Helping Victims of Sexual Harassment Bear Witness to Anger

Acknowledging anger can be an essential step for healing from sexual harassment.

Posted Jan 02, 2018

In recent months we’ve witnessed a growing number of victims of sexual harassment publically reveal their private pain. Many of them have held on to their secret for decades. These are courageous individuals who have suffered and only now experience sufficient safety to share their anguish. While it is certainly more common for women to endure such harassment, it is clearly apparent from these reports that many men have been silent as well.

Their public disclosure of anger and pain reflects the healthy assertion of honoring their suffering, as difficult as it might be to do so. It manifests being a witness to their pain, an essential step in the healing process. Making such feelings public may immediately diminish their sense of isolation and give permission and courage to others to similarly step forward. And making their experiences public also offers us the opportunity to help bear witness to their pain

Certainly, witnessing one’s anger and suffering with regards to sexual harassment may not always call for such broad public exposure. However, it is their hugely public outcry against men who have such high public status that has finally captured the attention this issue deserves. And it is their outcry that has forced us to acknowledge the prevalence of this attack on human dignity and personal boundaries.

For the most part, they have received great support and admiration. This includes a response by Antonio Puente, the president of the American Psychology Association, who has called it “a significant occupational health psychology problem” (2017).

By contrast, some observers question the sincerity of their purpose as well as the validity of their claims. Some take a cynical attitude that these victims are primarily motivated by political or monetary gain. These observers voice the opinion that, if in fact, they truly suffered then they should have spoken about it much sooner.

Some claim that anyone with true integrity and moral fiber could simply call it what it is, or move on. And yet, in spite of how easy it is to suggest this response, the reality of this resolution involves tremendous loss. Victims of such harassment are most often at the beginning of their professional career, a time when they are most vulnerable to feel threatened. The threat to their emotional, financial and professional safety serves as powerful leverage to maintain their silence.

It’s not easy when you know that the person in power has access to others in power, whether with regard to an industry, a single corporation, a school or a medical setting. It’s beyond difficult to think of walking away from pursuing dreams that may have been years in the making.

In every anger management class I’ve taught I discuss the unique challenges of responding to any form of harassment in the workplace. In most cases, being able to assertively address such behavior requires both a high degree of emotional and financial security.

Perpetrators of harassment, whether sexual or emotional, act out toward individuals over whom they exert power. Their power exists by virtue of being in a position to fire, form evaluations, provide references, or spread rumors that can negatively impact an individual’s career. It is not surprising that many of these perpetrators have issues with anger (Nanos, 2017).

While current reporting has highlighted the prevalence of sexual harassment in the movie industry, corporations, and politics, no industry is immune from such behaviors. Such harassment has similarly been shown to be a problem in academic settings (Jagsi, Griffith, Jones, 2016), medical centers and in the scientific community (Russell, 2017).

Unfortunately and all too often, there are many men and even women who blame the victim. Actress Angela Landsbury reflected this attitude by stating “We have to own up to the fact that women, since time immemorial, have gone out of their way to make themselves attractive. And unfortunately it has backfired on us — and this is where we are today. We must sometimes take blame, women. I really do think that...” (McCluskey, 2017). 

123rfStockPhoto/mattz90
Source: 123rfStockPhoto/mattz90

 The logic of blaming the victim echoes comments made by some of my patients with anger issues who blame their physical aggression on a person’s name-calling, facial expression, or tone of voice. They, like perpetrators of sexual harassment, fail to take responsibility for their actions by blaming the victim.

If we accept this perspective, we are only condoning their behavior. And, for many, agreeing with this viewpoint may be a reflection of their attitudes regarding their own impulses and sense of responsibility.

In addition to blaming the victim, obstacles to resolving such sexual harassment include a lack of clear and effective policies to address them, as well as a lack of support by co-workers and family.

I believe that to fully understand the deep hesitancy to voice such claims, we need to understand the impact sexual harassment has on one’s resulting feelings of threat and anger. Sexual harassment invariably arouses anger related to confusion, fear, and feelings of powerlessness.

