People who survive sexual assault can experience mental health difficulties that last for years. Stigma can compound the pain of sexual assault, as a fear of stigma may deter survivors from seeking help or reaching out to others.
Despite all the progress made, our society still puts women through the wringer emotionally.
From impossible body standards to victim-blaming, to the pressure to always put others before themselves, there is a whole lot for women to deal with from their teens and beyond.
Although parents and caregivers can’t shield girls from the world, there’s a great deal they can do to prevent them from internalizing damaging societal messages. But what are the most important lessons to teach?
Parents need to teach the most crucial emotional skills girls need to learn to navigate the world more effectively.
Here are some skills to consider teaching your daughter by the time she is a teenager.
1. How to respect and express her feelings.
We often neglect to teach our girls emotional intelligence because the popular stereotype is that females are good at getting in touch with their feelings and communicating them.
In real sense, when women are overcome by emotions, they become incapable of making decisions. Emotional Intelligence means having the ability to describe and express the full range of human emotion.
But when girls are taught to value being happy and liked overall, they often suppress or can’t acknowledge more difficult experiences.
It’s recommended that parents “authorize” their daughters’ emotions. When your girls express authentic emotions, even if they’re difficult, you take them seriously.
You don’t deny them or challenge them.
2. How to feel beautiful and have a positive relationship with her body.
Lost in a sea of selfies and reality television, girls might not know how to view themselves beyond objects of desire.
Teach your daughter that she is beautiful because of who she is in her heart and mind, not because of how she looks or how she dresses.
Point out that, as cheesy as it sounds, real beauty does come from within. Help her understand that trying to be sexy won’t make her beautiful, because she is already beautiful without changing her appearance.
Build her confidence in who she is apart from her looks and explain to her that confidence translates into beauty.
Make sure her Dad is telling her how beautiful she is too.
Also, Parents should discuss sex and know and use the right names for genitalia and do their best to “represent sex as a healthy, beautiful experience that should be had with joy and consent.”
That means talking about what consent means early on and emphasizing that a girl’s body belongs to her alone.
3. How to stand up for herself.
Studies show that girls are encouraged by both parents and teachers to be sweet and conciliatory.
And while we don’t want to send our daughters into the world with a chip on their shoulder and their fists raised looking for a fight, we need to let them know that it is okay to stand up for themselves and voice their beliefs and opinions.
So tell your daughter that she can express herself strongly, but respectfully.
And, if someone is mistreating her, empower her to say, “I don’t really like the way you’re treating me, so I’m going to go now.”
4. How to understand boys.
Boys and girls do have differences when it comes to their brains.
Boys are more visual. Boys have more testosterone than women.
These biological facts make boys and girls think differently, and approach life and problem-solving differently.
Teach your daughter that she has great value, not just because she is a girl, but because she is a person and that boys are not better or more valuable than girls.
5. How to learn from friendships
Girls are frequently told that friendships are paramount, and that may be why they can be so singularly focused on those relationships.
Relationships help girls learn to assert themselves, compromise, and set boundaries.
Parents should view friendships as an opportunity to show girls what healthy relationships look like and how they can relate to others and themselves.
Encouraging her to communicate honestly and reasonably assert herself, provides her with skills that she’ll need to push for a raise as an adult.
6. How to work hard and have faith.
Help your daughter understand that working hard is the key to moving forward in life.
Reward her hard work with praise. Point out the link in her own life between her hard work and success.
A strong faith will help your daughter navigate the challenges of life. It will serve as the basis for her standards and the choices she makes.
Teach her about the power of faith. Teach her how to strengthen her faith. Pray with her.
7. How to feel self-compassion
It’s easy to be one’s most unforgiving critic, no matter gender.
But girls get a lot of messages that it’s important to please others. So when they experience a setback, it often feels like letting someone else down.
Research shows that adolescent girls may be exposed to more interpersonal stress than boys. That makes them more likely to ruminate on negative feelings, which puts them at greater risk for depression.
