How Sexual Harassment Hurts People

How Sexual Harassment Hurts People

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.

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No Joke: Rape Humor

I have “rape humor” on my mind this week.  In my line of work, I rarely encounter people who think rape is funny.  And yet, here are a couple of situations in which people recently laughed about rape:

A friend goes to a comedy club, not knowing anything about the scheduled comedian.  She is treated to two hours of rape jokes delivered with hostility and anger, by comedian Anthony Jeselnik.  She stays for the full act, just to see how far he’ll go.  She won’t repeat any of the jokes, but reports that it goes “about as far as you can imagine.”  She doesn’t find the jokes even slightly funny. Apparently, though, much of the audience gives the comedian a standing ovation. She is appalled, and feels bad for the servers, who didn’t get to choose whether to hear those jokes.

Then, you may have heard that an independent daily newspaper at Boston University decided to include in their April Fools issue, which has a Disney theme, a story satirizing gang rape.  Yeah, you guessed it.  Snow White is gang raped by the dwarves. Keep in mind that BU has received nine reports of sexual assault and five reports of rape so far this academic year, including two very high-profile cases.   Here’s a sample from the April Fools story:  

The BRO's face seven charges of sexual conduct and seven charges of drugging someone into unconsciousness. "Heigh-ho BROs we didn't do anything," said Sleepy, a senior in the College of Engineering and president of BRO, who is a suspect in the alleged sexual assault . . . Boston University's Center for Gender, Sexuality and Magical Creatures . . . is calling for a university-wide analysis of underage drinking on campus and the sterilization of all BU males.

Isn’t that hilarious?  Here’s the whole thing, if you’re interested.

OK, so, some people find this kind of thing funny.  And we all have a right to our own senses of humor, right?  Plus, it’s exactly because it’s so wrong that it is funny.  Get it?  Yeah, I get it.  If I bend over backwards, and squint my eyes, I can see why it’s funny to some people.  But here are a couple of things to consider, besides whether some people may find it funny:

First, unexpectedly running across this type of humor can be devastating for a survivor of rape.  I mean, imagine the worst thing that has ever happened to you.  Something that you’ve struggled for years to cope with.  Got it?  OK, now, imagine that you’re out for a night of entertainment, or you pick up your usual morning paper, and the main feature – surprise! – is a big joke about that.  Well, if it hasn’t happened to you, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like.  But trust me, it’s not funny.

Second, joking about something makes it seem less serious.  I found a great discussion of this in an editorial from the Oklahoma Daily.

By joking about rape, you’re trivializing the issue, making it something to laugh about. One of the great powers of humor is minimizing fears, making them seem smaller, and conquering the monsters by laughing at them.

But rape is one monster we should never work to make smaller. Our society has done just that for far too long. Only by facing the true, horrible reality of rape will we be able to fight it. One of the most important steps to fighting rape is ending what activists call “rape culture.” – The Oklahoma Daily Editorial Board

Rape jokes contribute to building a culture where rape is not considered important.  That’s how we get to a place where “friends” of a rape survivor can think it’s reasonable to text her the next day, calling her a “slut” and a “whore”.  That’s how we end up in a country where every 2 minutes someone is sexually assaulted, and yet 97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail

So, it’s about more than whether some people might find it funny.  It’s about supporting, understanding, and respecting people who are survivors of rape, and it’s about doing what we can to keep each other safe.  Or not. 

What do you think about rape jokes?  Is it possible to tell a joke about rape, while not supporting rape culture, or triggering survivors?  Leave a comment with your opinion about or experience with rape humor.


Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado.  She has a deep passion for helping survivors of sexual violence.  

"This is Abuse" UK Ad Campaign

There is a new ad campaign in the UK that aims to enlighten British teens about what is and is not appropriate behavior in intimate relationships.  The most powerful of the ads, “If you could see yourself, would you see rape?”, shows the non-forceful rape of a girl by her boyfriend.  If you are a survivor, be warned that it can be triggering.  I’ve watched this ad dozens of times in the past couple of weeks.  It has really gotten into my head.   I think I’m trying to process it by watching it over and over.  Like a 5-year-old watching Cinderella. 

There is a moment at the very end that sends a chill up my spine.  The rape is happening, and the girl is crying.  The boy says, “Shhh Sh”, almost tenderly.  I can’t do it justice here.  But that is the moment where I really, completely get that this guy wouldn’t call what he’s doing rape.  He’s just having sex with his girlfriend who is “being weird” about it.