These feelings are similar to those of a child whose parents have emotionally, physically or sexually abused him or her. Just as a child expects to be protected by his or her parents, employees or students expect and deserve mutual respect in their relationships in the workplace. As with an abused child, sexual harassment is a betrayal of trust in a relationship that is meant to support growth rather than cause harm. And just as it is not called for in parenting, having authority in the workplace is no excuse for bullying, intimidation or any form of harassment.

Some women are able to acknowledge and accept their anger. “However, the very acknowledgment of a ‘victim’ status can lead to feeling stigmatization, isolation, and defectiveness (Gold, 2008).

Blaming oneself is one alternative for dealing with the overwhelming confusion and anger regarding one’s sexual harassment. And this is all too often the case, as women traditionally still tend to direct their anger inward–in contrast to men who direct it outward. They’re quick to blame themselves rather than others. They may ruminate about their clothing, facial expression or tone of voice, which they conclude may have encouraged the harassment. Such heightened rumination may expand self-doubt that can undermine confidence and even work performance.

Like victims of child abuse who minimize, deny, or suppress their anger, they may question their own perceptions or even what happened. They may similarly hold themselves responsible using the same erroneous logic cited previously. Needing to hide it is driven by shame that only leads to further isolation and an inability to share what happened with others. It is then no surprise that victims of harassment remain quiet for years.

However, minimizing, denying, or suppressing one’s anger doesn’t make it disappear. Anger, like all of our emotions, serves a function. It is a signal that some form of inner pain needs attention. After all, anger is about some key desire that feels threatened–security and safety being amongst the most significant ones for everyone. Unsurprisingly, when anger is not acknowledged, it can be manifested in irritability that is displaced toward others and oneself – in the workplace and in personal relationships. As I’ve observed in my practice, women (and men) who have not acknowledged their anger may find themselves having great difficulties with intimacy in their most loving relationships.

I’ve noticed in recent years that those in power are increasingly being referred to my anger management classes. A major example of this trend was evidenced in a class I held a few years ago. It included a professor referred by his university, a lawyer referred the state law association, and a physician referred by his hospital.   

We need to take this same stance toward those in power with regard to sexual harassment. This is not about political correctness. It’s about decency and respect for humanity. The abuse of power in the workplace should not be condoned by practices of the past.  As we’ve witnessed throughout history, this aspiration to overcome past attitudes is often difficult to embrace. Transforming our emotional response to such behaviors may invariably face resistance. Those in power may prefer to minimize their impact as they fear the threat of change and call for equality.

We need to advocate for policies, education, and individual empowerment that reflect a shared voice that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.  This discussion needs to be part of a larger appeal for civility in our discourse and behavior. As part of this emphasis, we need to create an atmosphere of support for those who become the victims of such harassment. Additionally, it is important that these issues are highlighted early on as part of an on-going school curriculum for children and adolescents. Only when we embrace such advocacy will we reduce sexual harassment and help victims bear witness to their anger as a first step toward healing.

References

American Psychological Association (2017).www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/11/workplace-sexual-harassment.aspx

Jagsi, R., Griffith, K., Jones, R., et. al. (2016). Sexual harassment and discrimination experiences of academic medical faculty. Journal of the American Medical Association, 315 (19): 2120-2121.

Russell, C. (2017). Confronting sexual harassment in science. Scientific American, www.scientificamerican.com/article/confronting-sexual-harassment-in-science/

Nanos, E. (2017). Anger Problems and Sexual Harassment Go Hand in Hand. Companies should stop tolerating both. Law and Crime.

McCluskey, M. (2017). The Internet isn’t happy with Angela Lansbury saying women should ‘take blame’ for sexual harassment. Time.com/5039330/angela-lansbury-sexual harassment-comments-internet-reactions/

Gold, L. (2008). Sexual Harassment: Psychological Assessment in Employment Litigation. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Publishing.