I turn to you because I don’t know who else to turn to. How do you erase this feeling of guilt and of being grossed out with myself? I was recently sexually harassed by someone I know from work. I know I should report him but I’m afraid. I’m afraid nobody will believe me, because I don’t have evidence. I’m afraid I’ll lose my job. I’m afraid my parents will be able to do real harm to him, if they find out. I’m putting my big girl pants on and trying to move along. Generally speaking, I’m okay—functioning. It’s the feeling of guilt and the grossed out part that I can’t seem to handle.
I’m truly sorry to hear this. I know you feel alone right now but you’re not as alone as you think you are. The World Health Organization in 2013 released a report estimating that 1 out 3 women have been sexually abused. The figure can go higher due to the fact that a lot of these incidents go unreported; the perpetrators are often someone they know and it’s highly likely that it’s someone they’re in a relationship with.
I have been sexually harassed in different degrees, in different points in my life. A lot of my friends have been, too. Like you, a lot of us don’t report them. There are times where we really can’t do anything about it.
There was one time I was walking to school in broad daylight along Katipunan Avenue. A man on a motorcycle slowed down behind me and reached under my skirt to grope me. I didn’t have enough time to react or even think. I couldn’t believe something like that could happen to me. By the time I mustered the strength to scream at him, he already sped off and disappeared.
That’s not the case with you. You still have to see your abuser. At the very least you still have to interact with him—at worst you still have to work with him. I don’t know if you’ve broken down the work it entails to act like everything is okay when it’s not. Because it’s hard, back-breaking work.
I wish I could tell you that you can will yourself into being okay.
You can’t. What happened to you was a violation of trust, more than anything. This is what makes the statistic about sexual abuse being committed by someone known to the victim so insidious.
What makes this even worse is the fact that the odds are against you if you want to report incidents like this. I don’t blame you either for not wanting to report it. In a functioning justice system, the burden of proof is placed on the accuser. It means that it’s up to you to come up with the evidence and a detailed testimony. Some victims don’t want to relive their abuse by being made to rehash details and revisit the trauma.
If it’s the case of someone you know and someone in your social circle, this will also involve bringing in the community. It will involve other people knowing, it will involve risking yourself becoming a spectacle. People will choose sides, people will speculate and come up with their own theories, and people will cast judgment.
If you want to move on and forget about the incident, reporting abuse will delay it and pull you in to stay in that trauma space for as long as it takes.
It’s up to you to decide if you want to fight it out or not. Many do and many don’t. The longer you wait on it, the worse it becomes for you. The legitimacy of your evidence erodes over time. The guy may also outright deny the whole thing and if society is any indication, we let the men off way too easy if sexual predators like Donald Trump and alleged rapists like Tito Sotto are in public office.
What I’m trying to tell you is that choosing not to report the incident doesn’t invalidate your abuse. It doesn’t mean that you’re ok with what happened to you. If anything, it means that you’re protecting yourself from further abuse. Listen to this part of you, please. Because if you choose to keep quiet about this, you still have to put down boundaries and make yourself feel safe again. That’s the only way you’ll be able to move on.
Staying on in your work place acting like everything is okay is not okay. If you’re in a big enough office and can avoid him, start dictating the terms of your interaction with this asshole. Don’t talk to him. Ignore him. If you have friends who know what happened, rally them to be a buffer between you and him. Good friends who are worth their salt will do that.
If the office is small and he’s friends with your friends, quit. If you cannot confide in anyone about what happened, quit. QUIT. This already means the social fabric of your work environment is not secure and nothing can be more demoralizing than realizing that no one has your back. You don’t even have to tell anyone why you’re quitting. People change jobs all the time and you can easily package it as a change in direction, wanting a new challenge, or embracing a better opportunity.
Once you make the steps to make yourself feel again, the next step is finding time to forgive yourself. I found it very interesting that you’re afraid of your parents finding out. Are you really afraid of them retaliating? Or are you more afraid of what they’ll think of you once they find out you’re a sexual abuse victim? If it’s the first, we’ve covered that with not wanting to be a spectacle.
If it’s the second, that explains where some of your feelings of guilt and shame are coming from. We learn guilt and shame from our parents. If you grew up religious, that will add to it, too. We’re still living in a patriarchial world. This means, whether you like it or not, women are still being judged based on their appearance and virtue. Depending on how much you’ve internalized this, and it sounds like you do, a part of you believes that you were asking for the abuse.
Remember my story of getting grope by the guy on a motorcycle? I spent so much time agonizing over why he singled me out. I started wondering if I should’ve worn pants that day. I began questioning if there was anything about me that communicated that I was “that kind of girl”–someone who looked “cheap” and therefore fair game.
If you grew up in a household that reinforced virgin/whore tropes, those stereotypes and false conclusions find a way to weave into your brain. You start feeling like shit for not fighting back. You feel guilty for feeling scared and helpless. Does not fighting back mean you wanted it? Does not reporting the incident mean you were ok with it? No and no!
Then you snap out of it.
I snapped out of it when I realized that sexual abuse is more about power than it is about sex. This is about scumbag men who chose to violate and hurt someone instead of being a decent human being. When I say, “forgive yourself,” I want you to start easing up on yourself and acknowledging none of this was your fault. Say it with me, “THIS WASN’T MY FAULT.”
And you know what? Even if you were flirting, even if you initially expressed interest, the minute someone does something to your body without your consent, IT BECOMES THEIR FAULT. This is what’s missing in your letter, H. I see you wrestling with your guilt, questioning if you did the right thing, and figuring out how to move on. I hear nothing about your officemate. I don’t have any inkling of what you feel towards him.
You say you want to put on your big girl pants, H. You do it by unleashing your anger, betrayal, and hurt. Honor yourself. Omitting him from the narrative will not make this go away. Acknowledging his role in this will.
No is allowed to fuck with you without your consent. Learn this. Remember this. Remember it when you start a new job. Remember it when you enter any room. Remember it when you’re with someone new.
It can be awful being a woman, but we’re also some of the strongest, most resilient motherfuckers in the world. Find your strength, I know you can.
Illustrations: Madel Crudo
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