Sexual Harassment: What We Learn by Listening to Survivors

Sexual harassment is a more nuanced subject than we think.

When I was in high school, I was a major Swiftie. Like all teenage fans of Taylor Swift circa 2006, I assigned a song to every one of my adolescent crushes, whether it was mutual or unrequited. Ryan wasn’t exactly a crush, per se. He was my friend. He was really sweet, had a girlfriend he was seemingly crazy about, and he gave great hugs. I admired that even though he confessed to having a crush on me the year before, he seemed to only have eyes for her. Her name was Jenny, and she went to a neighboring high school. I commented on a photo of them on his MySpace, and she sent me a friend request. I accepted, and we started talking. I gushed about what a great guy Ryan was. I chose “Teardrops On My Guitar” for Ryan.

[ TW: sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape ]

One day during our senior year, I asked a teacher if he would mind if I hung out in his room during lunch so I could have a quiet place to focus on my homework. Ryan was also in the room that lunch period, playing his music out loud on the computer. I was sitting by Ryan and he was talking about how Jenny wanted to wait until marriage before they “did anything”. Shortly after, I felt his hand on my knee underneath the table. I kept trying to focus on the equation in my math book, thinking he would remove his hand and that maybe he was just resting it. It’s naive, I know, but surely Ryan wouldn’t do anything inappropriate. He moved his hand up to the crease between my thigh and my genitals. He began rubbing. “Are you okay?” he asked. I quickly mumbled an “mmhmm”. I was in such shock that all that came out of my mouth was “mmhmm”. How is this happening to me? What is he doing?! Frozen in panic and fear, I was able to break away and told him I forgot to drop off a letter about graduation to my guidance counselor. “Cool, I’ll come with.” He was following me. I assumed he was afraid I was going to tell. Thankfully, a teacher stopped him in the hall to talk and I was able to make my escape into the girl’s bathroom where I hid until the bell rang, announcing the end of B Lunch

Illustration by Angelica Alzona

I was scared.

After, I blamed myself. Why did I say “mmhmm”?! Why did it take me so long to stand up and leave? Why didn’t I say “No, I’m not okay”? It took me 10 years to realize that I was not to blame for my panicked response, and how my fear and confusion left me frozen to the spot. After reading the experiences of many other women, I found that it’s not uncommon to respond this way. It’s shock. It’s panic. It’s fear. You can’t believe it’s happening. You don’t know what’s going to happen next, or if and how he will escalate. You want it to stop, but you don’t want him to become physically aggressive. So you give the appearance of normalcy, just long enough for you to make your escape.

This is the first time I have ever shared my sexual assault publicly. Until now, the only people who knew were a few relatives, my best friend at the time, and the therapist I was seeing. When I told the therapist, she said that, by law, she was obligated to report all sexual assaults of minors. I immediately backtracked and played down the significance of what Ryan had done. Graduation was around the corner, and I didn’t want any trouble. She explained that since I was 17, she would leave it up to me. Did I feel as though I had been sexually assaulted? Wanting to forget I ever mentioned it or that it ever happened at all, I told her no. While writing this, I considered using his real name, but instead I’ve chosen a pseudonym. No physical likeness or surname was used. But then I thought, if anybody I kept in touch with from high school happens read this and puts 2+2 together, they could easily figure out who I’m talking about. I didn’t want to cause any drama for myself.

Sexual assault is probably the only transgression in which the victim feels obligated to protect her attacker.

Two days later, there was an assembly in the auditorium for the seniors about the graduation ceremony. He found me in the crowd and sat next to me. He acted like everything was like it had always been. “About the other day…I wasn’t okay. That wasn’t okay.” I told him.

“I know. I’m sorry,” he said nonchalantly. His apology did not feel sincere, he didn’t sound remorseful, and that was all. We never talked about it or acknowledged it ever again. He would continue to smile and wave at me in the halls in between classes. He hugged me from behind on graduation day. I smiled politely, and excused myself to “find Katie” in the crowded cafeteria of eager graduates ready to get their diplomas.

I never told Jenny what Ryan had done.

Sexual assault isn't about sex, clothes, flirting, drinking. It's about power and control.

