What You Need To Know—And Do About Sexual Harassment

Let’s fight it together.


Article Summary
  • The staggering volume of "me too" social media posts proves the prevalence of sexual violence around the world
  • The psychology behind sexual harassment: It's more about power than sex
  • Six manipulation tactics powerful sexual predators use on victims
  • How reporting sexual harassment has its pitfalls—including victim-blaming
  • You don't need to wait for a Hollywood scandal to realize sexual harassment should be YOUR concern, too

Recently, women have been coming forward with their own stories of sexual harassment and assault on social media, their posts held together by a common thread: the words “Me too,” written as such or as a hashtag. A trend launched by actress Alyssa Milano on Twitter following the sexual harassment allegations against disgraced Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein, it gained traction right away; besides being echoed by celebrities like Lady Gaga, Evan Rachel Wood, Anna Paquin, and Debra Messing on Twitter, the words were taken up as a battle cry by women on other social platforms, from other corners of the world.

It is not a largely-known fact, but the “Me Too” movement began with activist Tarana Burke, who started it more than 10 years ago, as CNN reports. Burke, the founder and director of Just BE Inc., which “focuses on the health, well-being and wholeness of brown girls everywhere,” reveals on the organization’s website how, as a youth camp director in 1996, she was approached by a young girl who struggled to admit that her “stepdaddy”—her mother’s boyfriend—had been doing vile things to her. The confession horrified Tarana, who couldn’t bear the emotions welling up inside her and so quickly referred the young girl to another female counselor. As she did, she witnessed a look on the young girl’s face that she would remember for years to come: “The shock of being rejected, the pain of opening a wound only to have it abruptly forced closed again—it was all on her face.”

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Tarana continues, “I watched her walk away from me as she tried to recapture her secrets and tuck them back into their hiding place. I watched her put her mask back on and go back into the world like she was all alone and I couldn’t even bring myself to whisper…me too.”

The ubiquity of “Me Too”

The staggering volume of social media posts bearing the “Me Too” slogan—the hashtag has been used 825,000 times on Twitter and has produced more than 12 million posts, comments, and reactions on Facebook at the time of the CNN article—is proof that women have suffered from sexual violence for a long time, with many of them experiencing it at a young age and many of them keeping their encounters close to their chest, only emboldened to speak up now that other women had bravely paved the way by speaking up themselves. You only need to look at how the Weinstein controversy developed, with The New York Times and The New Yorker first making public the accounts of a few Weinstein victims from the '90s up to the present before other victims felt encouraged to come out of the woodwork, to realize how many sexual misdeeds have been committed yet kept under wraps.

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And that’s just one dirty open secret stinking up the glamor of Hollywood. Who knows how many incidents of a similar nature are happening right under our noses in different environments, different situations, different industries, different countries?

While it is worth noting that it has mostly been women who have come forward about their experiences with sexual abuse, some men have also been emboldened to admit that they, too, have been victims. As the accusations against Weinstein came to light, actors Terry Crews and James van der Beek came out with their own stories of sexual harassment at the hands of powerful men in Hollywood.

How power comes into play

The forces driving both beginnings of the “Me Too” trend—Tarana Burke’s call for solidarity among abused young women of color and Alyssa Milano’s viral campaign in the wake of a Hollywood scandal—may be different and decades apart, yet they were both fueled by abuse perpetrated by a man in a position of power. While the incident recounted by Tarana as the impetus behind her movement technically doesn’t count as sexual harassment as it does not take place in a work or education context, the narrative of a “stepdaddy” forcing himself on a girl whose youth made her unable to fight back highlights how power comes into play in sexual violence.

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In the case of Terry Crews and James van der Beek, there was also a power differential between them and the men who harassed them. Crews tweeted of his experience, “I was going to kick his ass right then—but I thought twice about how the whole thing would appear. ‘240 lbs. Black Man stomps out Hollywood Honcho’ would be the headline the next day”—pointing out how his race could have been a factor in public perception, which prompted him to just stay silent. Meanwhile, James van der Beek, who was groped and cornered by powerful men in Hollywood when he was much younger, has tweeted,

“I understand the unwarranted shame, powerlessness & inability to blow the whistle. There’s a power dynamic that feels impossible to overcome.”

Researchers have long found that sexual harassment is more about power than sex.

A 2007 study by researchers at University of Missouri-Columbia that examined the question “Why does sexual harassment occur?” among study participants found that the answer that most commonly came up was “power.”

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And as this New York Times article that came out in 1991 proves, enough studies have been made into the power-sex dynamic in the workplace to show that harassment is more than a clumsy seduction, but a tactic to control or threaten.

Aileen Santos, relationship coach at AileenSantos.com, agrees, saying, “When someone is in a position of power over someone else, and they abuse this power, that’s technically what sexual harassment is especially in a professional situation.”

