Why It’s So Hard To Speak Up About Sexual Harassment

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“The perpetrator may behave in such a self-assured manner – as if it’s his right to behave in that manner – that many women doubt their perception and experience of the event,” explains Lilian Ing, clinical psychologist at Fernhill Consultancy.

In the wake of the sexual harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein, I realised I wasn’t alone in my struggle. Gwyneth Paltrow said she was harassed by Harvey, and she confided in then-boyfriend Brad Pitt but never pressed charges or even confronted him; and her story has only surfaced two decades later. Cara Delevingne, who also says she was harassed by Harvey, said in an Instagram post that she was hesitant about speaking out because she didn’t want to hurt his family. She added that she also felt guilty after, even though she wasn’t at fault.

“It’s normal to feel confused or unsure,” says Anisha Joseph, manager of the Sexual Assault Care Centre. She added that this confusion can be worsened due to victim-blaming attitudes.

Take, for example, the 28-year-old Singaporean lawyer who told The Straits Times that she was asked to leave after she filed a complaint against her boss. A senior female colleague told her to keep quiet, while a male founding partner of the firm said to her that “such things happen when you’re a pretty girl.” The HR department even told her not to make a fuss.

This is infuriating on so many levels, but the sad thing is, you can understand her dilemma. For one, Lilian pointed out that many women are unable to speak out for fear of repercussions, especially if there is a power imbalance in terms of physical size or authority.

Also, you cannot ignore that sexual harassment is a traumatising ordeal. A client of Lilian’s only spoke up about her own experience 18 months after it had happened, and she only did so because she finally felt she wasn’t alone or “crazy” after reading about other women’s accounts of sexual harassment following the Harvey Weinstein exposé .

“Shock and trauma may impact speaking up. At such times, with such an emotional reaction to an event, we may need time for our brains to catch up and make sense of the experience, and by then, the moment has passed for a confrontation,” says Lilian.

What exactly is sexual harassment?

The first thing you should know is sexual harassment can take non-physical forms. For instance, if someone you’re working with asks you about your sexual history, or makes lewd and intrusive comments about you, that can count as sexual harassment as well.

“It doesn’t have to be physical to cause alarm, distress, or harassment,” Anisha emphasises.

Since sexual harassment can take on so many forms, it can be hard to know when we’ve been a victim of it.
Lilian suggests asking yourself these questions to help you find out:

  • Am I comfortable with what is happening?
  • Do I feel threatened?
  • Do I feel insulted?
  • Do I feel respected when I say ‘no’?

Your answers should be pretty telling about whether it’s sexual harassment or not.

What should you do about it?

If you’ve faced sexual harassment at work, you should report it to your direct supervisor or HR, says a lawyer that CLEO spoke to. This way, steps can be taken to ensure it stops. However, you should note that laws in Singapore do not specifically criminalise sexual harassment.

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