Dear women, how would you react if you were asked in a job interview whether a woman should wear a bra at work? Or whether other people find a woman desirable? And what would you do if the next question was whether you have a partner? Do you think you would reprimand the interviewer, make a clear statement, or even end the interview prematurely?
Unfortunately, I have to break this news to you: it's very likely that you would all do the same thing - not react at all.
That's what the participants of this study found out. They were invited to a fictional job interview and asked the three sexually harassing questions above in addition to the usual application questions. At the same time, another test group had to answer a questionnaire on how they would react to the same questions in a job interview. The result was extremely interesting and gives us a possible explanation for why victims of sexual violence are stigmatized.
The majority of women expected to confront their offender: 62 percent said they would point out that the question was inadequate, while 28 percent said they would reprimand the interviewer and exit the interview immediately. Also interesting: the vast majority of women assumed that they would not answer at least one of the three questions. So far so good. But what happened to the women who were actually in a harassment situation? You guessed it: none of that. The study revealed that women, contrary to their own expectations, often ignore sexual slurs or harassment. All participants answered the three questions, none of the women confronted or rebuked the offender, none left the room.
Women, contrary to their own expectations, often ignore sexual slurs or harassment.
Even if it's questionable from an ethical point of view to allow women to be harassed by a man as part of a study, the results are incredibly important. They show that it is very typical to overestimate oneself when it comes to one's own reaction to sexual assaults.
I like to remember what I learned as a teenager: If a man crosses your limits, you just knee him in the crotch and you're safe. I can do this, I thought. But today, 25 years later, I know that far from the truth. And most women are like me. We do not knee, slap, yell, or confront. Instead, we keep silent, at least most of the time. And afterward, we are ashamed of our silence because we are convinced that everyone else would have put up a fight. If we weren't so confident in our exemplary responses to sexual assaults, perhaps we wouldn't be so judgmental of others who don't fight back, thereby perpetuating rape culture.
The study also showed one of the main reasons why so many women don't defend themselves against sexual harassment. When asked what kind of feelings such questions trigger, almost all women in the questionnaire say "anger". Anger would indeed make sense in such a situation. It would help resist danger and injustice and be an appropriate emotion towards sexual assailants.
From my counseling experience, however, I know that the prevailing feeling is not anger, but fear. The study confirmed this. While only two percent of women who filled out the questionnaire assumed they would be afraid in such a situation, almost half of them reported having feelings of fear after the interview. And in such a situation, the more fear, helplessness, or powerlessness a woman feels, the less she defends herself. Sexual harassment triggers fear, and we must not deny or downplay the feelings of those affected, whether by sexual (or racist) assaults. Rather, we should consider the possibility that we might also feel fear instead of anger in the same situation. And that it would be normal.
The discrepancy between a suspected and an actual reaction to sexual assault, speaks volumes about why those affected are so often blamed for the assault if they didn't put up a resistance.
Without a doubt, it helps when people learn how to behave in a harassment situation. They should know it's okay to ignore the harasser and get out of the situation as quickly as possible. There is no obligation to respond in a specific and thoughtful manner. But even more important than the question of how the affected react, is how outsiders react and confront the harasser with his or her behavior.
Society at large, and even public prosecutors and courts often overfocus on the affected. Allegedly, "atypical" victim behavior is taken into account when assessing credibility. This is despite the fact that it is well-known that there is no such thing as "typical" victim behavior in sexual assaults. It would be entirely appropriate for women to feel angry when their sexual integrity is violated, and we should not punish them for it. Let's stop overemphasizing victim behavior and downplaying the effect of sexual assaults. Women should no longer be responsible for having the “right” response.