Many powerful men like Harvey Weinstein now face public reproval for allegations of sexual harassment and assault.
Glamour, “Every Powerful Man Facing Sexual Harassment Allegations”

This is a Societal Problem

Sexual harassment and assault in educational and professional settings is not new. This issue has come full circle in the recent headlines. Miramax mega producer Harvey Weinstein has surfaced as a serial abuser of women. The audio in which he admits to groping a woman’s breast, explains that he “can’t help it”, and that it’s “what he’s used to” is chilling. His casual mistreatment of women is something that I think hits home for all women. The strength of the women coming forward has set off a chain reaction. Women are speaking up, and speaking out. Several prominent male celebrities have been exposed as sexual predators. In light of the #MeToo movement (originally founded in 2006 by Tarana Burke), TIME Magazine chose the women at the forefront of the movement for their “Person Of The Year”.

Women spoke out in 2017 to challenge sexual harassment.
TIME Magazine’s 2017 Person of the Year: The Silence Breakers

Casual misogyny and performative allyship is so common that some men truly believe they are a “nice guy” because they don’t proclaim to hate women or view them as inferior. But your misogyny does not have to be blatant to exist. Casual misogyny can be seen in sexist jokes that are made, while women are supposed to deal with and learn to “take a joke”. It’s in memes that your male friends like or share on Facebook. It’s the expectation that a woman owes a man physical affection, time or attention for simply buying her a meal.

Sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape are not about sex.

Or about clothes, makeup, flirting, partying or drinking. It’s about power, and control. No catcaller has any intention of wooing a woman he yells a lewd remark to. It’s a show of dominance. A reminder that women’s bodies are for public consumption. “It’s a compliment!” “I wish women told me I was attractive while walking down the street!” When men say this, they don’t understand that sexual objectification follows us everywhere, every day. They don’t understand the fear of escalation from catcalling to stalking, to groping, to assault. They don’t grasp the severity because they are so accustomed to their social privileges and protections of being a man. Men rarely fear for their safety. Most men walking alone at night don’t fear being a target for sexual violence.

Tarana Burke (center), originator of the #MeToo movement, marches alongside fellow survivors in Los Angeles on November 12, 2017 (SOURCE)

Me too. Her too.

75% of teen girls are asked by boys for nude photos. I am in that 75%. Except, it wasn’t a boy who asked. It was the adult son of a family friend. A family friend who knew me since I was 10 years old. I was 16 years old. He was 24. He instant messaged me on AOL. I had known him for years, so there was no reason for me to be suspicious. We were talking about school hen the conversation took a turn when he told me I was “all grown up” and “so hot”. Then he asked if I had any pictures I could send him of myself. Naked pictures. I said I had to go, and logged off. Either he didn’t realize his actions were illegal, or he just didn’t care.

When I first pitched this article, I was reflecting on a story my Mom told me about when she tried to go back to school. She was a wife, and a mother of two young children. She made it clear to her Psychology professor that she was married, and that his advances were unwarranted. Shortly after, she began receiving phone calls (in the days before Caller ID). No words, just breathing – and a peculiar music playing in the background. Fast forward to one day in class, and the professor is showing the class a short video. She froze as she heard a familiar tune as the soundtrack to the video. Her professor had been responsible for the calls. Even after she told him she was married and to stop, the calls and his advances persisted. Sexual harassment is still running rampant in 2017 and has expanded in the digital age, but in 1993, there was something slightly more insidious and unknown. Being a full time working mother, her options were very few. She dropped out.

My first job was as a seating hostess at a restaurant after my high school graduation. My family had just moved to a new state, so I was navigating not only a new phase of my life but also a new region. At the restaurant, one of the managers would always sidle up to my seating podium and talk to me about his life, his wife, his son. That didn’t bother me, until he started making comments about women’s bodies, including female co-workers. I was 18, and this much older man was critiquing the curves of girls my own age. Worrying he would become aggressive, I tried to laugh it off with a non-threatening “Hey man, that’s like way inappropriate.” His pompous expression changed to something more sinister. “Well, nobody would believe you.” he said, before leaving the podium. His visits with me at the front became less frequent, but he still created an uncomfortable work environment. I ended up quitting a month later.