I love and hate this ad.  It’s terrifying and true.  I believe this is how a lot of rape happens.  And . . . I have two concerns about it:  1) If this is so affecting for me, what is it doing to the teen rape survivors in the UK who are coming across it, with no preparation, during their favorite tv shows?  2) Is there any hope that a guy who would rape his girlfriend like this would see this type of ad, and decide that he shouldn’t do that anymore?  Or is he so deep in his denial that an ad like this could never touch him? So, then who is this ad for?  Girls or boys?  Potential victims, or potential perpetrators? I think there are messages for both here, but I suspect that, in general, the potential victims are more likely to receive the message.  

What do you take away from these ads?


Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado.  She has a deep passion for helping survivors of sexual violence.  

Is Texas Raping Women?

Here’s a scenario for you:  A woman very much wants to do something that will have an enormous impact on the rest of her life.  Someone is stopping her from doing it, unless she lets that person vaginally penetrate her.  Is that rape?  Let me put it another way:  Is she freely consenting to that vaginal penetration?  I’m not the only one who thinks that she is not.

Nikolas Kristof’s recent article for the New York Times, When States Abuse Women, argues that Texas is now raping women who seek abortions.   In other words, before a woman can receive an abortion in Texas, she must submit to a vaginal ultrasound, regardless of medical need or the patient’s preference.  If you would like the details, check out the text of the new law enacted a few weeks ago.  This vaginal penetration isn’t the end of the story, either. She also has to also listen to a doctor explain the body parts and internal organs of the fetus as they’re shown on the monitor, and list specific dangers of abortion, like “risks of infection and hemorrhage,” and “the possibility of increased risk of breast cancer.” She is then required to sign a document saying that she understands all this, and then wait 24 hours before returning to get the abortion.

As a woman, as an advocate for sexual assault survivors, and as a person who has had plenty of uncomfortable, yet consensual, medical procedures, my heart goes out to any woman in Texas considering an abortion. Research shows that women who receive abortions without these requirements often do not experience negative mental health effects.  But I doubt that many of the women currently seeking abortions in Texas will escape with their mental health unharmed.  Of course, that is probably part of the point of this legislation.  And yet, I cannot think that -- whatever your opinion about the ethics of abortion -- legislatively sanctioning sexual assault is an appropriate solution to any problem.

What do you think of the argument that Texas has mandated sexually assaulting women who seek abortions?


Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado.  She has a deep passion for helping survivors of sexual violence.  

On Being An Object

If you have not run across Alice Bradley’s excellent blog post, “On Being an Object, and Then Not Being an Object”, you must read it.  Immediately.  And read all of the comments below it as well.  Then forward it to someone who may not fully appreciate the extent to which women are treated as objects, or the damage that does.  I’ve forwarded it to a certain presidential candidate who doesn’t think women are discriminated against anymore.

While I think I, and many other women, struggle more than Alice with becoming less of an object as I grow older – that’s how deep the message goes – I could never thank her enough for boldly describing what it’s like to be an object.  I can’t improve on what she has written, so I will just offer you three quotes, to entice you to go read her post yourself.  The first two from Alice:

 “To be a young woman in our culture means that you exist, from an alarmingly young age, for the appreciation of others. Therefore, your every feature is fair game for public appraisal.” – Alice Bradley

"There were other incidents, too; so many incidents. Every one underscored the message that I wasn't safe, that I deserved whatever was coming to me, because I was young and a woman and that was how it was and also I should appreciate it." - Alice Bradley

The third chosen from the many excellent comments to Alice’s post:

“I feel like so many men feel ENTITLED to women's beauty. Like it is a present the world gives them, and they feel like they can do with it what they will.”  - Suebob

What do you think of what Alice and her commenters describe?


Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado.  She has a deep passion for working with survivors of sexual violence.  

Emily’s List Ranking of Presidential Candidates

It’s kind of a strange thing to do, ranking GOP presidential candidates on a list of issues that are traditionally not supported by the GOP.  As one would expect, in the recent Emily’s List ranking, all candidates had many strikes against them, from this perspective.  Nevertheless I found some interesting nuggets when drilling down into some of the strikes they marked against specific candidates. 

