Thursday, November 1, 2012

Being an ally for victims of sexual harassment

It’s recently been brought to my attention how often forms of sexual harassment and assault are suffered in silence.  Statistics on rape reported in this recent article indicate that at least 54% of rapes go unreported.  Since starting this blog, several female travelers (that I know) have contacted me to share their experiences. Each admitted to suffering (mostly) in silence.  Like for the Hungarian woman (see this entry) who was dangerously close to being sexually assaulted, more extreme incidents of sexual harassment are sufficiently traumatic that often women often prefer to block the painful memories from their mind, rather than relive traumas by admitting them to others. Even women who suffer from less extreme forms of sexual harassment (such as leering or the local equivalent of catcalls)  may experience trauma over time if the experiences are continuous and/or recurrent. 

I started this blog because I know that not every female traveler is comfortable using their voice to share their experiences. It takes boldness and courage to admit something as personal as feeling vulnerable to sexual harassment. As an independent, educated, career-oriented woman, I myself take pride in my ability to “hold my own” so-to-speak against the male-dominated academic fields in which I operate. How then can I be admit to feeling vulnerable to the mere glance (leer) of a man in another country? After my first trip to India, in which I endured memorable and painful incidents of sexual harassment, I too suffered in silence. Despite being (figuratively) surrounded by female colleagues and professors with whom I could have discussed these things, I remained silent. It was truly embarrassing to me—too embarrassing—to admit that I was vulnerable in this way. I felt ashamed. It was years later that I found my voice and developed the confidence to volunteer for a local violence prevention program and eventually start this blog. Sometimes even now I wish I could be thicker-skinned than I am. Sometimes I wish I could proudly walk through the streets in India dressed however I like, impervious to the comments, leers, provocative gestures, attempts at groping, stalking and whatever else.  Perhaps to an extent we all wish we could be thick-skinned and just shrug it off. But perhaps then there would be no need for this sort of blog. This blog exists because no matter how thick-skinned we are, we are human beings. And how people treat us impacts us. When we perceive that we are being treated as less than human because of our gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, or anything else that forms a part of our identity and over which we have no influence or control, it affects us. No matter how thick-skinned we are, being treated as subhuman based on our gender will be painful. There is no shame in this. It is not shameful to admit that others have hurt us. We did nothing to earn or deserve this treatment. We are the victims. Admitting this vulnerability does not make us less strong—it makes us stronger. It takes courage and strength to admit vulnerability by sharing your experiences with others. Sharing is important for healing; it is also an important first step for helping prevent others from being victims. Street harassment has the potential to escalate to other more dangerous forms of violence. It does not always stop at words or gestures. As other women have reported, in India as elsewhere, it can and does escalate to stalking, groping, indecent exposure, and even assault.  Street harassment too is a form of violence and should be treated as such.  

I want to use this opportunity to ask anyone following this blog to please consider being an ally to those who are currently suffering from or who have suffered from sexual harassment, assault or any other form of violence. It is hard for victims to find a voice. When a victim actually finds their voice, it is essential to support them and encourage them in any way one can.  If someone approaches you, or even just openly admits to having suffered a form of violence—no matter the degree—the best thing you can do for them is simply to listen. Hear what they have to say without judgment. This is not the time or place for suggestions as to what they could have done let alone what they “should” have done. The best thing you can do for a victim of any kind of violence is to be a good listener. Let them know that what they say matters and that you want to support them and help them however you can. The worst thing you can do for that person is to be unsupportive by “correcting” them, or in any way minimizing or invalidating their experience by inferring or implying it to be less than it is. When a victim finds their voice, it is a time to be encouraging. Your words need not be eloquent, or long-winded (like mine), but they should be supportive and encouraging.

It is only when a victim has gained sufficient distance (temporally and emotionally) from a painful situation that they can even be open to well-intended advice. The time gap necessary will depend on the intensity of the experience and the degree of emotional trauma endured. At that point, it might be appropriate as an ally to suggest they talk to others about their experiences in whatever way is most meaningful to them. They might prefer counseling or therapy, or they might find more closure in group meetings with others who have had similar experiences. Or you might recommend to them articles or online resources (such as Traveling While Female, or these handouts) to help them process their experiences.  If there are local violence prevention programs or self-defense courses, it might be appropriate to recommend those. But it is never appropriate to minimize or invalidate a victim’s experiences.

I ask this of all my readers—whether you consider yourself susceptible to the type of sexual harassment discussed in this blog or not—please consider becoming an ally for others. Listen, do not judge, and do not minimize their experience. Be encouraging, and be active in sharing resources like this blog with others.

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