Image by Franziska Barczyk

What We Learn by Listening to Women

When I first began writing this article, I decided to conduct a survey asking women about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault at school or work. Over 200 girls and women answered my call for their truth. I shared the survey via Facebook, Twitter, and it was also distributed by multiple feminist accounts on Instagram. Friends and family also reached out to share their stories as well. I asked multiple questions – such as when the harassment started (a startling majority of respondents reported harassment beginning at 14 and under), how long it lasted (six months or more to several years were the most common responses), if the harassment followed the respondent home (over 1/2 of respondents reported affirmatively), or escalated beyond verbal (it was shocking to see how frequently the harassment escalated to assault, and for 29% of respondents, rape).

My findings presented a few disturbing patterns:

1. Sexual harassment is starting earlier than ever.

Over half of survey participants were high school age or younger when it happened to them.

A female relative recalled a time in elementary school when a classmate told her he would rape her. He may not have fully understood what rape was at 7 years old;, perhaps he only knew that it’s something that is largely done onto women by men. But that he knew about it at all, and knew it could be used as a threat to a young girl in his class, is telling.
My first best friend was sexually assaulted by a male classmate in first grade. She was wearing a dress, and he crept his hand up. I remember her telling me when it happened that a boy in her class “touched her peepee”. Her parents moved from the district before the following year.

2. Many women do not report their assaulters.

Much like in my own personal experience of assault, some of the women surveyed felt they would be blamed or would not be believed. Others felt reporting wasn’t worth it, as their previous reports were often overlooked or inadequately dealt with. However, a startling 55% of participants did not report because they were intimidated or threatened. Who are schools and employers really protecting here? I didn’t report my sexual assault because it would have been my fourth report;I was afraid that my high school’s administrators would think I did something to bring this on myself.

Typically in a legal atmosphere, the burden lies with the state. It is up to the prosecutor to present all relevant evidence for a jury to decide to convict or acquit the accused. However in cases of sexual assault and rape, the burden lies with the victim. What did SHE do? Did she dress immodestly? Was she intoxicated? Did she flirt or maybe give him the “wrong idea”? Is this another false report (even though only 2-8% of rape reports are actually false)? Why must victims not only endure the initial assault, but defend OURSELVES even more so than the perpetrator? As though WE are the guilty?

3. The harassment tends to follow the women home.

Prior to the digital age, phone calls or unexpected visits could arise in cases of work- or school-related sexual harassment/assault. Now, in our social media age, harassment no longer mostly stays at work or school. It follows us home. Emails, Instagram, MySpace, Facebook, Snapchat, Tumblr. There are several platforms harassers can use to continue their harassment around the clock. They can also utilize these platforms to make threats that keep women intimidated and too afraid to report for fear of retaliation.

Illustration by Rachel Levit Ruiz

Reading the responses to my survey brought so many emotions to the surface that produced a visceral reaction in me. I saw myself in these women. My heart broke for every one of them. Moments prior, they were strangers. After reading all of these experiences, I felt a sense of sisterhood to every single woman who took time to share her experience with me. I read about women who were (and still are) harassed by co-workers, by customers. I read about girls who were harassed by fellow students, but also teachers and professors. I read about women who devoted years of their life to the service of their country, and were faced with constant sexual harassment. A participant was harassed for the entire duration of her five years in the military. Due to the societal tolerance and normalization of sexual harassment at school and in the workplace, several women believed what they experienced was “okay”.

One of the survey questions asked how the participant felt. I left it open-ended so these women could use the opportunity to unload what they may have been holding onto. Words like worthless, helpless, weak, ashamed, dirty, humiliated/embarrassed and suicidal made frequent appearances. Many of the women also expressed being blamed for their own harassment, as well as the harassers claiming they “didn’t mean anything” by their lewd and inappropriate remark. That she was “overreacting”. There appeared to be no shortage of gas lighting among the harassers. Like myself, women shared that they were worried about causing any trouble for him and therefore, for herself. Again, women protecting the very men they need to be protected from.

