Victoria Myers, Head of Abuse Claims at Graham Coffey & Co. Solicitors, tells Lawyer Monthly the five myths surrounding sexual assault and harassment, to help us fight against such crime.
News of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s string of sexual harassment offences sent shockwaves through the media and resulted in a number of other high-profile film industry figures being implicated for similar crimes. As more victims continue to come forward to share their experiences at the hands of those in positions of power, the many misconceptions about sexual harassment and assault have become increasingly apparent.
Dealing with victims of sexual assault and abuse every day, I have heard countless stories from individuals who truly believe they were somehow responsible for the experiences they have endured. This way of thinking is not uncommon, and it is just one example of the many myths surrounding sexual harassment that continue to prevent victims from seeking justice.
In this article, we will take a closer look at common misconceptions surrounding sexual harassment.
1. It doesn’t count if you have dated or had consensual sex before
Very often, we see cases where a victim and attacker have had a previous relationship. However, judgment of what the victim did before the assault or rape took place puts the responsibility of the offender’s actions with the victim, which takes the focus off whether they consented to the sexual activity in question.
Whether the victim chose to go to the home of the attacker, or if they previously consented to or engaged in sexual activity, it does not say anything about what happened in the moment the assault took place. Consent to sexual contact is something that can be given at one time and withheld at another.
No matter what the relationship between victim and attacker has been, or events that have taken place before, sexual activity forced upon another person without consent is defined as sexual assault.
2. Sexual assault victims would always go to the police straight away
The belief that true victims of sexual assault would go to the police straight away is particularly dangerous, as this way of thinking creates scepticism about the claim of victims if they are not reported immediately after the alleged assaults.
However, it is not true that most victims contact the police, and those who do rarely do so immediately after being attacked. In fact, a considerable number of attacks go unreported altogether. There are a number of good reasons why the victim of a sexual assault would hesitate to go to the police, perhaps because they are worried about talking to a stranger about such a traumatic experience, or do not believe that the attacker will be held accountable. Other reasons include a fear of being involved in a trial or facing their attacker. Many victims of sexual assault are also worried that they will not be believed.
3. Only women can be victims of sexual violence
Many people believe that rape is only committed against straight women, and the attacker is always a straight man. However, sexual assault is not defined by the gender of the perpetrator, or the person who is victimised. In the majority of reported rape cases, the victims are women, however, a considerable number of men experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetime.
Although rarely reported or discussed in the media, it is also possible for women to rape men. Male survivors are often less likely to identify what happened to them as assault because of the general notion that men always want sex.
4. Sexual harassment is harmless to the victim
There is a particularly dangerous belief among some people that sexual harassment is a ‘harmless bit of fun’. However, persistent unwanted advances of this nature can cause significant psychological harm, including depression and decreased performance at work.
In many cases, sexual harassment is not done in the name of good fun, it is done to intimidate and hurt others. It is an unacceptable way of controlling other people through degradation and intimidation.
Put simply, sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature. It can be verbal or non-verbal, and is likely to make victims feel intimidated or uncomfortable. It can include sexual comments or jokes, inappropriate touching, unwelcome sexual advances, staring in a suggestive manner or being treated less favourably as a result of rejecting any such conduct.
5. Sexual assault is easy to avoid if you stay away from dangerous places
It is a myth that the majority of sexual assaults occur at the hands of men who attack women they don’t know. According to charity Rape Crisis, approximately 90% of those who are raped know the perpetrator before the offence took place. Rape and sexual assault can happen at any time, in any place and to anyone.
Sexual assault can occur in heterosexual or same-gender relationships. It does not matter whether there is a current or past relationship between the victim and the offender – unwanted sexual activity is still classed as a serious crime.
While the increasing media attention given to sexual harassment is leading to a re-education when it comes to what counts as appropriate behaviour, the fact that hundreds of victims have felt powerless to speak up against those in positions of power is telling of the issue. I can only hope that as more victims are brave enough to speak out, individuals who continue to suffer in silence are able to rebuild their lives.