting of the inappropriate behaviors since it occurred over time.

A meta-analysis of 10 years of research about workplace sexual harassment conducted by Lilia Cortina and Jennifer Berdahl found that “less than one-third of victims informally discuss sexual harassment with supervisors, and less than 25 percent file formal sexual harassment complaints with their employers.”

If sexual harassment is considered a crime, then why do victims fail to report it when it happens? There are a variety of reasons why women don’t speak up, according to research studies and feedback from victims:

They blame themselves

Supermodel Ashley Graham recently revealed that she experienced sexual harassment at the young age of 10, by the son of her parent’s friend. She never told anyone about the incident when it happened. At the time, she asked herself, “Did I do something to provoke that?” Lady Gaga had a similar reaction when she experienced sexual assault at age 19. She thought to herself, “Did I do something wrong to bring this on myself? What did I do?”

This is a common question victims ask themselves. In an interview with LiveScience, Yolanda Moses, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Riverside, stated, “There’s an outdated cultural belief that good women don’t get raped. Such beliefs can lead victims to think that the sexual assault might have been their own fault.”

They feel embarrassed

Research published by Marjorie R. Sable in the Journal of American College Health in 2006, found one of the main reasons women fail to report sexual assault is due to feelings of “shame, guilt, and embarrassment.” In American culture, children are taught to regard their genitals as private. Many parents even refer to it as “private parts.”

This belief causes some women to feel embarrassed when they are sexually harassed or assaulted. Furthermore, the assailant may use offensive or degrading language, which the victim may feel embarrassed to repeat to other people, resulting in not reporting the incident.

They fear that no one will believe them

In 2017, Bill Cosby was on trial for sexually assaulting Andrea Constand, but it resulted in a mistrial. More than two dozen women have accused Cosby of drugging and raping them. Barbara Bowman claims she is one of the women who was raped by Cosby. Bowman told a lawyer about the incident, but he accused her of making the story up. She continued to tell people for over a decade, yet no one believed her. In 2006, her story was in People Magazine and, later, in Newsweek, yet no one seemed to care. People didn’t want to believe Cosby could be capable of raping someone, since he was a famous and respected actor.

Behavior is considered acceptable

In some work environments, men’s inappropriate or illegal sexual behaviors towards women are considered acceptable, which only perpetuates their actions. Since July 2016, more than 20 women, including hosts Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly, stated they experienced sexual harassment while working at Fox News.

During the lawsuit, Andrea Tantaros stated, “Fox News masquerades as a defender of traditional family values, but behind the scenes, it operates like a sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult, steeped in intimidation, indecency, and misogyny.” Research supports Tantaros’ perception. In a 2010 research paper in the Journal of Social Issues, Illinois State University Professor of Psychology John B. Pryor found sexual harassment is more likely to occur in workplaces where men perceive the social norms as permitting such behavior.

Lack of consequences

There are situations when the assailant of sexual harassment or abuse receives either little or no ramifications. In March 2016, Brock Turner, a Stanford University student, was convicted of three counts of sexual assault. Despite these serious charges and a 12-page victim-impact statement, he was only sentenced to six months in jail, but released after three months. This lenient sentence sends a message to women that it might not be worth reporting sexual harassment or rape, being subjected to invasive medical exams, and reliving the experience in court, if the accused doesn’t receive any significant consequences.

Another example of a person receiving no consequences for their alleged sexual misbehavior is the actor Casey Affleck. Two women filed sexual harassment suits against him in 2010. People were outraged over the fact that he won an Academy Award despite the sexual claims. They took to Twitter with comments such as one by Feminist Frequency who stated, “People who commit sexual harassment should lose their jobs, not be celebrated with honor and prestige.” Another person on Twitter, Preston Bradsher, commented, “Women get fired for reporting sexual harassment and men win awards for committing it.”

Fear of retaliation

A common reason women don’t report sexual harassment in the workplace is due to fear of retaliation. In a New York Times story about the sexual harassment cases at Fox News, more than a dozen women admitted to experiencing sexual harassment but didn’t report it due to fear of retribution or of being fired.

There is a valid reason women fear losing their job, since some women actually do get fired after making a claim. In 2002, researchers Mindy E. Bergman and Patrick Palmieri of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign published their finding in the Journal of Applied Psychology that reporting sexual harassment often does trigger retaliation, which can cause the victim to experience lower job satisfaction and psychological distress.

What can you do if you experience sexual harassment or assault?

Even though it may be difficult to report sexual harassment, it is important to do so to prevent it from continuing to happen to you and other people. The more people speak up, the less acceptable sexual harassment behaviors will become.

Here are some steps you can take if you experience sexual harassment or assault:

Document it. If you experience sexual harassment, it is important to document as much information as possible. You should write down the date, details of what happened, where it happened and people who were present. If there are sexually inappropriate written documents such as e-mails or text messages, print copies of them. You should keep all the information at home or a safe place where the harasser won’t find it and attempt to destroy it.

Even if you are unsure if you want to report it, document everything, so you have a record of it. Having an account of what happened, can increase your likelihood of winning a court case.

Report it. If you decide you want to file a sexual harassment claim in court, you need to first report the incident to either your human resources department or a similar person in management. If the incident occurred in a school setting, the procedure can vary depending on the state you live in. According to Title IX of the Educational Amendment of 1972, all schools receiving federal funding must investigate sexual harassment complaints. In order for this to occur, you must report it to a school official. If nothing results from the complaint, you can file one with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

File a complaint. If you reported the incident to the proper person at your workplace and nothing improved, then your next step would be to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It will either attempt to resolve the issue for you or “issue you the right to sue.”

Talk to a lawyer. After you have completed the earlier steps and you still are experiencing harassment, try discussing the case with a lawyer who specializes in sexual harassment cases. A lawyer can file a sexual harassment claim against your employer on your behalf. If you win the lawsuit, you could receive reinstatement of your job (if you lost it), lost wages, damages for emotional distress, attorney costs and fees, and requirement of the employer to implement sexual harassment policies and training.

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If more women reported sexual harassment and assault, it would be less stigmatized in the United States. Also, when women come forward, it gives other women the courage to admit it, as was seen in the case of Bill Cosby or Fox News with dozens of women coming forward in each case.

Bradsher’s comment on Twitter, “Women get fired for reporting sexual harassment, and men win awards for committing it,” speaks to the current cultural norms in our society. The best way to change these perceptions is by having more women openly discussing and reporting sexual harassment.

This article was originally published in BloodandMilk.com.

Cheryl Maguire holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology, and she is the mother of three children (Twitter: @CherylMaguire05).