Image via

I also noticed inadequacy among the schools/universities/workplaces in handling reports of sexual misconduct. Participants reported being afraid to report because they feared their environment would become more hostile. One woman eventually stopped reporting harassment at work because her reports were inadequately handled, or it would be implied that she was exaggerating or somehow did something to invite it. Another woman explained not reporting the verbal harassment that escalated into sexual assault at school because she “was unattractive” and “didn’t get much attention”, and therefore doubted she would be believed. When she eventually entered the workforce, an intern would make sexual comments about her. When she reported, she was told it was a temporary situation and essentially, to just deal with it for a few weeks.

It broke my heart to read about a 9-year-old girl crying in her bed because a boy in her class was sexually harassing her and escalated to making a death threat. I am glad that her father was relentless in pursuing justice against the boy who threatened his young daughter’s life.

Another woman befriended a co-worker over a shared interest in a show they both watched. One night, he walked her home from work and they exchanged numbers. She texted him to ensure he arrived home safely to which his entire demeanor changed. He was relentless in his desire to discuss sexual topics. She declined. He sent her a copy of a “project” he was working on, which was an erotica story he authored himself. She was revolted by it, and after continuous harassment, she blocked him. She didn’t know what to do because he was a Human Resources employee, so he would likely be the employee assigned to any sexual harassment reports. He left the job later on. She never reported the incidents, which she expressed guilt over, but I understood her completely. She was afraid she would be blamed for exchanging numbers and allowing him to walk her home. It’s not right that women have to be wary of basic interactions with co-workers and students because their kindness could be misconstrued as a sexual invitation.

For some, the harassment escalated to assault. For others, rape. One woman who took my survey told me her story about physically developing much sooner than her classmates, and sexual harassment about her body beginning when she was 8 years old. When she was 13, she was raped by a student teacher and his younger brother who was in her class. She carried this burden on her own for two years, hiding the truth from everybody she knew, including her mother. She expressed regret for not telling her mother. It broke my heart.

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Another participant from Germany was a victim of rape; however, by German law, her rape was not deemed “brutal enough” to be considered rape. She commented that the theocratic government of Germany makes people like herself feel as though they are not cared for.

I also noticed in the responses a lack of effort from law enforcement. One woman filed a report after her rape that was dismissed as a “mutual experimentation”. Another woman’s rape report was not handled by the police because they “didn’t want to ruin a young man’s life because of a stupid mistake”. This mentality is also seen in the headlines. When Brock Turner raped an unconscious woman, he was hailed as a talented swimmer. His impressive swimming times were widely reported. When a teenage girl was raped by football players in Steubenville, the rapists were referred to as young men with potential and a great future ahead of them. This “boys will be boys” excuse is so harmful to so many. It was offered to a participant by her principal as an explanation for the harassment she was attempting to report.

These incidents have had lasting impact on some of the women who answered my call to women everywhere. One woman shared a story from 35 years ago, and how she still has a physical reaction to the memories. She was told by her teacher that she was a pretty girl and should be flattered by the attention. She was made to feel as though her body, her self respect, and her entire person was somehow less than the boy who was harassing her. Another woman said that she felt like her purpose was to be a sex toy. The stress caused her lasting stomach issues. Other participants shared that their relationships have been affected by their experiences. A participant expressed difficulty trusting men. Another participant expressed difficulty believing that anyone could love her for more than her body and sex.

How Men Can Resist the Culture of Sexual Harassment

As women, every day we have learned to try to navigate our lives around safety, trying to do what we can to protect ourselves from unwanted advances and harassment. But it’s time for men to stand up and take responsibility. This burden can no longer fall on the shoulders of women.

Listen. Believe women.
I urge all men to listen to women, believe them, without derailment, without blaming or asking for scholar reviewed sources. This is my life. This is her life. These are our lives. We don’t need sources to make our lived experiences valid or worthy of listening to, and believing.

Don’t let casual misogyny slide. Speak up.
If you see or hear your “bros” making rape jokes or remarks rooted in sexism and misogyny, call them out. Tell them to knock it off. It’s not “cool”. It’s not funny. Misogyny isn’t just somebody declaring that they hate women. It’s there, trust me. When you see it (which you will, if you’re open to acknowledging it for what it is), call it out.