Here is my favorite.  Did you know:

  • In 2011, Newsweek interviewed Robert Bork, a top advisor for Mitt Romney. “How about the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment? Does he still think it shouldn’t apply to women? ‘Yeah,’ he answers. ‘I think I feel justified by the fact ever since then, the Equal Protection Clause kept expanding in ways that cannot be justified historically, grammatically, or any other way. Women are a majority of the population now—a majority in university classrooms and a majority in all kinds of contexts. It seems to me silly to say, ‘Gee, they’re discriminated against and we need to do something about it.’ They aren’t discriminated against anymore.’” [Newsweek, 10/17/11]

Get that?  Women. Are. Not. Discriminated. Against. Anymore. Oh, yeah, they used to be, but that’s all over now!  You can tell because so many women have jobs, and go to school.  Plus there are more women than men.  If they’re not a minority, that means discrimination is impossible! 

I’m sure that’s why women's earnings were 77.4 percent of men's in 2010.  

Am I naïve to hope that those at the very top of the list of individuals who may soon lead our country would have a better understanding of the concept of discrimination?


Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado.  She has a deep passion for working with survivors of sexual violence.  

How Far We Are From Justice for Women in Afghanistan

Maybe you’ve heard about the 19-year-old Afgan woman who was raped by her cousin’s husband, and then when she became pregnant from that rape, was sentenced to prison, with her daughter, for 12 years for adultery.  The sentence was later reduced to three years.  Finally, Afghan President Hamid Karzai eventually ordered her pardon.

But, wait, how can you pardon someone who didn’t do anything wrong?  Oh, yeah, she was raped.  Her bad. 

Before being pardoned, a judge offered to free her if she would marry her rapist.  Apparently there are no such strings attached to the subsequent pardon.  But the pressure to marry her attacker is still intense.  Such a marriage would legitimize her daughter, “restore honor” to her brothers, and smooth the potentially violent rift between the two families.  It seems likely that, without marrying her rapist, her family won’t accept her and her daughter, and it is feasible that she could even become the victim of a so-called honor killing.  So, she still has some very difficult decisions to make.

According to CNN, her attorney, Kimberly Motley, in Kabul, says that she does not want to marry her attacker. She would like to marry an educated man.

Even if she should decide to marry her attacker, it may not be possible for some time.  He is still in jail for five more years.  Motley explains that, “as far as I know there has never been an Afghan wedding in jail.” 

I guess I’m blogging about this because it seems like many people think of the fight for women’s rights as something from the past.  Hey, this is happening in our world, right now, today.  Nevermind having the vote, these women don’t even have the “right” to be raped without being thrown in jail!  Or to then peacefully pursue a subsequent life that will promote their own healing.  Clearly, there is much work still to be done.


Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado.  She has a deep passion for working with survivors of sexual violence. 

I know that it can feel risky to make public comments about sexual violence.  You are welcome to comment anonymously here.  Just enter a non-identifying handle when asked to identify yourself.

Herman Cain: “It doesn’t matter” versus “It’s not true”

Herman Cain recently suspended” his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, in response to continuing allegations of sexual misconduct, including sexual harassment, sexual assault, and an extramarital affair.  Despicable conduct, if true.  What really bothers me about Mr Cain’s reponse to these allegations, though, is that he doesn’t ever say anything about how repulsive and inappropriate (not to mention illegal) the alleged behavior is.  He keeps saying that he didn’t do it.  And for a while he called for America to re -focus on the issues.  Which implies that a presidential candidate’s attitude and behavior toward women could not be a valid campaign issue.  Why can’t he say something about how sexual harassment and sexual assault are unacceptable?

I mean, even Joe Paterno was able to come up with, “The kids who were victims . . . I think we all ought to say a prayer for them. It’s a tough life when people do certain things to you." Inadequate, yes, but at least he acknowledged how awful child sexual abuse is.  With Herman Cain, the message seems to be more about how inconsequential the allegations are than about how untrue they are.  I find that as offensive as the allegations themselves.

What do you think about Herman Cain’s approach to this scandal?


Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado.  She has a deep passion for working with survivors of sexual violence and other traumas. 

What I Love About Slut Walks

See the first post in this series about the Slut Walk phenomenon

First of all, I think calling these protests Slut Walks was brilliant and natural, and is largely responsible for the massive amount of attention that the events have generated in the media.  Most of which has been good for the cause of eliminating sexual violence.  After all, the police officer that started this whole thing used the term slut in his statement. 

I also admire the chutzpah of the Slut Walk contingent which wishes to transform the word slut into something more positive for women.  Women who embrace their sexuality are so often denigrated as sluts, and that demeans all women.  I could talk about that for hours, but I’ll refrain in this instance.  I’ll only say here that I appreciate the empowerment that can be found in the process of claiming a word that others use to humiliate you.