To help prevent this cycle of suffering, parents should teach their daughters how to deal with failure. What we want is for girls to have is the capacity to move through a setback without beating themselves up.
This means teaching a girl how to relate to herself and practice self-compassion in a moment of crisis. It’s important that instead of criticizing herself harshly, she focuses on the universality of disappointment and practice self-kindness.
By realizing others share that experience, she’ll be better prepared to treat herself compassionately and develop resilience.
8. How to deal with the online world.
Help your daughter see that the online world is not the real world.
Be sure that she’s spending more time with you and your family than with her online community.
The more time that she spends online, the greater her chances of feeling discouraged about what other girls have that she doesn’t, be it their clothes, their bodies, or their boyfriends.
What else are you trying to teach your pre-teen daughter? Share your comments below.
As the country deals with the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a shocking increase in the number of sexual offences cases reported.
Many countries are reporting a surge in cases of domestic and sexual violence, also known as gender-based violence (GBV), as well as violence against children.
Kenya is following this trend because a third of all crimes reported since COVID-19 arrived were related to sexual violence.
Self-isolation for women in coercive or violent relationships means being trapped (often without the means of accessing support) with a perpetrator who may become more abusive when there is no other outlet.
Over the past two weeks, sexual offences such as rape and defilement have constituted more than 35% of all reported cases in Kenya.
Coincidentally, many Kenyans have been working from home over the past two weeks, with many students being home from learning institutions as well.
A 7 p.m to 5 a.m curfew has also been imposed since Friday, March 27.
There has been a significant spike in sexual offences in many parts of Kenya in the last two weeks. These offences constitute 35.8% of the criminal matters reported during the period.
In some cases, unfortunately, the perpetrators of such offences are close relatives, guardians or persons living with the victims.
These are people who are supposed to take care of the young girls, but instead, they are preying on them.
Different people who work on gender-based violence have voiced their concerns that some of these directives are creating a fertile ground for this to happen.
The United Nations and the Government of Kenya launched a flash appeal this month, seeking $267 million to respond to the most immediate needs of over 10 million people during the pandemic.
Of this amount, $4.2m is needed to provide life-saving medical treatment, psycho-social support and legal representation in relation to violence against children and GBV.
The gaps in violence prevention and response existed in Kenya before COVID-19. This crisis magnifies these gaps as resources and access to services become even more strained.
Reasons why there is a spike in sexual offences and gender-based violence.
- To begin with, the pandemic has affected a lot of people’s ability to earn a daily wage, many people depend on their daily income to provide for their families and this causes frustration. Some of them vent out their frustrations through gender-based violence.
- People’s freedom of movement has been curtailed. They can’t go to bars, clubs or other social joints so they resort to drinking at home. Alcohol can also be a trigger for gender-based violence.
- We must also remember that children are at home and not all of them are home with their parents. Some are being taken care of by their guardians, relatives or living at facilities such as children’s homes. They are confined in the same closed areas with their guardians, you don’t know what could happen.
- An issue that is overlooked is that women and girls are also unable to access reproductive health services. Lockdowns and lack of prioritization of SGBV response services mean many women will face forced pregnancies. In turn, restricted access to abortion care facilities or pharmacies that provide medical abortions (i.e. misoprostol pills that can be taken at home) if quarantine periods are extended may lead to unsafe abortions and increased mortality among SGBV survivors
What is the UN and Government of Kenya doing about Gender-Based Violence?
- The UN’s rights-based response to COVID-19 includes strengthening and increasing the availability of essential GBV services. To address restricted access to services during isolation, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has collaborated with the Kenya Red Cross Society to sustain clinical management of sexual violence supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) in all humanitarian hubs in the country.
- UNICEF is working with Kenya’s Department of Children’s Services to continue to provide case management services for girl and boy survivors of violence against children.
- UN Women, UNFPA and UNICEF are working closely with Kenya’s national child and GBV hotlines, to increase psychosocial support through telephone and chat counselling services. These are often first responders to survivors of domestic violence or violence against children and their role cannot be understated. Data from these helplines are already informing the government’s national response. Assistance is also being given to the Ministry of Health to develop GBV guidelines during COVID-19.