Be cautious of victim blaming and understand why it’s so damaging.
Don’t blame survivors of harassment, assault and rape. Think of how harmful victim blaming is. Besides being a huge disservice to women, it is also a disservice to men by implying that all men are natural rapists. It suggests that women must do X, Y, and Z to avoid rape and that unless certain criteria is met by women – a man so lacking in basic self control and human decency, will rape.

Don’t constantly try to center men in the conversation.
Of course male victims of sexual harassment and assault exist, and are also very important. Male victims deserve to be listened to, and believed as well. However, women are still the primary target for sexual and physical violence, perpetrated by men. Violence against women by men appears to be the rule, rather than the exception. Women are beaten, raped and murdered every single day internationally.

Lead by example.
Talk about the importance of consent with your friends, your sons, your brothers. Speak to and about women respectfully. Honor their struggles. Involve women in the conversation.

These topics may make you uncomfortable, but as a man, you have the power to affect change.

Women Unite, 1973.Photo: Courtesy of See Red Women’s Workshop

How Women Can Resist the Culture of Sexual Harassment

Listen. Believe women.
I also urge women to listen to other women, believe them, without derailment or blaming.

Be cautious of victim blaming and understand why it’s so damaging.
Actress Mayim Bailik recently published a piece in which she claims that sexual harassment and assault hasn’t happened to her because she dresses modestly. This feeds the harmful notion that harassment, assault and rape is something that women can prevent. Women in the Middle East are raped everyday, in their religious garments that cover nearly or all of their bodies. It’s not about clothing. It’s never been about clothing. The responsibility for sexual harassment, assault and rape always lies with the perpetrator – not the victim.

Take Action
Sign petitions, attend protests, hold a “Take Back The Night” rally at your campus to let sexual assault survivors know that they are believed, supported, and that their voices are heard, and their experiences validated. Challenge rape culture.

Illustration by Sara Meadows, “GIRLS UNITE”

I am forever grateful to the brave women who shared their stories with me via personal conversation or through participating in my survey in preparation for my article. I have never seen such strength and support in the community. Women shared my survey via social media, and rallied around the women who chose to speak up in the comments of these posts.

To my Sisters.

Let us share this burden. It is too heavy for one to hold.

If you feel that you can, share your story. With everyone, or with no one. Get it out. Pull it out. Put it down. Even if on a page in a notebook.

Maybe if we can share this burden, it will not only become lighter for each of us, but for all of us.

I see you.

I hear you.

I believe you.

and me too.

<strong>Join the Movement • Take Action • Live Your Dream</strong>

Ashley Hesse is a 20-something writer/musician and women’s rights activist. She is a former beauty/special FX makeup artist who put down the makeup brushes and raised her fist in solidarity to help fight the social injustices against women all over the world. When she’s not crusading for social justice and defeating bigotry in all its forms, she also enjoys feeding her soul with musical theatre, red lipstick and Ghirardelli brownies. strives to amplify voices of women and survivors. Have a story to share?

2 thoughts on “Sexual Harassment: What We Learn by Listening to Survivors

  1. I had chills from reading this. Amazing article. I feel both angry and sad from reading these womens experiences, but also strengthened, through the words of the author and all of the courageous women who shared their stories.

  2. What has been done cannot be undone, but we can stop it happening to others. The time has come. The time is now. Because I don’t want my niece having to put her hand up and say: “Me too”, as I and others have done. The mantra of “Boys will be boys” must be abolished.
    It is, to put it bluntly, an excuse for bad behaviour. At the time I had my breasts grabbed and squeezed by an immature boy, I didn’t know this was known as sexual harassment. But I did know it wasn’t right. What he did
    was not okay. Wish I’d kicked him in the balls hard enough for him to feel it in the back of his throat. Not that I advocate violence, but sometimes it is a necessary evil. And I would only kill if there was probable cause,
    such as the belief that rapists and paedophiles cannot be rehabilitated. Time for everyone- men as well as women- to right the wrongs done in the past, and stop others from happening.

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