As more claims of sexual harassment and sexual assault come to light in Hollywood and politics, one of the biggest questions people have is – Why don’t women come forward sooner? The hashtags #WhyWomenDontReport and #MeToo have been trending on social media.
First, we want to acknowledge that this happens to men as well at numbers higher than most people realize or even really know because few men ever come forward. Because we handle cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault, we want to reframe the conversation to be inclusive of both men and women while acknowledging that yes, its men who are primarily, but not always, the offender in cases like this.
The reasoning for not coming forward is similar for both. Sexual harassment and sexual assault is often a shameful secret people carry with them for a long time. It’s not something that is easy to live with. In fact, many victims assume there is something about them just by sight or something they say that will give away this secret. They want someone to know but are afraid of people finding out at the same time. It’s often a confusing emotional place to be in for many victims.
Fear and shame are two of the primary reasons people don’t come forward. Fear of being blamed for the incident weighs heavy on many. Victims often ask themselves what they could have done differently. They fear being blamed and judged. In cases where the offender is powerful, many fear losing their jobs or are afraid no one will believe them. They fear the repercussions in their own life coming forward rather than keeping it a secret. Think of it this way. When sexual harassment and assault occur, the victim feels an immense loss of control. Keeping the secret, they remain in control over their own lives. Once they tell, there is a secondary loss of control about what could happen. It’s scary.
Victims also feel intense shame and embarrassment over what happened. Being sexually harassed or sexual assaulted is uncomfortable for most people to talk about, even non-victims. It’s important people take a step back and consider just how challenging this can be for victims to talk about publicly.
It’s important victims come forward for a myriad of reasons, most importantly for their own emotional health and to understand that they are not alone. It’s critical that we as friends, family, co-workers and others create a climate where victims feel comfortable and supported coming forward to tell their stories, and that our first question isn’t – Why didn’t you tell sooner?