Santos cites three factors for sexual harassment to take place and be perpetuated:

  1. A person grows up with a sense of entitlement or is in a position that gives him a sense of entitlement.
  2. The person operates in an environment in which his power protects him and allows him to continue with the harassment without having to be accountable for it.
  3. The culture of victim-blaming which compels victims to stay silent to avoid judgment and shame.

Santos is cautious against generalizing harassers as male and the victims as female, because in some instances, women do the harassing, and in other instances, both harasser and victim are of the same sex."

Such is the case in this TIME essay, or what Crews and van der Beek went through. Santos emphasizes that “the feeling that they’re in a position of power or entitlement” is the key factor that compels a harasser. She adds that usually, people who are generally abusive personalities are also the ones who commit these acts.

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Writing in Psychology Today, licensed clinical psychologist and life coach Melanie Greenberg lists six manipulation tactics powerful sexual predators use on victims based on the Weinstein accounts: 

  1. Isolating and physically intimidating the victim
  2. Normalizing the harassing behavior
  3. Trying to make the woman feel guilty
  4. Not taking “no” for an answer
  5. Veiled threats or enticements
  6. The “foot in the door” technique, or getting people to do small favors for you now to prime them to do larger favors for you later on.

These are some behaviors to watch out for in your own environment to tip you off to when abuse of power is being practiced for sexual gain.

To report or not to report?

Earlier this year, Cosmo.ph sought the input of three lawyers on what to do when you’ve been raped or sexually harassed.

Jenny Domino, a former associate for one of the Philippines’ biggest full-service law firms who completed an internship at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, defines sexual harassment in the legal sense as:

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“Committed in the context of a work, education, or training-related environment. In such contexts, the offender exercises authority, influence, or moral ascendancy over the victim. This leaves the victim under pressure to give in to the demand, request, or sexual favor from the offender."

She adds, “As such, it may be committed by an employer, employee, manager, supervisor, agent of the employer, teacher, instructor, professor, coach, trainer, or any other  person who, having authority, influence, or moral ascendancy over another in a work or training or education environment, demands, requests or otherwise requires any sexual favor from the other.

“There is also sexual harassment when the sexual advances result in an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment for the student, trainee, or apprentice.”

Meanwhile, Kathy Panguban, a member of Gabriela National Alliance of Women and Gabriela Women’s Party, states: “The law, as it stands, limits the prosecution of sexual harassment under aforementioned circumstances."

"Unequal power relation between the perpetrator and his/her victim is an essential element so the case for sexual harassment can prosper."

“It does not cover peer-to-peer sexual harassment or situations where the perpetrator is a person who occupies a lower position in employment or a student and the victim is a female teacher/professor or a lady boss, or situations where the act itself is committed outside the workplace.”

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Once the sexual harassment has occurred, Kim Samson, a Filipina lawyer practicing in Singapore, Australia, and Hong Kong, recommends “informing the perpetrator that his or her actions are unacceptable and unwelcome.”

The victim should not be timid,” Samson goes on. “If the harassment continues, the victim should keep a log of times, places, and dates of the relevant incidents so as to prepare for the day that the victim decides to file a report or complaint to the police or HR department. Otherwise, the victim can also decide to report the incident straight away.”

Echoing the lawyers’ sentiments in the earlier Cosmo.ph article, Santos encourages victims to report such instances with documentation to support their claims “if you really do not want your name dragged through the mud or be dismissed as someone who is just trying to make drama or trying to get attention.”

Clearly, reporting comes with pitfalls.

Besides facing the possibility of losing your job if you so much as reject the perpetrator’s advances, let alone report them, Santos says that “if you report it, you go through the experience over and over, and you get maligned; the other party will do everything they can to make it look like it was your fault.”

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She cites the example of Filipina-Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, whose reputation suffered when tabloids published stories that served to cast doubts on her credibility following her filing of a report with the New York Police Department and participation in the NYPD’s sting operation against Weinstein in 2015.

And with the power differential already working against the victim from the start, the process of reporting the misconduct will really seem like an uphill battle.

“With a perpetrator’s public image, they might have this reputation that they are more believable than the one who is in a lesser position, the one who is harassed,” Santos continues.

"No wonder majority of sexual harassment victims end up keeping mum about their experiences, and choosing instead to just “grin and bear it.” A 2001 study published in the Journal of Social Issues illustrates this tendency in women, which they found was influenced by fear:

Where 197 women had previously said that they would refuse to put up with sexual provocation in a workplace setting, 50 of them who were later subjected to such all ended up putting up with the behavior, contrary to what they had earlier declared.

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The scourge of victim-blaming

Before you even muster up the courage to report a case of sexual harassment, the most important thing to keep in mind is this: The harassment is not your fault. A victim can be hard enough on herself, wondering if she brought the misfortune upon herself, even without the scourge of victim-blaming by others bearing down on her.