- Public awareness-raising, especially for those most at risk, will be rolled out to promote rights and services. Public engagement is also crucial for prevention, which is why the UN agencies will identify male champions to promote respectful relationships and encourage others to refrain from violence.
As Protect A Girls Image Organization, we are trying our best to raise awareness on all levels, for instance, there should be a toll-free helpline for victims of gender-based violence.
If you are assaulted by your spouse at night right now, you can’t leave the house because you’re scared you’ll be beaten up even before you get to the police station to report the matter.
You know, femicide has been an issue in Kenya even before the Coronavirus, so these are things that the government and Nonprofit Organizations should just do. Relevant bodies like the judiciary and police should also communicate and share crucial information.
It Is important for authorities to create public awareness of how victims could report cases and receive the necessary assistance.
We need to raise awareness on these issues just like the government is raising awareness on the virus, what measures to take and so on. You know, right now, the situation is difficult.
It is clear from previous epidemics that during health crises, women typically take on additional physical, psychological and time burdens as caregivers. As such, it is critical that all actors involved in efforts to respond to COVID-19 – across all sectors – take GBV into account within their programme planning and implementation.
INCASE YOU MISSED IT:
When I go to the shop every morning, our gate man and his friends will not let a lady pass by the gate without uttering words like “mrembo leo hunisalimii?”- “Beautiful come and say hi”. You can imagine how you look in the morning – baggy t-shirt or hoodie, sweatpants or tights, and they still catcall us which is very irritating. Most of the times I just pass by without saying anything or when am in a good mood I just wave and move along.
I am sure millions of women and girls around the world will have heard phrases like that. “Hey Sexy!” “Hey Beautiful!” “Ouh your body this or that!” or something like it. Some might say that it’s harmless, just a joke, or perhaps even a compliment.
But to be honest catcalling is none of those things. It’s an explicit demonstration of power, one that is intended to frighten or intimidate the person it’s addressed to. It is based in deep-rooted gender inequality, which sees women’s bodies as not their own.
In my opinion, in the context of gender, harassment often ends up being a way for men to exert control over women and their bodies. Shouting a crude comment about a woman’s appearance suggests entitlement to her body. Groping or stalking or simply standing too close without a woman’s permission shows entitlement to her space. Expecting a woman to talk to you while or after you harass her displays entitlement to her time. Do You Agree?
What is Catcalling?
Catcalling is when an individual whistles, shouts, or makes sexual comments toward another individual as they are walking by. Women are often the ones faced with having to deal with this ridiculous issue. The fact that I get a little nervous when I decide to get dressed up because I don’t feel like getting harassed, is a problem. You shouldn’t have to feel self-conscious or nervous every time you get dressed to head out the door or every time you pass by men on the street.
What is Street Harassment?
Street harassment is one of the most pervasive forms of violence against women and girls. It’s a type of sexual harassment and includes catcalling, unwanted comments, gestures, honking and uninvited sexual advances from strangers in a public place.
When you face harassment as part of your daily life, whether it’s while going for a run or getting the bus to see friends, what does that do? It holds you back right?
You are compelled to change your clothes, or routes to work just to try to avoid it. It can even prevent you from working, from socialising, from learning, and from living with freedom and dignity.
This is not acceptable. No woman or girl should feel afraid in the streets of her own city.
Did you Know Poverty makes girls more vulnerable to harassment??
We help and interact with many women and girls in the rural areas we operate and they have stories to tell about street harassment. One would think thank living in the rural areas is a bit safer than urban areas but we were wrong.
Women and girls living in poverty are even more vulnerable to this sort of street harassment. For example, Rose Wanjiru attends a local school in Kangai village, Kenya. She is only 12 years old, but she and her friends are often harassed by men as they walk to and from school. Rose says:
“On my way home, we often get catcalls from the farm workers and boda boda [motorcycle taxi] riders. My biggest wish is that we get an education, the men should leave us alone.”
