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Myths and Misconceptions About Sexual Harassment

The issue of sexual harassment has been on the front page of newspapers, as well as the front burner of dinner table conversations for the last year. What has become apparent through these discussions is how little we truly understand about sexual harassment (and sexual assault). Sometimes it is politically expedient to ignore the truth but other times we just don’t fully comprehend the issues.

Let’s explore some of the more common questions and misconceptions.

What constitutes evidence?

US First Lady Melania Trump recently said that people who make accusations of sexual misconduct “need to have really hard evidence”. She is not the first person of late to make such a claim. In the US Supreme Court hearings about Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, many people echoed that sentiment and asserted that “corroborating evidence” was needed because they believed that Ms. Blasey Ford’s statement alone was not enough.

While it may be helpful to have corroborating evidence, sexual harassment and sexual assault often occur behind closed doors without witnesses or other evidence. That means the parties’ verbal evidence may be all there is, but such statements are still considered evidence.

Also, the proverbial he said/she said situation, is not a “wash” and the decision about what happened will likely turn on whose evidence is more credible. Courts and tribunals have recognized this for years and have used credibility assessments as the means to make a final determination.

Assessing credibility is based on various factors, such as whether the person’s evidence was internally consistent, logically connected to other evidence and/or buttressed by independent evidence; as well as the individual’s demeanor, evasiveness and potential motive. In other words, the assessment centres around who is more believable.

People who don’t remember all the details aren’t credible

Being sexually harassed or assaulted can be a traumatic event. Our brains do funny things when we experience trauma – we tend to vividly remember the most horrific parts of the experience while the surrounding details get lost forever. This does not mean a person who doesn’t remember those details is not credible. It simply reflects the impact of trauma on the brain, and what we can retain.

If it was that bad, they would have reported it sooner

Humiliation, guilt, shame, denial, powerlessness and fear often stop victims from coming forward. Reporting sexual harassment and sexual assault can be traumatic on its own, with many individuals facing enormous consequences for doing so, from exclusion, to accusations of lying, to being mocked (as was the case with Christine Blasey Ford who was mocked by President Trump for not remembering all the details surrounding the assault).

Often people don’t come forward unless they are facing some other consequence, such as the potential loss of a job, to protect someone else they feel is in harm’s way or because they feel they have a duty to do so. But delaying reporting until they are ready to speak about it does not mean the allegations are false.

True victims don’t have ongoing relationships with their abusers

Although it may seem counterintuitive, it is not uncommon for survivors of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault to continue the relationship with their abuser. People react to trauma in different ways. Survivors might maintain contact with the harasser because they feel guilty or don’t want to get the person in trouble. Sometimes survivors maintain contact in an attempt to regain control over their situation, or to somehow try to normalize the relationship. These are common reactions that don’t negate the reality or impact of the experience.

Angry victims can’t be credible

We tend to assume that a victim should fit a particular profile, being more likely to believe those who are polite, passive and submissive. But many victims are outright angry and may well want retribution. That does not mean they are not credible or that their allegations are false.

Men should protect themselves from false claims of sexual harassment and sexual assault

According to Statistics Canada, fewer than 2% of sexual assault reports are false; the same false reporting rate as with all other major crimes. This figure is likely similar with respect to sexual harassment.

We are hearing more and more stories of men who feel they need to protect themselves from false allegations by no longer mentoring women, refusing to meet alone with them or refusing to engage in common pleasantries and compliments lest they be misinterpreted. Sadly, this only serves to penalize women and restrict their advancement further. It perpetuates the myth that women can’t be trusted and becomes a form of gender profiling, with all women paying the price for those rare occasions when a claim is falsely reported.

A final thought

As painful as it is to see how prevalent sexual harassment and assault are, and as difficult as it is to see how far we still need to go in truly understanding and combatting this issue, the fact that we are discussing it openly and thinking about what it means can only lead to positive change. And that’s a good thing.