“People who become victims have this tendency to blame themselves,” Santos says.

“There’s always that thinking that ‘I could’ve done something! ‘Why didn’t I do this? Why didn’t I do that?’”

This inner torment typically happens to victims whose initial reaction in the face of sexual assault is to “freeze,” as opposed to “fight” or “flight.”

You’ve most likely heard of “fight or flight,” which is a shorthand term referring to our neurobiological responses in the face of stress. But there is another response, the “freeze” response, which holds the key to elucidating why many victims of assault are unable to fight or flee immediately as the act takes place.

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Writing in The Washington Post, James W. Hopper, an independent consultant and part-time instructor in psychology in the Department of Psychiatry of Harvard Medical School, defines freezing as “a brain response that rapidly shifts the organism into a state of vigilance for incoming attacks and avenues of escape.” 

Hopper describes the freezing state further: “Eyes widen, pupils dilate. Hearing becomes more acute. The body is primed for fight or flight. But as we shall see, neither fight nor flight necessarily follows.”

“Simultaneously with the freeze response, the fear circuitry unleashes a surge of ‘stress chemicals’ into the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that allows us to think rationally—to recall the bedroom door is open, or that people are in the dorm room next door, for example, and to make use of that information.

But the surge of chemicals rapidly impairs the prefrontal cortex. That’s because, despite our dominant role on the planet now, we evolved as prey, and when a lion or tiger is upon us, stopping to think is fatal.”

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Hopper goes on to say that “eventually, the brain’s fear circuitry will detect the attack,” and he lists ways a victim might then act: “Most victims will freeze, if only briefly. Some will fight back, effectively. Some will resist in habitual, passive ways. Some will suddenly give in and cry. Others will become paralyzed, become faint, pass out, or dissociate.”

This seeming inaction against attackers is what causes others who, hearing about the details of the attack, asks the victim in disbelief, “Why didn’t you do anything?"

Cue the victim-blaming.

But Hopper explains, “Few who have experienced these responses realize that they are brain reactions to attack and terror.”

Sexual harassment is not just the victim’s problem

If there’s one good thing to come out of the whole Weinstein saga, it’s that it has made women bolder to speak out against sexual violence at the hands of powerful men.

Since the news broke, not only have celebrities come forward against the Hollywood mogul, other celebrities like Lili Reinhart and Molly Ringwald have come forward to share experiences with their own harassers. And you only need to click on the #MeToo hashtag to see all the conversations around sexual harassment, assault, and abuse that ordinary people have now been bravely opening themselves up to, no matter how painful they are to relive.

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If you are not a victim yourself yet you are aware of predatory sexual behavior happening in your own environment, don’t just sit idly by.

Going back to the three factors stated by Santos that give rise to sexual harassment—a person in a position of power and with a sense of entitlement, an environment which condones the person’s misdeeds, and a culture of victim-blaming—if we, in our own ways, cut off the latter two from that first one, we might be able to positively impact the plight of victims instead of just leaving them alone to fend off harassers on their own.

Esquire.com lists nine methods bystanders, particularly men, can do to step in, from talking to HR to simply figuring out what it looks like when a woman is uncomfortable. Even doing just one of these things could help turn things around for victims.

In a revealing post on Facebook following the Weinstein allegations, screenwriter Scott Rosenberg, whose first two films were distributed by Weinstein’s Miramax Films in the '90s, said that “everybody-fucking-knew,” yet they turned the other cheek.

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Rosenberg likened Weinstein to the fabular character of the goose that laid golden eggs—bagging awards, throwing parties, and handing out extravagant gifts to people who were loyal to him. He says of the people in Weinstein’s Hollywood circles, “We really, really, really, really LIKED them eggs. So we were willing to overlook what the Golden Goose was up to, in the murky shadows behind the barn…”

He goes on to write:

“So, yeah, I am sorry.

Sorry and ashamed.

Because, in the end, I was complicit.

I didn’t say shit.

I didn’t do shit.

Harvey was nothing but wonderful to me.

So I reaped the rewards and I kept my mouth shut.

And for that, once again, I am sorry.”

Whether we are women or men, each time we turn a blind eye to harassment, we enable the harasser, and that’s a truth people like Rosenberg are just now owning up to. 

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That victims now feel safer to speak up is a huge moment in the ongoing fight against sexual violence, but we shouldn’t have to wait for a Hollywood scandal to realize that sexual harassment should be our concern, too.

It should be our concern not just because we are women, or not just because we are men with mothers or daughters or sisters or girlfriends or wives. It should be our concern because the staggering deluge of “Me Too” confessions and the shocking accounts that sparked their release are just too sickening a reality to keep living with.

Follow Cheekie on Twitter.

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