The #MeToo movement has made one thing perfectly clear: even though we’d prefer to believe that sexual harassment and assault are “unthinkable,” they happen in the workplace regularly.
According to recent Fairygodboss research, 37 percent of women have been sexually harassed in the workplace. And while we like to think society has taken strides towards prevention, 57 percent of women feel that circumstances have largely stayed the same for women in the workplace in 2018, and 70 percent of women believe that the #MeToo movement has made no impact at work.
Chances are that someone you know — maybe a colleague or a friend — will deal with this form of workplace discriminaion and may choose to report it. What can you do for them? Should you do anything for them? We spoke to survivors, therapists and writers about how to support survivors of sexual harassment or assault — especially when they are deciding whether or not to report.
If someone is choosing to share their sensitive experience with you, the first (and maybe most important) thing you can do is listen and reaffirm their truth.
Alisa Zipursky founded HealingHonestly.com to discuss being a young person healing from sexual trauma with a community of over 60,000 other young survivors. She says her best friend was crucial to helping her heal.
“The best thing a friend can do is to listen and give us the space to define our own experiences, and to offer us affirmation of our feelings,” Zipursky said. “Remind us time and again (it requires a lot of repetition!) that this is not our fault, that we are not alone, and that you believe us and will support us each step of the way.”
Dani Moye, a licensed marriage and family therapist, agrees that actively listening to and reaffirming a survivor is one of the best ways to take action.
“When a survivor of sexual assault or sexual harassment courageously chooses to move forward with telling their story, they require validation and receptiveness,” she said. “This is the first and most crucial step to providing them with the support that they need, and to free them from the burden of self-blame.”
This outside reassurance may help your colleague or friend view the experience without blaming themselves, allowing them to make a more informed decision about whether or not to report.
While it is natural to want to offer solutions or take action for your friend, experts agree that autonomy is crucial for survivors.
“It's important that the survivor makes his/her own decisions when deciding what to do in terms of seeking outside help, reporting to the police, or notifying their place of work. Remember that they experienced a horrible situation where they weren't in control, so they need to decide what they want to do,” Gabrielle Applebury, a licensed marriage and family therapist shared. “Whatever decision they choose to make, be supportive. You can always ask if they'd like to hear your opinion, but they may not — and that's okay.”
One way you can give your friend control over the situation? Ask what they would like your role to be in the process moving forward.
“A person who has experienced any form of sexual assault or sexual harassment already feels victimized and powerless,” Moye said. “The most empowering act of love is opening up space for… their preferences to be considered.”
Zipursky echoed this sentiment.
“We may make decisions about whether or not to report, to leave a harmful situation or disclose our experiences that are not the same decisions you would make,” she said. “Support your our decisions, because we are the only people who know what’s best for our own safety.”
Don’t push your friend to report, or offer to take action for them. Instead, supply resource if asked and remind them that you are always there to listen.
Healing from trauma is not a linear process; there are highs and lows. Reporting is similarly non-linear. The process may be lengthy, and may swing between your friend’s favor and the favor of the perpetrator. If your friend has agreed that they’d like you to be a part of their ongoing healing process, be there to celebrate the good. It will make the lows a little less gray.
“It is great to have friends to help us celebrate the steps we take. Whether it's congratulating us for making a therapy appointment or cheering us on as we take space to care for ourselves, it is so powerful to have a friend help us acknowledge the good moments in our healing journeys,” Zipursky said.
Applebury suggests planning a relaxing night-in or doing another act of service for your friend, like cooking a meal.
Remember that in order to help with another person’s healing, you must also take care of yourself. Discussing trauma can be painful to the listening ear, especially if you are a survivor, too. Be sure you are leaning on your own self-care routines and support systems to provide the best help possible.
“Sometimes when we hold space for others, we can experience the secondary or vicarious trauma of what they have endured,” Moye said. “Make sure that you have self-care or a personal session with your therapist lined up.”