How to deal with sexual harassment when you least expect it?


Sexual harassment is a more common occurrence than you think, and the best way to prevent is to be prepared. Here are some ways to deal with sexual harassment.

In a crowded city where cars move at the pace of the wind, Ritika Malhar (name changed) was trying to make her way to college when she suddenly realised that a man was flashing her across the street. Before she could move past the traumatising experience, another incident happened a few days later. As she was on her way to her hometown, she felt a hand intrusively reaching out to touch her inappropriately in a public place, sending more shivers down her spine. She froze at that moment, and later wondered, โ€œDid I do something wrong?โ€ This is one of the many incidents of sexual harassment that happen almost daily with women.

That touch of a hand on your thigh. A body pressing uncomfortably close. The unyielding gaze that makes you uncomfortable. These are behaviours that too many of us have dismissed for too long as just a part of being a woman. But you have to be prepared to deal with sexual harassment at every age and stage of life.

As per a report by United Nations University, 81 percent of women in the United States experienced sexual harassment in 2018, 55 percent in the European Union, and 82 percent across Europe, Africa, Asia-Pacific, America and Arab regions.

In India, crimes against against women soared from 3,71,503 cases in 2020 to 4,45,256 cases in 2022, according to the 2022 report by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) of the country. Among these, cruelty against women inflicted by husbands or relatives, kidnapping and abduction, assault on women, and rape are the most common crimes.

Donโ€™t let the trauma of sexual harassment overpower your mental state. Image courtesy: Freepik

What is sexual harassment?

The United Nations defines sexual harassment as any unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. It can occur in different places, such as the workplace, educational institutions, public spaces, or online. Plus, sexual harassment is not limited to one gender, and individuals of any gender can be victims of it.

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Sexual harassment vs sexual abuse: Know the difference

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome and inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature. It manifests in verbal, physical, or visual ways and it includes actions such as unwanted sexual comments, advances, requests for sexual favors, lewd jokes, gestures, or any behavior that makes someone feel uncomfortable or threatened based on their gender or sexuality.

On the other hand, sexual abuse is usually understood to be a physical act. It involves non-consensual sexual acts or activities that cause harm or distress to the victim. Sexual abuse is a broader term that encompasses a range of behaviors, from unwanted touching to more severe forms of assault. It includes actions such as rape, molestation, unwanted touching, coercion, or any sexual activity.

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How does sexual harassment affect someoneโ€™s mental health?

People tend to brush off certain incidents just as a one-off, thinking it would not happen with them again but unfortunately it haunts them for the rest of their lives. โ€œSexual harassment unquestionably impacts an individualโ€™s mental well-being,โ€ says psychologist Dr Satish Kumar.

Sashi Rathor (name changed), who is now in her mid-20s, recounts, โ€œI was 18 when a close relative touched me inappropriately. But I didnโ€™t scream or shout. I froze and didnโ€™t say a word. It was later followed by a period of confusion. I assumed it wouldnโ€™t even bother me after a few months. But I was wrong. Six months down the line, I started to experience intense anxiety. I was preparing for a medical entrance exam back then, and I became too scared to even open my biology textbook. I had the full support of my parents, but nothing they said or did could make me feel better.โ€

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Sexual harassment has the potential to induce anxiety, trigger panic attacks, lead to depression, and even culminate in post-traumatic stress disorder. Often, those subjected to such harassment may endure lifelong mental health challenges if they do not seek support from a mental health professional, says the expert.

Can you get over the trauma of sexual harassment?

You might want to hide yourself from this unsettling truth, but it is a common occurrence in society that needs to be addressed. Staying silent about your ordeal will only make the trauma linger longer.

โ€œPeople donโ€™t understand that there are long-term consequences that come along with experiencing sexual harassment. It never ends then and there,โ€ says Sashi.

A significant number of individuals who experience sexual harassment often choose not to disclose their ordeal. But they must confront and discuss these experiences openly. Remaining silent typically exacerbates the situation rather than alleviating it, advises the psychologist. And talking about might help deal with the trauma to an extent.

Also Read: Sharing an incident about sexual abuse can give you more power to deal with it

How to deal with sexual harassment?

While thereโ€™s no right or wrong way of dealing with sexual harassment, the important thing to do is to tackle it at your own pace. But if you want to know how to deal with sexual harassment, especially when youโ€™re young, here are some psychologist-recommended tips for you.

1. Talk about it

Sexual harassment is traumatising, and the feeling is even worse when it is inflicted on you by someone you know. In situations like these, the victim often withdraws or hesitates to express what happened to them or express their feelings. But it is important to be vocal about it and deal with the pent-up emotions for the sake of your mental health.

2. Be assertive

Assertiveness demands that you express yourself openly, articulate your feelings, and engage in dialogue about your experiences. Those who are assertive tend to navigate such situations more effectively. Conversely, individuals who are not assertive may be more susceptible to exploitation. Learning to say โ€œnoโ€ is a crucial aspect of assertiveness, even if it may initially feel uncomfortable.

3. Expressing anger or frustration

It might feel too much to respond in that moment, but donโ€™t let the harasser scare you. If it is someone you know, make sure you express the betrayal of trust and emotional turmoil caused by their actions. If you are not able to express yourself then and there, take your time to verbally communicate or write it in letters or emails to release pent-up emotions and address the issue.

4. Report to authorities

Make sure you are reporting the harasser to the relevant authorities or institutional bodies. You need to understand that someone needs to uphold the importance of bringing such incidents to light and seek appropriate action against the perpetrator.

5. Psychiatric therapy may help

The necessity of psychiatric therapy depends on the severity and recurrence of the harassment. Initial assessment plays a crucial role in determining the appropriate course of action. Following assessment, a tailored approach can be devised to address the individualโ€™s needs effectively, says the expert.

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Consulting a doctor may help you deal with sexual harassment. Image courtesy: Adobe stock

6. Initiate healing and recovery

You must acknowledge the potential for mental and physical disorders stemming from unaddressed trauma, such as somatic disorders like back pain, gastric issues, or sexual dysfunction. You can emphasize seeking treatment to get over the trauma at your pace, with the recovery process that works best for you.

7. Do not self-criticise

โ€œDid I do something wrong?โ€ Someone who has been harassed should not self-criticise themselves as it is not their fault. One way to tackle it is by practising self-compassion and refusing to internalise blame, empowering yourself to overcome the trauma of sexual harassment and move forward positively.

8. Seek and give support

A moment like โ€œMe Tooโ€ which started in October 2017 as a hashtag to raise awareness around the issue of sexual harassment and sexual abuse became a global phenomenon that helped many women come forward with what they have been through. There is a need to build such communities to let the victims be survivors, and harassers be prisoners.

We all have an innate sense to differentiate between a โ€œgoodโ€ and a โ€œbadโ€ touch, but it is not the easiest to be verbal about what you have been through. It might be difficult, but it is what needs to be done to make sure other women or girls know how to stand up for themselves too.



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