When women started coming out of the woodwork stating that they too had been sexually harassed or assaulted by a man, people wondered, “Why did they wait so long to report it?” and “Why didn’t they speak up at the time?” From the stories we receive at #MeTooEthiopia, people experiencing such harassment never tell anyone about it. Instead, they typically avoid the harasser, deny or downplay the gravity of the situation, or attempt to ignore, forget, or endure the behavior.
Below I have listed the most significant reasons why women do not come forward more often or delay in coming forward. While I recognize that men are also sexually harassed and assaulted, I am going to limit this article to a discussion about female victims of sexual harassment and assault. Male victims do, however, suffer from many of the same after-effects and have many of the same reasons for not coming forward.
1. 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.”
3. Fear: Sexual misconduct is the most under-reported crime because victims’ accounts are often scrutinized to the point of exhaustion and there has been a long history of women not being believed. My own personal experience with not being believed when I reported having been sexually abused by a family friend at age nine had a powerful and lasting effect on me. The feeling of helplessness was devastating for me. It followed me throughout the rest of my childhood, into my teens and into my adulthood.
4. Shame: Shame is at the core of the intense emotional wounding women (and men) experience when they are sexually violated. Abuse, by its very nature, is humiliating and dehumanizing. The victim feels invaded and defiled, while simultaneously experiencing the indignity of being helpless and at the mercy of another person. This sense of shame often causes victims to blame themselves for the sexual misconduct of the perpetrator.
5. To Avoid Retaliation: Sexual harassers frequently threaten the lives, jobs, and careers of their victims. And many victims are frightened by the perpetrator’s position of power and what he could do with it. Those who have reported sexual harassment or assault, especially by powerful men, have reported that they lost their jobs, and that their careers or reputations have been destroyed.
6. 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, 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.
By far the most damaging thing to affect the self-esteem of young girls and women is the way they are mistreated in our culture. Beginning in early childhood, the average girl experiences child marriage, unwanted sexual remarks and sexual behavior from boys and men. Young girls today continually complain that they are bullied in school — not in the way we think of boys bullying other boys — but by boys making remarks about their genitals, their behinds, and as they get older, about their breasts. In Ethiopia, there is a common practice of boys running by girls and grabbing their behinds or breasts and running away.
7. Not Having Role Models: Women feel it is useless to come forward, because they have seen the way those who speak 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. Most women feel they are on their own when it comes to protecting themselves from sexual harassment.
Art by Betremariam Tebebe