RELATED CONTENT: See How we are Raising Funds to help our Beneficiaries like Rose to stay in school.
How Protect a Girls Image is helping girls who are experiencing street harassment.
Jackline Wamwitha, Our eldest girl belongs to the Protect a Girls Image-supported girls’ club at her school. The club is a safe spacewhere the girls learn about their rights and gain the confidence to report harassment and abuse. Jackline looks out for other girls at school. She says: “I tell my friends: don’t pay attention to those men.”
In addition to girls’ clubs, Protect a Girls Image is working with women’s groups and training government officials, police, health workers and legal advisers in Kenya on how to best to tackle violence against women and girls.
By working closely with local commuities, PGIO is tackling gender-based street harassment at its root, by challenging the behaviours and gender inequalities that cause it.
How Should You Deal with Street Harassment?
Sometimes, no response is the best response (especially if you’re concerned about escalating the situation). Some harassers might enjoy any sort of attention, so ignoring the foolishness is the best bet. Hopefully, they will eventually get a clue and stop catcalling completely.
If you’re a quick thinker with a strong voice, then responding may be a good choice. If you feel safe enough to do so, assertively respond to the harassers calmly, firmly and without insults or personal attacks to let them know that their actions are unwelcome, unacceptable and wrong. It’s one way to turn the situation around.
Sometimes kindness is the most unexpected, confusing, and wonderful response of all. So if some guy is saying garbage about your appearance, you can respond with quiet sympathy. “You must be in a bad place to comment on stranger’s bodies like that. I hope life gets better for you.” You can say, with full sincerity. Then sashay away!
Report to Employer
If you are being harassed at work you can air your views and let Human Resources know that their employees are harassing people on the job and why that is unacceptable. I know you might be thinking “what will my colleagues think and what if I lose my job” If we don’t start standing up for ourselves now then when?
If you see a lady being harassed, please help them out of the situation and let the harasser know that their actions are not condoned by others. Ask her if she wants help and what she’d like you to do or simply check in to see if she is OK. Majority of street harassers look to other men for approval so they might gang up on you.
What will you Do to Help Girls facing Street Harassment??
If you Donate to Protect A Girls’ Image Education Funding>>>HERE, you can help us support more Girls in School, so that they can be educated on preventing and responding to harassment and violence. Here’s what your money could do:
- $80 could help educate girls and ensure they are aware of their rights
- $5 could help girls carry their books to school.
- $10 could help get a Dozen of Books for each girl, to write down everything they learn.
- $3 could help buy a Dozen of Pens for them to write with.
The most common defense that men have against this issue is that catcalls are their way of “complimenting” a woman’s looks. Going up to a woman and telling her she’s beautiful is one thing, but shouting “damn!” “hey sexy!” or whistling and honking the car horn as a woman walks by is a different story.
Catcalling can even get to the point of being dangerous if women decide defend themselves or ignore the cat-callers, because often they will get offended causing them to act in an aggressive or intimidating manner by name calling or going as far as assaulting women. It’s important that you assess your situation and ensure your safety before responding.
What men need to understand is that catcalling is not cute, funny, or complimenting. It’s harassment, degrading, and disgusting. It lets women know they are being objectified and looked at as nothing more than a piece of meat. It makes women feel as though they have no rights or values. Women are not dogs to be whistled at and they are not sexual objects. Women are more than their looks. Women have the right to be treated with as much respect and dignity when walking down the street as any man. Women deserve to feel safe!!
It’s not an easy thing to talk with your kids about sex. We live in a culture soaked in sexuality where selling everything from cars to toys to clothing to the food we eat. You as a Parent have talked to your girls about losing virginity, boys and masturbation. But how many times have you properly educated your boys about how to identify and ask for consent??
Our society is plagued by a worsening epidemic of sexual violence, and as a mother and a survivor of sexual assault, I feel compelled to do whatever I can to change that.
It’s practically impossible to scroll through social media or watch the news without seeing some report of sexual assault, but the focus of these stories is the emphasis often placed on what girls should to do protect themselves: they should avoid wearing provocative clothing, they should never walk alone at night; they should take self-defense classes, and never get drunk at a party.
