When You’re the Victim of Sexual Harassment or Assault.
Unfortunately, most women I talk to have been victims of sexual assault or harassment at some point in their lives. I’m sure many men have been as well. These events occur on a continuum from minor to major and can do lasting psychological damage. For survivors of such incidents, it’s important that you don’t simply push them out of memory or take on the shame that you are in any way to blame. How you view what happened to you is part of how you relate to your body. Here are some do’s and don’ts for survivors that also need to be understood by those who are close to them.
I speak as someone who has encountered sexual assault in various forms over my life-time—an attempted rape in college, in my 20s narrowly escaping being forced into my apartment building by a man who was trying to assault me, a doctor groping my breasts during an exam, and a shopkeeper doing the same when I was buying a leather coat. And several times men have exposed themselves to me in public places (in Newark, outside the Old City in Jerusalem, on a trolley car in Boston).
Here are some do’s and don’ts for survivors (not meant to be a comprehensive list) . . .
• Don’t let anyone invalidate your feelings or try to make you think an incident didn’t happen or minimize it. Only you know what occurred. Trust yourself even if the details may be kind of fuzzy.
• Don’t try to push what happened out of your mind to make yourself feel better. It’s fine to decide not to think about it sometimes, but it’s important that you acknowledge and explore an incident at some point so that it gets effectively integrated into your psyche and doesn’t remain a trauma memory that will haunt you.
• Do know that what happened wasn’t your fault whether it was your parent, sibling, relative, boss, neighbor or spouse/partner who violated your body. It doesn’t matter what you were wearing, drinking or doing at the time.
• Do tell someone you can trust and who is emotionally safe for you and mentally healthy. This will help you believe that whatever happened is true and manage your feelings. Recognize that telling some people will upset them so enormously that they won’t believe you or may even blame you. That’s why you must seek out people with good mental health.
• Do call 911 or go to the police if what happened warrants it. Don’t be afraid to notify the owner of a business, your boss, a friend, or your family and to tell them exactly what occurred. If you need legal or mental or medical health support, get it.
• Expect that you might feel surreal and confused about exactly what happened. That’s perfectly normal.
• Try to have little or no contact with your perpetrator, even if it’s someone you know, and feel free to warn others about him (or her).
• If the incident was traumatic, do acknowledge that to yourself and others and don’t minimize your emotional pain. Seek therapy with a trauma specialist.
• Don’t spend time feeling sorry for your abuser or trying to forgive him (or her) too quickly. You may or may not decide to forgive, whichever is best for yourself. You don’t have to forgive.
There is a strong correlation between sexual abuse and eating disorders. Consider that your eating or weight gain (or ability to lose weight) might be due to an experience of sexual harassment or assault. Many people don’t connect the two. Be open to that possibility. And remember that you are a survivor, not a victim.