Social support needed to heal trauma of women who experience sexual harassment

December 4, 2017

The recent wave of accusations of sexual harassment and assault involving high-profile, powerful men – including the recent news about Matt Lauer - shares a common thread: Women remaining silent about the abuse for years, sometimes decades.

A Geisinger clinical psychologist who specializes in women’s issues believes women wait to come forward because, typically, women in the workforce are not in a position of power.

“They have fear of losing a job, not getting a job, not being believed, being embarrassed or being derailed from a career,” said Dr. Julie Hergenrather, Ph.D. “Women tend to blame themselves so there is a lot of self-doubt. For example, they ask themselves, ‘Did I give off a signal I wasn’t aware of?’ And that can really haunt them.”

The steady stream of sexual harassment and assault allegations has been levied against politicians, actors and news anchors, including Lauer, who was on “Today” for two decades and was fired by NBC News after a detailed complaint about inappropriate sexual behaviour at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.

And even though victims of sexual impropriety may suppress their feelings, they can still suffer both physically and mentally. Women report experiencing everything from chronic pain and headaches to stress and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). News coverage like today’s can provoke these symptoms.

“With all this attention on sexual harassment coming out in the media, women’s memories are being triggered. They can feel just awful,” said Dr. Hergenrather. “If you’ve been traumatized, it just doesn’t go away.”

Dr. Hergenrather says when a woman finally opens up to what happened to them years later, it is empowering. They feel a sense of relief, especially when they get affirmation from people around them.

Fighting sexual harassment, she says, means helping women, not just punishing men. “Women who go public are likely to be subjected to shaming, expecially on social media. It takes courage and bravery to go public.”

Dr. Hergenrather believes the healing process for women who have suppressed sexual harassment should involve therapy but really begins with social support – people who believe them, comfort them and hold them up.

“Healing occurs when a woman can stand up, feel confident, and say to themselves, ‘Even though I had this negative experience, I am valuable. I have an important contribution to make in this world, in this family, in this community. I won’t be objectified by what happened to me. I am loved and I love. I have a life that I value and I value myself.’ ”

 

 

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