According to SexAssault.ca, 1 in 4 North American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. I am not currently one of those women. However, like most women, I have a few stories of times that I’ve been sexually harassed or intimidated.
I was inspired to write this article because last week, I was sitting at the library, really focused on my work when I realized that the man sitting next to me was so close that his hand was almost resting on my bare leg (I was wearing a dress.) While he didn’t touch me, it made me extremely uncomfortable and nervous because he was using his body to assert his power over me. I finally couldn’t take it, got up and left.
Other encounters come to mind quite easily.
Firstly, I’ve been groped countless times by strange men in crowded places like bars, concert venues or public transit.
When I didn’t want to have sex with someone I was dating after just a couple of dates, he gave me a deadline. It didn’t last long.
When I worked in a restaurant, one of the men in the kitchen would always touch my butt when he passed by. It got to the point that I would be anxious just standing near him. Another man thought it was appropriate to physically move me when he wanted to get around me.
One time, I was waiting for the bus when a man struck up a conversation with me. He told me I was beautiful and asked me lots of personal questions. He followed me onto the bus and asked me when I was getting off. I tried to ignore him. When I got off the bus, he got off too. I started walking and he continued to follow me. It was about a 15-minute walk to my friend’s house. I crossed the street several times and he crossed it too. I was too scared to walk into the residential streets with less protection, so I went into a McDonald’s to call my friend and ask her to pick me up. He came and sat right next to me until I got into the car.
Another time, I was heading home, riding the subway after going on a run with my run club. I was wearing shorts and a tank top while carrying my rain coat on my lap. A man sat next to me, quite closely, which was unnecessary since the train was mostly empty. His arm was resting just slightly on my leg. Underneath the coat, his hand slowly started moving across my leg, towards my crotch, until it was firmly grabbing my thigh. I was paralyzed and terrified. I wasn’t sure what to do because his eyes were closed and it appeared as if he was sleeping. Finally, the subway stopped and he got off.
Now, you might be wondering – Bev, why didn’t you say something? Why did you just let it happen? The reason that I (and many other women) do not say anything when a man is harassing me is that I am scared of how they will react if I assert myself. I am worried that the situation could escalate or that he could get violent. So to protect myself, I stay silent and hope for the best, that these situations will end quickly. Sometimes, the incident is just so shocking and ridiculous that I think that perhaps it isn’t real or maybe I am imagining things or I am misinterpreting the situation. I think maybe that I should be flattered by this attention or that I am inviting it upon myself. Because rape culture. So I downplay it or brush it off as something not important. But you know what? It is fucking important and significant. Because living in continuous fear of what men might do to your body and to your mind is painful, and wears you down.
You might be wondering why I am talking about sexual harassment on a blog about mental health. But it should also be obvious because everything affects our mental health, especially traumatic events. As usual, I decided to do a little research. Did you know that every two minutes someone in the United States is sexually harassed? Sexual harassment can lead to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, elevated blood pressure, sleep disturbances and even suicidal behaviour. Sexual harassment can cause women to “police” their own behaviour and affects their confidence in public spaces. Research shows that almost 90 to 95% of sexually harassed women suffer from “some debilitating stress reaction, including anxiety, depression, headaches, sleep disorders, weight loss or gain, nausea, lowered self-esteem and sexual dysfunction.” As well, people who have experienced sexual harassment lose $4.4 million dollars in wages and 973,000 hours in unpaid leave each year. This financial impact would only add to their stress and other mental health issues.
It is important to recognize that women of colour, as well as trans women, face even higher levels of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. In Canada, 57% of Aboriginal women have been sexually abused. Research has found that 60% of Black girls are sexually abused before the age of 18. I also read that around 50% of people who identify as transgender experience sexual violence in their lifetime.
Sometimes, sexual violence leads to deathly consequences. Approximately every six days in Canada, a woman is murdered by her intimate partner. In Canada, we also often hear about the elevated number of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, which is disproportionately higher than the general female population. I also read about a study that estimates trans women face 4.3 times more the risk of being murdered compared to cis women in the United States, and at least 87% of trans people murdered from 2013 to 2015 were people of color.
So what is our role in preventing sexual harassment, abuse, and assault? Well, the responsibility in stopping the violence definitely lies with the perpetrator. However, as a society, we can definitely change both the way we educate people about sexual violence, as well as support the victims afterward. It is definitely our responsibility as whole to change our culture and how people (especially women) are treated. RAINN has some great tips on how to help if you are a bystander. Sexual Trauma Services provides ideas on how men can stop violence against women. And here are ten ideas to help end rape culture. Finally, here are some Canadian resources and American resources for people who are victims of sexual assault.
I know that I have been lucky that my experience with sexual harassment and sexual violence has been minor compared to a lot of women. The incidents that have happened are scary, annoying and frustrating, but I haven’t had significant psychological or physical damage as a result. My ears are always available to anyone who needs someone just to listen. Your mental health matters to me. Your physical health matters to me. Your story and experiences matter to me.
If you have any stories that you are comfortable sharing, feel free to leave them in the comments below.