After weeks of speculation, Time Magazine has finally announced its Person of the Year 2017. Except, it's not one person, it's a group. A movement. A group of individuals who have broken the internet through breaking their silence against sexual harassment and abuse. The Silence Breakers.
It's not the first time that Time Magazine has chosen a group of people as their POY. Back in 1993, "The Peacemakers" were awarded this title, recipients included Yasser Arafat, F. W. de Klerk, Nelson Mandela, and Yitzhak Rabin for their work promoting peace; in 2002, "The Whistleblowers", Cynthia Cooper, Coleen Rowley and Sherron Watkins received this award for exposing fraud and irregularities; and, in 2005, "The Good Samaritans", which included Bono and Bill and Melinda Gates for their outstanding philanthropic work, just to name a few.
"Over the course of six weeks, Time interviewed dozens of people representing at least as many industries, all of whom had summoned extraordinary personal courage to speak out about sexual harassment at their jobs," the magazine reported in their article. "This reckoning appears to have sprung up overnight. But it has actually been simmering for years, decades, centuries."
While it is true that we, as women, have had to endure the emotional toll of sexual harassment for a long time, this year has been unprecedented. Since Harvey Weinstein's sexual allegations came out back in October, more than 30 powerful men have been accused of sexual misconduct. This goes to show that women are becoming more empowered to speak out. Witnessing the bravery of all the women who have come forward has been empowering on its own. Particularly, because they are a firm example of the healing power of speaking out. But, sometimes, this is not that simple. Sometimes, speaking out only brings out questioning and doubts, which can be detrimental towards the victim's mental health recovery.
The emotional aftermath of speaking out
Sexual harassment and abuse is a traumatic experience on its own, and the effect of trauma on the brain – and consequently the ability to relate to other people – has been covered widely by people all around the world. Badenoch (2008), explains that the amygdala – the part of our brain which is responsible for emotional reaction – becomes activated when we perceive fear. For many victims of sexual harassment or abuse, they can begin to experience fear almost all the time, experiencing similar symptoms to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
According to Badenoch, the right amygdala of traumatized people is strongly activated when reminded of the trauma. In this sense, those who suffer from PTSD are often hypersensitive to their surroundings. And more frequently than not, they are asked excruciating details when speaking out their truth about their abuse. Not only this, but some might even question the veracity of their testimonies.
According to a recent survey done by Time and Survey Monkey, "around 82 percent of the participants said women are more likely to speak out about sexual harassment since the Weinstein allegations. Meanwhile, 85 percent say they believe the women making allegations of sexual harassment." On the other hand, 1 in 3 women have been sexually harassed in the workplace, but only 29 percent of them report it. There's a lack of congruence in the numbers because this is not an easy subject.
For Carolina, a victim of sexual abuse, she defines the act of speaking out as a very complex topic. "It's not as black or white as it's good or bad to speak out. While it is freeing to speak out your truth, it's also incredibly difficult when people don't believe you and question your truth," she mentions. "While it's been rewarding to see who is my support system, it has also generated a lot of self-doubting and I've felt generally anxious."
This generalized anxiety dysregulates the brain's chemistry. According to Badenoch (2008), when these anxiety levels remain high, a lot of the brain's tissue can potentially become destroyed or even disturb certain connections in various parts of the brain. And for some victims, like Carolina, speaking out is no longer a freeing experience, but a traumatic experience on its own where instead of support they receive doubt. A traumatic experience that increases their level of anxiety, rather than decreasing it. Is this the way it should be?
What helps to break the silence
"You need a platform. A support system. A network to voice your accusations," says Eliana, a victim of workplace sexual harassment, "It's important to understand that speaking out is a privilege, and not everyone is able to do it." This is why the work of women who speak out is so important, they are not only speaking out for themselves, but also for other victims who are not able to speak their truth.
Social media is a powerful platform to speak out and offer support. With movements like #MeToo (or the recent #YoTeCreo (I believe you) in Panama), many women are able to tell their own truth, in their own terms, in their own time. Talking is a healing agent on its own, this is why psychotherapy has proven to be beneficial in the recovery of trauma. But, it's important to understand that talking is not mandatory, and when victims do speak out it should be done for their own mental health and not to please other people's questions and doubts.
"Speaking out is taking a weight off your shoulders, whether it's telling one person or a hundred – which is what usually happens in social media," Eliana mentions. There's a powerful shift in fear that happens when you speak out: it is now a shared feeling. It's no longer the victim feeling fearful of what might happen to her when she speaks out, but now the aggressor feels fearful of this accusations as well. And this is extremely empowering for all victims.
Where do we go from here
This is a movement that has gained an undeniable momentum. Whether it's through social media accusations or legal consequences, women have been given the space to speak their truth. And we all have a role in continuing to encourage other victims. Whether it's by giving a voice when they can't seem to find theirs; by not doubting or questioning their truth; or, just by listening.
It's important to recognize what these victims are doing. And rather than re-victimizing them or asking for details, it's important we provide a healthy space – whether it's in real life or digital through social media – in which victims feel safe enough to speak their truth. Speaking out can have incredible healing powers, but only if the space to do so is emotionally safe as well. And we all need to do better in making these spaces as safe as possible for people to speak their truth.
Badenoch, B. (2008). Being a brain-wise therapist: A practical guide to interpersonal neurobiology. W.W. Norton &.