As sexual assault reports rise, culture remains unchanged
DARIEN — Following the outpouring of stories over the past months of women who have experienced sexual misconduct, it should come as no surprise that at least half of women report being sexually harassed in the workplace, in incidents ranging from inappropriate comments to assault.
But here’s the kicker — only one in five of those women ever reported those incidents to human resources or higher-ups, and 80 percent of them said stepping forward changed nothing. In some cases, things got worse and they lost their jobs or were transferred.
Victim advocates say even with the “Me Too” movement empowering women and men to share their stories, there’s still a long road ahead. Coming forward doesn’t change the culture surrounding sexual misconduct on its own, but the conversations help.
“I’m happy, finally, that women are able to come forward,” said Gail Weinstein, president of the board for The Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education. “This ‘Me Too’ movement that started as the result of this is something that’s very big. It has given women — not only those who are in the public eye, but the everyday woman who is impacted by assault — the ability to come forward and talk about what happened in their past, whether it was unwanted sexual advances at work or a rape that happened in college.”
Weinstein shared the statistics on workplace harassment at a panel discussion last week at the Darien Library with volunteers and staff from the Stamford-based nonprofit, which serves lower Fairfield County.
“We have seen incidents of sexual misconduct in every industry,” she said. “In the movie industry, we’ve heard about the ‘casting couch,’ and now we’re seeing the impact of that. The financial industry has been impacted and, of course, the political world.”
Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Al Franken, Louis C.K. and Charlie Rose are just a few of the figures who have recently admitted or apologized for sexual wrongdoing in the so-called “Me Too” reckoning. Many of the accusations leveled against powerful men happened in a workplace setting.
The result of “Me Too” has been an increase in the number of people seeking services at the center, Gail Weinstein said.
“For the first time in the center’s history, we’re actually seeing walk-ins who are coming to seek help for their incidences of sexual assault,” she said.
The center operates an anonymous 24/7 hotline that connects victims with certified sexual assault crisis advocates. It also does education and outreach, and recently hired two full-time educators to deal with the increasing demand for services and information.
These issues have been around for ages, but the attention surrounding them is unprecedented, advocates say.
“I’m not sure the issues are necessarily new, it’s just that people are starting to pay attention,” the center’s outreach coordinator Jessica Feighan said. “It’s been happening for years and everyone in this room could come up with more than one example where you felt some sort of sexual misconduct toward you. Now that it’s just coming to light, it’s all hands on deck.”
Shelly Ransom, 48, a member of the library panel, said she was sexually assaulted by a trusted person close to her family when she was 11. She immediately told someone, who assumed she misinterpreted what had happened. The experience and its aftermath shaped what the Darien woman tells other survivors.
“Don’t doubt yourself,” she said. “And if it’s a friend, believe them. The most important thing for any survivor is to be believed.”
The way she was groomed to trust her abuser can also happen in an office.
“In an office setting, it’s a little different,” she said. “It’s turning the tables and making a person feel like this is just the way our culture is — it’s just provocative sexually.”
Ransom encourages people to contact the center so counselors can help victims sort out their experience. Since the definitions of sexual harassment, misconduct, assault and abuse vary in nuanced ways, counselors can help victims figure how to put into words what happened to them, which they say is an essential step in healing.
“This is a great time to be working at the center, and it’s also kind of a sad time when you realize the severity of the issues,” Feighan said. “But it’s also a great time for change.”