Through the eyes of a survivor: Psychological consequences of sexual harassment

Many lives lost, lot to be saved and much to be redeemed. It is easy for one to get lost in statistics, and loose the story of the victim who struggles to comprehend the repeated act of violence internally for a long time. With the legal ramification aiming at redressal, what does the victim of sexual harassment go through? What are the Psychological Costs to the Survivor?

Costs to the survivor

The emotional responses to sexual harassment vary widely. The severity of the assault, individual coping style, emotional vulnerability, and the availability of social support add to the burden of the attack on woman.

Survivors of sexual assaults often have long-term emotional after effects that rage from grief, anger, fear, lowered self esteem, guilt, , self-blame, shame, body image, sexual dysfunction, and relationships becoming dysfunctional. The emotional reaction is further compounded by a loss at many levels: shrinking of social space, a feeling of isolation and loss of a secure feeling of wholeness of self. The safety net for the victim’s coping mechanism becomes porous. It becomes exceedingly lonely and a painful struggle.

Employees who file charges of sexual harassment face a range of negative responses, not just from colleagues who discount the reaction to a non-significant event, breach of trust and confidentiality, being demoted, transferred or fired from the job that sometimes can lead to harassment by co-workers seen is either avoidance or using jest and insults. These experiences lead to re-victimization by the institutions.

Long term emotional scarring

The psychological consequences of sexual harassment and gender discrimination leads to long term emotional scarring. This is a result of a series of complex interactions between the victim, the perpetrator(s), the victim’s associates, supervisors at work, and significant people in her personal life.

Inability to articulate the sexual assault

It takes a lot of personal struggle to acknowledge to the self that a sexual assault has been perpetrated on one’s body. The stages of denial and self-blame, sometimes defending the perpetrator for his action is a difficulty of body, language, grief and shock. Giving it a name, labelling the event with the mixed feelings becomes impossible for a victim. It is natural for a victim to not immediately know that they she has been sexually assaulted. Constantly visualising the event, when the body defence mechanism freezes up the body’s’ sensation and forces information to stay embedded for many days and sometimes years, that the victim has to reflect back on her experiences in a safe and secure environment before becoming aware that he/she was violated. Ongoing counselling support must be provided to the victim to help process the events and help her through the trauma. Self-harm becomes a real threat for the victim. This often requiring a close monitoring from a trained mental health professional.

Institutions don’t listen well

The time taken to provide a safe place to report the crime, the committees sensitivity, its biases and un-biases often influence the manner in handling sexual harassment reports. This is far removed from providing any justice to the victim. Through my years of experience, I have seen reports that conclude by giving a personal word of “good faith”, calling out the individual as a person of “good character”, “diligent-sincere- hard working”. The person becomes important than the act.

Research has found that employees who have experienced sexual harassment and feel supported by their supervisors/manager are more likely to report the incident and cope effectively. The benefits of reporting the incident outweigh the personal and professional costs (Dekker and J. Barling, “Personal and Organizational Predictors of Workplace Sexual Harassment of Women by Men,” Journal of Occupational Psychology, vol. 4, no. 1, 1998). Research has also found, that reporting an incident does not always resolve harassment. Weak complaint procedures have been linked to additional psychological cost to complainants and retaliation by harasser(s).

Organisations need to wake up

The past two decades has seen a greater awareness on sexual harassment as a significant problem that affects men (seen mostly in the unorganized sectors), women and organizations. Organizations who implement and follow-through best practises and programs for the prevention of sexual harassment, see greater results in work productivity, building effective teams, and establishing a positive working environment.

In India, with the changing social demographics, concerns on women’s safety is ever more acknowledged, as women are taking employment in areas that were earlier thought to be out of reach or belonged to men. Today they are sharing spaces along with their male counterparts, and this leads to greater conflicts and a blurring of gender roles.

There is urgency therefore, to create a work environment everywhere that upholds growth and equal opportunities based on egalitarian values, in every workplace. For any effective sexual harassment policy and prevention program to be successful, organizations must design and deploy a holistic policy that looks at the issue from both the individual frame of reference and the organization point of view. The Complaint procedure must be efficient, empathetic, and immediate. Above all, communication and training in policies and procedures for all employees is a prerequisite. The strong ethical framework of confidentiality and individual rights must be upheld, sensitivity to any conflict of interest needs to be recognised, ensuring fair and just hearing that serves to uphold the dignity of the individual.

Civil Society has a greater role to play in monitoring, and creating spaces for debate and dialogue to ensure that every institution makes it space safe for women to work, thrive and grow, especially in the non-organized sector.

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