National headlines concerning accusations of sexual harassment against high-profile figures have prompted many to tell their own stories, as evidenced in the #MeToo movement on social media.
Local advocates say the most important thing someone can do if a victim shares their story is to listen and to let them chart their course through the aftermath.
Victims don’t trust that people will respond to them appropriately when they make a disclosure, said Kristin Houser, chief public affairs officer at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. They think they will not be believed or will be accused of lying. They may also see a history of incidents not being addressed or fear retaliation that may include loss of employment, demotion or even further harm from the perpetrator.
“All of those things boil down to they don’t trust people to respond appropriately,” she said.
“The most important thing, without a question, is that we must as a culture believe survivors,” said Dana Hippensteel, Sexual Assault/Rape Crisis Services Prevention Education coordinator at YWCA of Carlisle.
Responding in an empathetic way can be as simple as saying, “I’m sorry this happened to you” or “I believe you,” and asking what the person needs at that point, Hippensteel said.
It’s vital for the victim to think about the direction they want to take, Hippensteel said. Telling someone who has already had power and control taken away from them what they need to do only takes the control away from them a second time.
“It’s important for a survivor to have the power and control to make decisions around that,” she said.
Someone who has been harassed should first seek support from someone they trust, Houser said. That could be a family member, a co-worker or even a crisis hotline. If they are comfortable, the victim may even confront the person who is doing it.
Houser also said it is important to keep copies of emails, photos and notes detailing where the harassment occurred, when it happened and any other potential witnesses. She also suggested keeping copies of performance reviews at home.
Victims should also check company policies to ensure that it is being followed, and should know their rights, understanding that it is illegal to punish someone for filing a complaint. If the victim feels safe, the incident should be reported to a supervisor along with an indication of what they want the next step to be.
Through all of it, Houser said it is important for victims to consider their own sense of safety.
“Don’t feel like you have to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable,” she said.
The confidential, 24-hour hotline operated by the YWCA can be used by someone recently assaulted who is in crisis. The hotline volunteer can discuss what might be immediately important to the victim such as whether they should go to the hospital, how to pursue legal options or how to tell their family and friends about the experience. The hotline volunteer talks about the options available, and the consequences of each of those options.
Hippensteel said people who experienced sexual violence in the past may also use the hotline.
“We frequently get phone calls on the hotline from folks that were abused as children or had experienced sexual violence at a younger age and they are at a point in their life where they want to talk to somebody about it or maybe they want to pursue something legally,” she said.
The hotline also receives calls from family members, parents, partners and significant others of those who have been assaulted. These calls often ask the counselor how they can be supportive to the victim.
The YWCA also offers in-person counseling and group counseling.
“We always want to remind people that it’s never too late to get help,” Houser said. “It doesn’t matter how long ago it happened. If you are having stress about it, you can get help now.”
Prevention has historically focused on victim behaviors such as watching their drinks when out or not running alone and other advice that focuses on risk reduction.
“To act as though that is prevention is shameful, and we really need to be moving this onto putting responsibility for reduction onto rapists,” said Miller Hoffman, Sexual Assault/Rape Crisis Services Prevention Education coordinator at YWCA of Carlisle.
Now, prevention programs start as early as second grade when children are taught in age-appropriate ways that they make choices about their bodies. Hippensteel said they are taught that if they receive a touch that makes them uncomfortable, it isn’t OK and there are steps they can take.
Shifts in the older grades has moved from presentation-style programming to multisession group work that teach dynamics around power, control and violence as well as breaking down gender norms and stereotypes, Hippensteel said. The students are taught about healthy relationships, equality within those relationships and consent, all at age-appropriate levels.
The YWCA also works with three local colleges on programs to create norms and beliefs within the college community that promote equality and respect while also discussing consent and the ways in which bystanders can intervene when needed.
The silver lining to these seemingly daily revelations is that it becomes easier to have conversations about what is being done to make things right. That could mean reviewing policies at work just as easily as it could mean having conversations with children about what behaviors are expected from them, Houser said.
“It’s an opportunity to have conversations to stress the importance of looking out for each other’s well being,” she said.
Allowing lower-level behaviors to go unchallenged gives potential perpetrators justification to push the envelope. In the workplace, everyone has to be clear on behavioral expectations and work as a team to enforce those expectations. Supervisors must have the authority to address issues quickly and appropriately.
“You need to nip things in the bud by addressing comments, jokes and inappropriate humor,” Houser said.