How to Deal With Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

November 11th, 2020

A photo of a woman sitting in front of a laptop in a black suit jacket. She's holding her hands over her face as she sits in a brightly lit office with bookshelves in the background.  During my career as an employment law attorney, I have had the unique privilege of representing many employees who have been sexually assaulted during the course of their employment by a co-worker or supervisor.

It makes my heart heavy to know there are so many people out there who have gone through such an experience.

The #MeToo Movement

The last two years have brought a sea change in American culture in terms of how we as a society view the power dynamics and relative culpability between the perpetrators and victims of sexual assault. This change has been popularly referred to as the ‘#MeToo’ movement. I hoped that after #MeToo, I would start to see fewer victims of sexual assault in the workplace come through the doors of our law firm. Sadly, this has not been the case.

I also hoped, I now see naively, that the attitudes of the companies who employ the perpetrators of sexual assault in the workplace, and the attorneys who represent them, would change to reflect the times. Unfortunately, again and again, I hear the same thing from them: “your client didn’t react normally to the sexual assault, and therefore we don’t find her[1] to be credible.”

Your Employer May Claim Your Response to Sexual Assault is “Wrong”

Every client I’ve represented has had a different emotional reaction to her sexual assault. Yet I’ve heard from almost every employer and defense attorney that each and every one of my clients’ reactions to a sexual assault was not “typical,” and was, therefore “wrong.”

      • If my client reacts angrily, then that is wrong.
      • Conversely, if she doesn’t have a strong and immediate visible emotional reaction, her response is also wrong.
      • If she doesn’t report the assault immediately – wrong.
      • If she interacts again with the perpetrator of her assault in the workplace (even though she may have to because her job depends on it) – also wrong.
      • But, if she quits because she feels she can no longer go to work and face her attacker – also wrong.

These types of comments make my blood boil. By suggesting that my client is not credible based on how she experienced (or didn’t experience) a certain type of emotional reaction to a sexual assault often re-traumatizes her. It makes her feel as though she’s the one who has done something wrong. It also places her in a double bind, because there is no ‘right’ way for her to react in their eyes. This is classic victim-blaming by the employer.

Victim-blaming is the only wrong response in these situations.

Common Emotional Responses to Work-Related Sexual Assault 

While there are many emotional responses that are commonly experienced by Work-Related Sexual Assault victims, each person reacts in her own unique way. Common emotional responses include, but are not limited to:

      • Shock and numbness
      • Denial
      • Feelings of going crazy
      • Disruption of daily life
      • Feelings of loss of control
      • Fear
      • Guilt, shame, and self-blame
      • Anger
      • Isolating from friends and loved ones
      • Anxiety
      • Nightmares
      • Concern about what will happen to the assailant should you report them
      • Difficulty with sexual intimacy
      • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

There is No “Right” or “Wrong” Reaction.

The truth is – there is no “right” or “wrong” reaction to a sexual assault. If you experience some, but not all, of these reactions, that is not wrong either. If you experience totally different reactions than the ones listed above, that’s also not wrong! Everyone experiences trauma differently.

Moreover, the vast majority (74%) of victims of sexual assault don’t report their assaults to law enforcement.  Individuals make their own decision about whether and when to report an assault (or not report it) based on different factors and variables in their lives. There is no one “right” way or time to report sexual assault. If you have been sexually assaulted, but have not reported it to authorities, that does not mean you have done anything wrong, or that you cannot now pursue legal action.

Almost two years after the #MeToo movement reached the public consciousness, employers and attorneys continue to hold these misconceptions of victims. Sadly, the right to correct these false assumptions, and achieve justice for victims of sexual assault, is not over.

Let’s Fight to End Work-Related Sexual Assault & Sexual Violence in the Workplace

Please contact Halunen Law if you have experienced a sexual assault by a co-worker or supervisor either in the workplace or at a work-related event. Our experienced team will listen non-judgmentally to your story, no matter what kind of reaction you had to the assault, or whether or not you have reported it to the authorities.

Together, let’s fight to end sexual violence in the workplace.

Throughout this article, I will use female pronouns, as women make up the majority of sexual assault victims. However, men and gender non-binary people can also be victims of sexual assault.