There is little mention of what should be done to stop our boys from growing into men who are capable of committing these heinous acts in the first place. I think we believe that if we teach our kids the difference between right and wrong, assuming that it goes without saying that sexual assault is the latter then we’ve done our job.
You might be thinking, Why is she favoring the Girl child? Honestly, I am not. The reality is both boys and girls should be educated.
By the time you hit them with the talk, children of all ages have already gotten a bunch of messages about sex, relationships, and consent from somewhere else. From cartoons to fairy tales, school mates, pop songs, siblings to the kid next door… by the time your child can comprehend these stories, they’ve already internalized some concepts.
So as a parent, it’s your job to translate, explain, debunk, and convey these messages.
The most important thing you can teach both boys and girls is sexual consent. So what it is? How can you give it and how do you ask for it? Most importantly, why it is so important for healthy relationships?
I am going to give an overview of what consent lessons can look like for most families.
1. Teach the correct vocabulary early.
Consent education should start as soon as kids can understand the foundation concepts behind it. So where do you start? Giving your child the correct, scientific vocabulary to describe their body parts, including words like:
There are two major reasons to stay away from code words and slang. First and foremost, correct labels break down stigma and create a person who is sex positive and not embarrassed to talk about their bodies with their parents — not to mention a future teen who isn’t afraid to openly and clearly communicate with their romantic partner.
When we use coded language with little kids, it sounds like something we keep secret and don’t talk about, and that’s not the message we want to send.
2. Teach bodily autonomy and independence.
The next step when they are still at a young age is to teach them bodily autonomy. It is teaching that they have total control over what happens to their body.
Respect your kids’ wishes when it comes to hugging, kissing, cuddling, and tickling. The big example here is that they aren’t “forced” to hug and kiss anyone, even grandma. Children should get to choose their level of contact based on their level of comfort. Learn to respect their NO! “Okay, why should I do that? I am the adult here”. Point is, they should clearly understand and expect that when someone says “no” to bodily contact, that request should be immediately respected.
In addition to letting your child know that they get to choose when someone touches them, you should also begin teaching them that consent goes both ways. You can start by teaching them to ask their friends if they like to be hugged before going in for an embrace.
3. Talk about consent with friends and family.
A vital part of teaching bodily autonomy at this age is also educating your friends and family about boundaries, too. This way Grandma doesn’t get offended when she doesn’t get a kiss. She should know that it’s not a requirement that her grandchildren hug and kiss her or sit on her lap and you can teach her that she can offer alternatives.
When you teach your kid bodily autonomy, you’re not only teaching them to say no, you’re teaching them lots of consent-related skills. Like saying, ‘Can I high five you instead?’ when a hug isn’t wanted.
You’re mirroring what it looks like to be refused. If your child refuses a hug, you can say, ‘I know you still love me even if you don’t want to hug me.’ That statement shows that physical touch isn’t bad or wrong in this relationship, just that in this moment, you don’t want physical touch.”
4. Build stronger, healthier boundaries.
As your children grow older, your lessons about consent and autonomy can increase in complexity.
This is a good time to discuss concepts like coercion, when someone persuades you to consent to something against your original will. You can also discuss how to set healthy boundaries with people, and what they should do if those boundaries are violated.
5. Introduce concepts of sexism and misogyny.
At this age range, it’s imperative to talk to your children in depth about sexism and gender bias. Why? Sexism and misogyny have a lot to do with consent and can lead to harmful myths and misconceptions about consent and relationships, such as:
- Men should always want sex and are expected to push the boundaries of how far they can go with partners.
- The woman is a “gatekeeper” responsible for pacing or stopping sexual acts.
- Women should obey men.
- It isn’t “manly” or romantic to ask before kissing a woman or making a move sexually.
There are gender roles that can cause sexual scripts that can be harmful to sexual intimacy. For example, when a male asks a female for sex, and the female is responsible for saying no. That’s based on a harmful stereotype that men are always horny and ready for sex. It seems complex but you would be surprised at how much a child in middle school will understand this so well.
