Friday, December 30, 2016

What to Do After You're Sexually Harassed, or, Surviving a Sexist Culture

This whole post comes with a trigger warning, in case that isn't obvious.

Sexual harassment sucks. It happens to all of us who are women, cis and trans, it happens to trans men, it happens to gender non-conforming folks, and from time to time, it happens to cis men. Most, but not all, of the time, it's cis men who do it. It is wrong no matter who does it to who. And it is almost always an extension of gender oppression. Even when a woman is a perpetrator, or a man is a victim.

We're pretty much all trained not to notice it, sometimes even the person doing it. Sexual harassment functions best as a tool of gender oppression when the person doing it can deny it, and the person affected doubts themselves and goes away. Quietly.

So my ways of responding are about preserving my voice. Not to be silenced anymore. But that's also because I'm a person of privilege, and I'm rarely in a situation where the attempt to quiet me is deadly. You're allowed to respond however you need to respond, and if that means surviving, you do what it takes to survive. If you need to preserve your financial security, do what it takes to preserve your financial security. What I'm writing is about what helps *me*, and some other people have asked me to share it. If it helps you, please use it. If it doesn't, do what you have to do. If you want to tell me about what works for you in the comments, I want to hear.

1. Train yourself to notice, and attend to, that feeling of yuck. We've been so socialized to ignore harassment that sometimes we don't even notice when it's happening to us. When we don't name the yuck, we absorb it. This is not a healthy way to live.

2. Make a practice of watching gender and sexual harassment dynamics. How do other people respond? Who is safe in those situations, and who isn't? Who is quiet, and who speaks? Who is listened to and acknowledged when they speak? Develop role models, people you watch you see harassment when it's happening, and notice what they do. If you can, develop friendships with them. You'll need them.

(I need them. I need you. I'm only writing this blog post because of the people-cis and trans, women, gender non-conforming, and even men-who have taught me.

Count me in your circle of people who will help you notice, who will validate your experiences, who want to hear your voice.)

3. When that feeling of yuck tells you something has happened, repeat the conversation or interaction to someone else, someone trusted. This is where it will really help if you have befriended the role models I've mentioned above. But cultivate a circle of people who don't belittle or deny harassment. Doubting our own perceptions about what happened is something we've been taught, and it is super helpful to have other people validating us, helping us tell our truths.

4. Be gentle with yourself about how you responded in the moment. Again, most of us are socialized to ignore or minimize harassment, giggle and look away, etc. If you did those things, that's a harm that sexism did to you, not a personal weakness. Forgive yourself if you don't like how you responded. If you want to, you can picture yourself respond differently in the future.

5. At some point, you can choose how you will respond to the person or situation. This is *your* decision, and *you* decide what works best for you. You don't have to keep everyone else comfortable. There will be people who will pressure you to be very quiet. They are helping the sexism, consciously or not. There will be other people who want you to be very very nice in how you tell someone they've harassed you, and will tell you to protect that person's feelings. This is a trap; there is no nice way to tell someone they've harassed you, and you will be wrong no matter what. You do not have to listen to these people.

Special note to Christians: do not allow anyone to use Mathew 18 to pressure you to be alone with a person you don't feel safe with! That text works when siblings in Christ have functional equality with each other, and are committed to living in love. This person has already demonstrated they don't want functional equality with you.

Depending on your situation, you can choose to report the harassment to an authority figure or not. For me, personally, the everyday grind of micro-aggressions, or mini-aggressions that can be denied, are almost never worth it. I don't need an authority figure doubting and silencing me on top of everything else. I save reporting to authorities for the situations when someone has actually physically touched me, or situations where I have written proof of verbal harassment that is pretty extreme. That said, everyday micro-aggressions can wear a person down, and if this is the one that I need to speak up about, I do.

I usually find it helpful to say out loud to *someone* what happened, and that it was wrong. You get to decide who, if anyone. Even saying it to myself helps, but I'm learning that it helps me even more to say it more publicly. Naming it helps take away the power, keeps it from silencing me.

You can think about the relationship you have with the person who harassed you and decide if you want to tell him about why what he said was wrong. Sometimes this is more satisfying in person, if you feel safe. You can take someone with you, if you want to. Other times doing it in writing is better, because you can double-check every sentence, think about it until you feel good about your words, show it to your trusted circle if that helps. An in-between option is to create a script for a telephone call.

6. Regardless of how I choose to respond, I might need time to recover. I sometimes designate a 24 hr time period, or even longer, when only women's (or gender non-conforming people's) voices are allowed in my space. I listen to music written and performed by women, I read books by women, I watch TV shows and movies written, produced by, and featuring women, etc. They validate that our perspectives, our experiences, our lives, are real.

7. As a person of faith, I look to my religious tradition. When I'm really feeling a violent anger towards sexism, I read Judges 4-5, or the book of Judith. I pray the Magnificat. I read theology and prayers by women. Alternately, I read the Psalms that talk about our enemies speaking evil against us (a wise friend, one of the few cisgender men in my circle I mentioned above, suggested Psalm 5). Allow them to be Psalms from your own mouth, and picture the evil doers speaking falsely as your harassers.

You might have your own "canon" of sacred literature, either from another faith, or from works of art that give you life. I'd love to hear what passages from them might fill this for you.

8. Continue to cultivate a list of people who don't let gender-based harassment silence them. Learn from them, and begin to imitate them. Start to notice the dynamics of how sexual harassment works to silence us, and start teaching other people. Write your own blog post. Preach your own sermons. Publish your own articles. Sing your own song, shout your own pain. Don't allow your voice to be silenced.

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