I also love that the Slut Walk movement is pointing out what is wrong with the message that it is up to women to avoid being sexually assaulted.  This line of reasoning tends to go along with analogies like burglary.  For example, if I want to avoid being burgled, I put my valuables in a secure place, out of view, and I make sure my windows and doors are locked. 

I figure if you’re reading here, you probably get why this analogy doesn’t work.  But just in case, I’ll spell it out:  The problem with this analogy is that it is so far from exact.  For example, say that your home was broken into and your valuables stolen.  How likely is it, do you think, that the police will question you about why you didn’t have a security system installed?  If the burglar is caught and put on trial, do you think it will be part of his defense that you didn’t have deadbolt locks?  And that you had that flat screen TV system in full view of your living room window?  Which he says was not locked.  Can you prove that it was?  No?  Clearly you were giving signals that you expected it to be stolen.  You didn’t tell the burglar not to steal it.  It must have been consensual.  You can see how the analogy breaks down with just a little prodding.

And – maybe this is even more important – we all acknowledge that people with security systems and good locks have their homes broken into, too.  Moreover, we generally agree that often people have good reasons (cost, convenience, assuming they were relatively safe) for not implementing more security measures.  Do we say they these people had it coming to them?  How *do* we feel about these people.  Is our analogy holding up well in these areas?

Thank you, Slut Walks, for highlighting how convoluted our thinking is around women, sex, and violence. Anyone who can grab our attention long enough to make these points is walking in the right direction, in my opinion.

Stay tuned for a future post about what I don’t like so much about the Slut Walk phenomenon.  What is your take on Slut Walks?


Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado.  She has a deep passion for working with survivors of sexual violence and other traumas. 

Are We (Slut) Walking in the Right Direction?

I’ve been writing about sexual consent a lot recently, and it has landed me square in the territory of a recent phenomenon known as Slut Walks.  If you haven’t heard of the Slut Walk phenomenon, it was started in mid 2011, when over 3000 men and women marched in the streets of Toronto, protesting a statement by Toronto Police Officer Michael Sanguinetti that, “Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”

The Toronto SlutWalk was quickly followed by similar events in cities throughout the world.  Many of the signs shown at Slut Walk marches capture important concepts that seem to have eluded many people.  For example:

Enjoying sex does not invite violence.

The problem:  Society teaches “don’t get raped” rather than “don’t rape”

There is no woman you are allowed to rape.  Not even sluts.

Sex should be fun for everyone.

Despite the popularity of Slut Walks, they have also generated much controversy.  There seem to be two main objections to Slut Walks:

1.  Many Slut Walk participants state that one of their goals is to “reclaiming the word slut.”  The essential argument of those who oppose the Slut Walk movement on these grounds is that it confuses promiscuity with equality, and reinforces the concept of women as sex objects.  Moreover, those who are not comfortable embracing the term “slut” end up unnecessarily alienated from a movement that they might otherwise support.

2.  The idea of managing one’s risk of being sexually assaulted is seen as valid by many.  Just as it is valid to manage one’s risk of being burgled by making sure one’s doors and windows are closed and locked, and valuables stored in a secure place. 

I have so many thoughts about Slut Walks, that I’ve decided to write two more posts about it.  Watch here for my next post, “What I love about Slut Walks”, followed shortly by another post, “What I hate about Slut Walks.”

I can hardly wait to hear what you love and hate about Slut Walks!


Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado.  She has a deep passion for working with survivors of sexual violence and other traumas. 

Penn State

A lot has been said about the recent scandal at Penn State.  A lot that I hate, but some that I'm very glad to see in public discussions.  First of all, of course, I hate that it happened at all.  That people chose to protect a footall program from scandal over protecting children from sexual abuse.  And then also, I hate the pain that other survivors of childhood sexual abuse experience when they see how this went down.  

I appreciate, though, the people I’ve seen come forward in the past few weeks to publicly tell their own stories of childhood sexual abuse.  And to publicly state how this story has affected them, as survivors.  I am cheering for each and every one of them.  I believe that if we can start talking more about these stories, that can become a powerful step toward preventing sexual violence from happening in the first place.

For example, consider this:

Everyone gets hung up on the particular physical acts inflicted upon children. Here's some news: the root violation is boundary crossing by a trusted adult. This is an assault on the psyche as much as the body, on a kid's sense of trust and safety in the world. And while some acts obviously may cause more physical trauma, touching, kissing, or even simple propositioning are no less intrusive psychologically -- which is why all are illegal.  - Clay Evans


Peg Shippert is a psychotherapist in private practice in Boulder, Colorado.  She has a deep passion for working with survivors of sexual violence and other traumas.