The psychological aftermath of sexual harassment

As I stood in queue at the Durga Puja pandal to offer my pushpanjali, I felt someone caress the entire length of the back of my body, and I was revolted. Quickly turning around to catch my assaulter, I only saw the retreating figure of a tall teenaged boy being dragged away by, presumably, his mother. From the look of it, he had ‘brushed’ against me as he was being carried away by a female relative, and had not ‘acted’ intentionally.  But what do I do about the icky feeling in the pit of my stomach that had risen so strong?

As I stood in queue at the Durga Puja pandal to offer my pushpanjali, I felt someone caress the entire length of the back of my body, and I was revolted. Quickly turning around to catch my assaulter, I only saw the retreating figure of a tall teenaged boy being dragged away by, presumably, his mother. From the look of it he had ‘brushed’ against me as he was being carried away by a female relative, and had not ‘acted’ intentionally.  But what do I do about the icky feeling in the pit of my stomach that had risen so strong?This is the quandary faced by most survivors of sexual abuse or assault. How do you know for sure if it was assault or abuse or harassment? And what do you do about it? Since we dealt with the legal aspects last week, this week we tackle the psychological side of sexual harassment.

Was it really what I think it was…

How different is sexual abuse from sexual harassment? Leading psychiatrist Dr Harish Shetty, says, “In my opinion, all such cases come under abuse. There is no difference. Any and every suggestive utterance, word, phrase or sentence that is sexually explicit in nature is abuse. Please do remember that it’s not a matter about a single gender abusing the other only; both genders can and do abuse each other.” According to psychiatrist Dr Anjali Chhabria, “While all of these categories rest on a fine line, a distinction has to be made. Abuse is everything that causes survivors pain and leaves the survivor feeling violated. Be it incest, rape, sexual assault, or defaming someone using the social media, all of these is different forms of abuse.“On the other hand, harassment is when a person in authority picks on another from a lower position, repeatedly, and tries to bargain certain favours in place of others, and uses power as the currency to get what they want. This happens usually at institutes that people are associated with, but can happen at home as well, hence the fine line that I keep referring to,” she says.

In our society, how prevalent is harassment? Are only women the victims?

In one word, extremely! A US-based non-profit organisation, Stop Street Harassment’s January 2018 online survey found that approximately 81 per cent of women and as much as 43 per cent of men had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime.

Exactly what Dr Shetty was cautioning us about, “Abuse of men is not as frequently reported as that of women because of fear of humiliation, ridicule and disbelief by the society.” Think of the charges brought about by Adhyayan Suman against Kangana Ranaut or the ones levied by comedian Kaneez Surka against fellow comedian Aditi Mittal, and the resulting effect. Surka has categorically reported on social platform Twitter that, “Every person is entitled to choice and boundaries and she violated mine. While I mustered the courage to reach out to her a year ago, she first apologised but soon turned hostile towards me, leaving me confused and hurt.” It is not easy being a survivor, irrespective of your gender.

The profile of a harasser: Why do they hurt people?

Dr Chhabria believes there is no one profile, there are as many as there are abusers. But certain traits run true. “Some people turn to harassing others soon as they have some intoxicants into their systems, some are serial sex offenders, paedophiles even. The only constant is the use and abuse of their power and authority to try and get the exact response they want from the survivors, with the wherewithal to deny the latter what they seek when their plans are thwarted.” Our other expert agrees. “All abusers are not predators. Predators express their urges and weave a plan, however sophisticated or crude, to get close to their survivors. Power equations are the instigator of most such behaviours. Some authority figures may believe they own their juniors and take them for granted; couple that with insecurity and poor self-esteem, and their abuse is a deviant way of proving their self-worth to themselves.”He continues, “Some abusers misinterpret signs. They mistake friendliness or a neutral gesture for consent. They may be suffering from depression and stress-related issues themselves, but push others’ boundaries and breach them, causing others to feel vulnerable and violated. Predators are not bothered about what others feel but these emotionally vulnerable abusers end up feeling guilty and making matters worse for themselves as well.” However, neither expert condoned abuse or harassment, whatever the reason or situation.

What are the psychological effects of sexual harassment?

Our experts are of one opinion here. The impact can be lifelong or transient depending on the frequency and degree of harassment or abuse and varies from one person to another and best-judged case to case. “More than the actual event, it is the interpretation of the event/s that causes the effects or symptoms of the disorders. There are some who become fearful of being alone with the abuser,” says Dr Shetty. “Some people gain weight in an unconscious desire to look unattractive so that others avoid chasing and hurting them. Some refuse to marry, others have intimacy issues.”Dr Chhabria acknowledges that “Most survivors deal with immense sadness at having been helpless in the face of violation, some going as far as chronic depression on this scale. Fear of intimacy is also quite common as a consequence of harassment because the basic tenet of trust has been broken by a landmark incident or events.”

“Harassment and abuse leave immense stress for the survivor in its wake. Even after several years have gone by, some are known to have suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Obsessive and stress-related disorders are also common.”Having flashbacks about the incident/s is also common as is self-harm and blaming, dissociation (a defence mechanism to deal with trauma), sleep and eating disorders, and even suicide.

Best ways to cope with sexual harassment

So is there no hope for survivors to live as full a life as possible? Of course, there is, chime our experts!

Prevent harassment at the onset.

Workplaces are for work and not to share personal stories.

Be clear about your boundaries and it’s best to be in groups while going out after work.

Hold your conversations at hotel lobbies and cafes rather than hotel rooms.

When travelling, know that eating your meals in restaurants is a safer option than behind closed doors, with your colleagues.

Alcohol is best avoided in company of colleagues inside closed rooms in order to keep a straight head.

As a survivor,

Do not blame yourself, whatever happens.

Seek solace in your family and friends.

Seek psychological aid as needed. Feel no shame in that.

Follow the procedures as required by law.

How does one stand up to harassment and make it stop?

Be clear and speak your mind, especially first and foremost to the harasser.

The sooner you speak up about the harassment you are facing, the quicker you can get help.
Legal aid is also easier closer to the time of the harassment incident.

In case of workplace harassment, report matter immediately to your office Internal Committee or the Local Complaints Committee. You may also want to register an FIR at the local police station and/ engage a lawyer.

Feel free to approach a mental health practitioner whether you simply want to talk or seek help in any emotional issue.

Places to call if you need counselling:

iCall, Mumbai – Call +9122 25521111, available between 8 am and 10 pm from Monday to Saturday or send an email to icall@tiss.edu or contact via Facebook and Twitter.

Samaritans Mumbai – Call +91226464 3267/65653267/6565 3247 on all days from 3pm-9pm or send an email to samaritans.helpline@gmail.com.

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