Coping with Sexual Harassment and Assault (1)
By: Beth McHugh 2006
Sexual assault in all its forms occurs across all age groups and in both genders. Unlike the stereotyped “rape” scenario, sexual assault is rarely carried out by strangers. One of the most frightening aspects of this often life-changing event is that it is most commonly performed by a person who is known to the victim. Sadly, it is not so much the dark-clad figure in the lonely park at night that is responsible for most assaults. It is the known and respected: the fathers, the uncles, the husbands, the boyfriends, the teachers, and the bosses. It is this latter aspect that makes sexual assault all the more difficult to cope with.
But just what constitutes sexual assault? Even rape is not always a straightforward and easily demarcated crime, as many factors come into play, including proving lack of consent, and underage sex with consent. Although the legal system has guidelines outlining degrees of assault, it is our own personal barometer of what feels right and what doesn’t that determines whether we feel uncomfortable in any given situation.
Sexual assault, particularly in the workplace, may begin with sexual harassment. Often the comments or inappropriate touching that occurs as a feature of sexual harassment can be so seemingly “minor” as to make the recipient (usually a female) reluctant to report the incident for fear of being thought of as “petty.” It is this way of thinking by society in general that allows both sexual harassment and sexual assault to flourish in a climate of silence and shame.
Males often fail to understand how threatening a hand on the knee can be to a female when it comes from a person who is in a position of power. That power imbalance may take the form of a father/daughter bond or a boss/employee relationship. Either way, the experience of an unwelcome hand on the knee can strike fear and terror into the mind of the subservient partner. Even a grown woman often feels that to report the boss for a surreptitious “handling” will invoke ridicule, or worse, dismissal. It goes without saying that the child in this same scenario feels completely powerless. Understandably, more severe forms of sexual assault can have serious physical and psychological repercussions.
In coming blogs, we will look at trusting your feelings, as well as
what to expect if you are sexually assaulted yourself, including coping
with bewildering feelings, the importance of speaking out, and accessing