6. Teach critical thinking skills.
This is also a time to help your children to become independent critical thinkers by using examples of media they consume. They’re going to get harmful messages even when you aren’t around, and they must have the skills to think critically about them.
If you see sexism in the world around you, such as in music, television, movies, or real-life situations, point it out and ask them what they think. Help them reach their own conclusions.
For example, In most movie scenes, verbal consent is absent, which is a problem within itself. If you’re watching a movie with a kissing scene with your pre-teen, you might ask, “How do you think he knew that she wanted him to kiss her?”
I know you mostly focus on telling your children what they should not do. But you should focus on teaching your child what they should do, but helping them understand why you have the values you have, how you came to a decision in your own life, and how they could come to decisions on their own
Please! Please! Avoid too much lecturing and instead try to have two-way conversations.
7. Know how to respond when your kids ask about sex.
This is also the age when children might start asking you questions about sex and sexuality that you may not be prepared to answer but they’re mature enough to understand.
Don’t be afraid to say that you can talk about it another time, like after dinner so that you can have time to mentally prepare. Also, be sure to leave the door open for more discussion and be sure to end the conversation with a supportive statement, like, “I appreciate that you came and talked to me about this.”
8. Continue with more complex issues surrounding sexual consent.
High schoolers and young adults are ready to learn concrete lessons about sexual consent and healthy sexual relationships in full detail. These may be some of the toughest lessons to teach for parents, but they’re the most vital pieces to help your kids understand consent and build healthy relationships.
One mistake parents make when discussing consent is that they have limited talks with their children and male children mostly get different talks than female children.
For example, males tend to get only enough information about consent to prevent illegal actions related to rape and assault, while women may only get enough information to prevent their own rape and assault.
This form of “disaster prevention” sex education may indeed prevent some legal issues, but it doesn’t help break down our foundation cultural issues about consent or lend toward building enjoyable, equitable relationships. Please be sure to discuss the following issues:
- Can a person who’s incapacitated by drugs or alcohol consent to sex?
- Do you have to consent to sex after the first time you have intercourse?
- Do power differentials affect your ability to consent?
- What does safe sex have to do with consent?
- Be certain to cover the difference between verbal and non-verbal consent.
Teach them to know what verbal consent sounds like, as well as how you can ask. They should also know what nonverbal consent looks like. They should understand if that their partner is very quiet, or lying still, that that isn’t the enthusiastic consent they’re looking for, and it’s time to communicate before they keep going.
LESSON: While teens might be learning about issues like birth control, rape, and sexually transmitted infections, they’re lacking knowledge that they both need and crave regarding consent and healthy relationships. This additional knowledge is key to preventing sexual assault and sexual violence.
9. Converse about pornography.
You are probably cringing from the word Pornography. Our teenagers are mostly on their phones right? You can’t ignore that your teen is very likely exploring pornography in some form.
Without a proper education from parents about what pornography is, how it functions, and its issues, kids can take away misguided messages about sex, relationships, and intimacy. At worse, these beliefs can become harmful to others.
Pornography is not a very realistic portrayal of sex. A lot of porn doesn’t portray women well, and there are a lot of mixed messages about consent. For example, teen girls may compare themselves to the women in porn and feel inferior while boys may fear that they won’t be able to sexually perform like the men in porn
10. Talk about what a healthy sexual relationship looks like.
70 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds wished that they’d received more information from their parents, about the emotional and romantic aspects of relationships, including how to:
- Have a more mature relationship.
- Deal with breakups.
- Avoid getting hurt in a relationship.
- Begin a relationship.
All of these issues are tied in many ways to understanding consent.
Again, start discussions with your children while consuming media or after you see a good or poor example of a healthy relationship. Ask them how they feel and what they think, and get them to think critically about what it means to be a caring romantic partner and what it means to be cared for.
Remember, I am not giving all this information just so you can avoid assault. It is about creating healthy people who have the tools and skills to have healthy and happy romantic relationships.
