Study Shows Why Sexual Harassment Survivors May Take Longer Than Expected to Complain
Many wonder why survivors of sexual harassment and abuse waited to come forward with their experiences, didn’t file official complaints, or simply, continued to endure exploitation for a period of time. The reality of a survivor’s prospects, however, is far more complicated — even without the audacity of delayed disclosure. A new study sheds light on why survivors often take time before considering taking formal action.
Published in Psychology of Women Quarterly, the study shows how survivors’ needs differ from what complaint systems offer. For one, survivors don’t immediately process the experience and moreover, aren’t able to muster the dexterity to locate a non-judgmental person immediately to confide in them. In the society we live in, survivors of sexual harassment and abuse are forced to confront feelings of shame, guilt, anxiety, and stigma first, before — and if at all — they can even begin to prepare themselves for the invasive and sexist repercussions that tend to follow disclosure.
“People who have experienced sexual harassment reported a range of needs and engaged in a variety of actions to meet these needs. Safety and social support were prioritized over formal actions,” notes the study, adding: “Recognizing the plurality of human needs can help us to understand why people’s behavior and decisions in response to critical situations — like sexual harassment — might diverge from what is expected: their experienced needs might simply be different from the needs they are presumed to have.” Further, those who didn’t experience sexual harassment anticipated that they would have a stronger need to report sooner, the study found. But this is not the reality of many survivors’ feelings immediately after the fact.
Herein lies the fatal flaw of most systems designed to address sexual harassment: they are designed keeping in mind a reasonable person, who would immediately report their experience. In doing so, they fall short of recognizing how real people actually react in the immediate aftermath of harassment and abuse.
Sexual harassment and abuse are deeply traumatic experiences that can leave lasting emotional scars on a survivor’s psyche — even leading to “emotional and physical symptoms for years to come.” Recounting them can trigger vivid memories, nightmares, panic attacks, and flashbacks — amplifying the survivor’s distress. Nonetheless, making a formal complaint requires one to revisit their trauma. While some survivors might indeed be able to lodge a complaint promptly without being overwhelmed, the prospect of replaying a distressing experience in their minds deters many others from doing so — merely, as an act of self-preservation.
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“There are often accusations that if people who experience sexual harassment don’t come forward at the time, it’s because it wasn’t that serious or perhaps even true… [It flows from] an assumption that those who experience sexual harassment are primarily guided by their desire for justice,” explains Thomas Morton, lead author of the recent study and professor of social psychology at the University of Copenhagen. “But… peoples’ needs are wider than what others might expect, and include needs for safety, personal control, and for life to just return to normal. Of all the needs that people expressed, the need for justice was not the highest priority. This might explain why people don’t take the kind of formal actions, like reporting to police, that others expect them to.”
Restorative justice practitioners have long advocated for the safety-and-support approach in helping survivors of sexual harassment. Noting the flaws in formal legal systems that assume a straightforward response, restorative justice instead aims to create communities of care. “[R]estorative justice may enable us to hear victim-survivors’ stories more holistically, giving voice to the real harms of sexual offences. It may empower victim-survivors by giving them greater control. It may encourage admissions of offending, offering validation and, in focussing on the offender, may reduce victim-blaming,” notes a paper by the School of Applied Social Sciences Durham Law School at Durham University. “Nonetheless, sexual violence is often excluded from restorative justice programmes because of legitimate concerns that its use may trivialise violence against women, re-victimise and increase trauma and endanger the safety of victim-survivors. However, the fact remains that the criminal justice system already marginalises victim-survivors’ interests and fails to do justice in all but a few cases.”
Another pertinent fact that people criticizing survivors for not making a swift complaint tend to forget is that it can take “weeks, months, or even years to recognize that a past experience was sexual assault.” And often, the realization is preceded by feelings of shame and guilt — making the experience even more challenging to process for oneself, let alone opening up about it before others. “They may feel that they did something to make this happen or egg it on in some way. Embarrassment can be experienced, a fear over other people finding out,” explains Colleen Cullen, a clinical psychologist.
Yet, formal systems continue to operate under the assumption of “reasonableness” with statues of limitations, and the intractable struggle to analyze “evidence” for an offence that might have been rather intangible. Recognizing this, jurisdictions in some parts of the world — like California and New York — have begun revising their statute of limitations clauses. But our social expectation of saviors — to pursue justice promptly — remains.
The experience can also shatter one’s sense of self-worth, explains Cullen, saying, “[A] person may doubt their ability, and wonder if they weren’t only hired because of their sexual value. They may question their achievements, and if they’re young or new to a field, they may ask, ‘Is this just what it’s like in this field?’ If they have nothing to compare it to, they may not have an idea of what is normal or what the appropriate recourse is.”
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This injury to one’s self-esteem — coupled with the fact that abusers can be in a position of power over the survivor — can greatly impede the latter’s willingness to speak out. Besides worrying about repercussions like losing a job that pays for one’s sustenance, the rather valid fear of not being believed — either because the abuser used their sway to discredit them or because of society’s pervasive victim-blaming mentality — can dissuade one from taking legal action. When choosing between doing nothing about a past experience, no matter how traumatic, and taking action that will almost certainly involve being judged and dismissed, if not having one’s reputation tarnished, one can’t be blamed for opting for the former. Especially so, when there’s little to assure that the justice system won’t end up re-traumatizing them.
Even India’s law against sexual harassment — Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 — fails survivors in myriad ways through lack of expeditious implementation and a practical inability to safeguard survivors from unfair social scrutiny. Knowing how slim the chances of success are can make the process of filing formal complaints seem like an even more daunting and isolating prospect.
A lack of support systems and resources that are not only efficient and adequate, but also comprise empathetic, non-judgemental, and trauma-informed listeners, further discourage survivors from prompt reporting. In other words, society has largely failed to create safe spaces for survivors of sexual harassment and abuse. “To hear complaints, you have to dismantle the barriers that stop us from hearing complaints, and by barriers, I am referring to institutional barriers, the walls, the doors that render so much of what is said, what is done, invisible and inaudible,” notes feminist scholar Sara Ahmed in her book, Complaint!
To make matters worse, the lack of sensitization about — and access to — available legal options, counseling services, legal aid and community support, prevent survivors from even making informed judgments about whether to proceed with legal action at all, and if so, whom to approach for guidance.
Yet, despite failing to foster a system that caters to the perfectly reasonable needs of survivors, society has come to expect them to act in a way that feels reasonable to them from an outside-in perspective. “Our research suggests that the assumptions people make are often wrong, or at least don’t reflect what the people who have experienced sexual harassment say they need,” Morton notes.
In an ideal world, maybe, survivors would feel empowered to report their experiences and seek justice, without having to worry about adverse consequences for themselves and their families. But since that’s not the world we live in, we cannot allow it to dictate our expectations of people whose lived experiences we don’t share. As Morton says, “[I]f you have not experienced sexual harassment, it is hard to accurately anticipate what you might need, and therefore, what you would do to satisfy those needs.”