I was recently asked to describe the psychological effects of sexual harassment. I have certainly worked with many individuals who have experienced sexual harassment, and I’ve seen it play out in the non-therapist parts of my life as well. I’ve noticed that the effects are very dependent on individual details about the perpetrator, the victim, their relationship, the type of harassment, the environment, etc. But in my experience, the psychological effects of being sexually harassed are usually substantial.
Some might think that if “nothing happened” in the sense that no physical contact occurred, then it’s no big deal. But nothing could be further from the truth. When one is sexually harassed, a message is communicated that one’s feelings are not worthy of concern. It can be traumatic to have one’s humanity dismissed in a context in which one’s ability to fight back is limited. Even for survivors of rape and other physical assaults, the worst part of the trauma is often the sense that the perpetrator does not see them as a person. When one’s humanity is dismissed or trivialized, it can feel like a frighteningly short step to being sexually assaulted or harmed in other increasingly serious ways.
The survivors of sexual harassment that I have worked with share many of the same fears as survivors of rape: they are not safe, the perpetrator will come back and do it again or something worse, they can’t trust other people, no one else will understand, no one will care, they will be blamed and/or punished if they tell anyone, they are not important, they are powerless.
Also like rape survivors, survivors of sexual harassment often blame themselves. In large part, this is because society tends to blame them. “What did she expect, wearing that to work,” (or being alone with him, or being so friendly, etc.). And when they are not blamed, they are often dismissed. “He didn’t even touch her, what’s the big deal?” Or, “She’s always making such a big deal out of these things. Why doesn’t she just let it go.” Fearing these reactions, many survivors of sexual harassment choose not to report their harassment. And many of these reactions are internalized: “Why did I wear something showing my figure to work? Why did I smile at him? Why didn’t I make sure there was someone else in the room? Why can’t I just let this go.” These thoughts chip away at the survivor’s sense of self worth and safety.
In the worst cases, sexual harassment can have the same effects as any other trauma. Some survivors develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I’ll write more soon about PTSD. If you think you or someone you love might have PTSD, you may want to take a look at my infographic describing the symptoms.
If you are a survivor of sexual harassment, know that there are people who will listen to you, believe you and support you.