Teaching our kids about consent might seem awkward at first, not only because it involves the subject of sex, but also because the majority of today’s adults didn’t get consent education as kids. However, one of the most rewarding aspects of parenting is our ability to break harmful cycles, create new standards, and improve life for our kids and the next generation.
Even if you have older children and missed out on earlier lessons, it’s never too late to start teaching your kids about the importance of sexual consent.
In this digital age, with the Internet at their fingertips, all the parental controls in the world won’t keep our children from seeking out the answers to any questions they might have about their bodies and sex. It’s natural for them to be curious, but if you start an open conversation with them at a young age, if they know you won’t scold them or tell them that they are too young to think about “those” kinds of things, they will be more likely to come to you for information rather than other sources.
I hope this article will be a good guide in helping you talk about sex with your children. Feel free to ask any questions or give Feedback. We Love It!
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To me, rape is a subject that hits very close to home, so for me to go over this topic did not only give me a lot of information, but it also brought back previous memories and emotions. There were two main things that really caught my attention.
Being a parent is compiled of so many firsts and big moments you look forward to with your children. One of them most parents do not look forward to is Sex Education. Most parents find this conversation very uncomfortable. Let’s face it, my generation really didn’t get much talks as our parent’s generation did not talk about Sex at all!! But in this generation, I am surprised that 10 year olds know about Sex and it’s not from our parents, but from the internet, movies and magazines.
WHY DON’T VICTIMS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT COME FORWARD SOONER?
It is very common for victims of sexual assault to not disclose their trauma as soon as it happens that is if they ever do. But since everybody in the world is continually confused by why women don’t come forward, I offer some information based on the psychology of abuse to help answer this question.
To make sure we are all in the same page, when I talk about Sexual harassment and behaviors, I include cat calling, inappropriate touching, invasion of privacy, sexual jokes, sexual bribery, and coercion just to mention a few.
Below I have listed the most significant reasons why women do not come forward more often or delay in coming forward.
One of the primary reasons women don’t come forward to report sexual harassment or assault is shame. Sexual abuse, by its very nature, is humiliating and dehumanizing. The victim feels invaded and defiled, while simultaneously feeling the indignity of being helpless and at the mercy of another person.
Shame is a feeling deep within us of being exposed and unworthy. When we feel ashamed, we want to hide. We hang our heads, stoop our shoulders, and curve inward as if trying to make ourselves invisible. Most people who have been deeply shamed take on the underlying and pervasive belief that they are broken, unworthy and unlovable.
Victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault in adulthood or sexual abuse in childhood tend to feel shame, because as human beings, we want to believe that we have control over what happens to us. When that personal power is challenged by a victimization of any kind, we feel humiliated. We believe we should have been able to defend ourselves. And because we weren’t able to do so, we feel helpless and powerless. This powerlessness causes humiliation which leads to shame.
- Denial, Minimization
Many women refuse to believe that the treatment they endured was actually abusive. They downplay how much they have been harmed by sexual harassment and even sexual assault. They convince themselves that “it wasn’t a big deal.” I know a lot of women who were brutally raped, and I have friends who were sexually abused in childhood. So when a scenario of a girl being sexually harassed by her boss arose, she said that it was nothing compared to what these women went through. She tells herself to just move on and forget the whole thing.
Other women are good at making excuses for their abusers. I have often heard victims of sexual harassment say things like “I felt sorry for him,” or “I figured he wasn’t getting enough sex at home,” or even “I knew he couldn’t help himself.”
And finally, women convince themselves that they are the only victim of a sexual harasser or abuser. It is often only after other women step forward to say that they were abused by a perpetrator that a victim may realize that they are dealing with a serial abuser.
- Fear of the Consequences
Fear of the repercussions is a huge obstacle women face when it comes to reporting sexual harassment or assault. The fear of losing their job, fear they won’t find another job, fear they will be failed in school, fear of being blamed, fear of being branded a victim, fear of being blackballed by people, fear of their physical safety. This is so true.
Many don’t disclose, because they fear they won’t be believed, and until very recently, that has primarily been the case. The fact that sexual misconduct is the most under-reported crime is due to a common belief that women make up these stories for attention or to get back at a man who rejected them. Victims’ accounts are often scrutinized to the point of exhaustion. Victims are often labeled opportunists, blamed for their own victimization, and punished for coming forward.
- Low Self-Esteem
Some victims have such low self-esteem that they don’t consider what happened to them to be very serious. They don’t value or respect their own bodies or their own integrity, so if someone violates them, they downplay it. Sexual violations wound a woman’s self-esteem, self-concept, and sense of self. The more a girl or woman puts up with, the more her self-image becomes distorted. Little by little, acts of disrespect, objectification, and shaming whittle away at her self-esteem until she has little regard for herself and her feelings. There is a huge price to pay for “going along” with sexual exploitation. A woman doesn’t just give away her body; she gives away her integrity.
Even the most confident girl cannot sustain her sense of confidence if she is sexually violated. She feels so much shame that it is difficult to hold her head up high. She finds it difficult to have the motivation to continue on her path, whether it be college or a career.
- Feelings of Hopelessness and Helplessness
Research has shown us that victims who cannot see a way out of an abusive situation soon develop a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, and this in turn contributes to them giving up and not trying to escape or seek help. Specifically, learned helplessness is a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed and considered to be one of the underlying causes of depression. A concept originally developed by the research of psychologist and Steven D. Meier, learned helplessness is a phenomenon that says when people feel like they have no control over what happens, they tend to simply give up and accept their fate.
Women feel it is useless to come forward, because they have seen the way others have been treated. They feel it is hopeless, because they won’t be believed, and their reputations will be tainted, if not ruined. Women who have already been sexually assaulted or harassed feel especially helpless, since the chances are extremely high that they did not receive the justice they so desperately needed. These fears can cause women to think there is nowhere to turn, to feel trapped and even hopeless.
- A History of Being Sexually Violated
Women who have already been traumatized by child sexual abuse or by sexual assault as an adult are far less likely to speak out about sexual harassment at work or at school. Research shows that survivors of previous abuse and assault are at a higher risk of being sexually assaulted again. For example, research shows that 38 percent of college-aged women who have been sexually violated had first been victimized prior to college.
Those who experienced previous abuse will likely respond to overtures of sexual harassment much differently than women who have not been abused. A friend shared with me that she freezes every time a guy makes a sexual advance towards her hoping he will just walk away. This “freezing reaction” is a common one for those who were sexually abused in childhood. And as was mentioned above, those who have previously been victimized are more likely to keep quiet about the abuse, since they may have already had the experience of not being believed and not receiving justice.
- Disbelief, Dissociated, or Drugged
Finally, sometimes women don’t report sexual harassment or assault, because at the time of the abuse they were drugged, inebriated, or dissociated. Others may have been so drunk before the assault that they doubt their memories, and as we know, some are so traumatized that they dissociated during the attack and have only vague memories. It usually takes one woman coming forward before a woman is able to trust her own memories of the experience. Unless other women come forward to make a complaint about someone, most will continue doubting themselves and assuming they will be doubted if they report.
It is understandable that women have a difficult time coming forward for a number of reasons. These women deserve our recognition about how difficult it is and our compassion for what they have been through. Women need to be encouraged to begin to push away their internalized shame with anger and to learn how to give the shame back to their abusers.
Instead of focusing so much energy on trying to figure out why victims don’t report, it would be far more productive to ask, “Why do we allow men to continue to sexually harass and assault women?” Perhaps even more important, we need to stop asking why victims wait to report and instead focus on how we can better support victims in their quest for justice and healing.
People who survive sexual assault can experience mental health difficulties that last for years. Stigma can compound the pain of sexual assault, as a fear of stigma may deter survivors from seeking help or reaching out to others.
After a sexual assault, survivors may feel their bodies are not really their own. Survivors often report feelings such as shame, terror, and guilt. Many blame themselves for the assault.