Coping with trauma from an unwanted sexual encounter

From corporate America to Hollywood, women and men across the country have shared harrowing personal stories of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace this year.

A recent study found that more than half of U.S. women say they have experienced unwanted sexual advances from colleagues. While the psychological trauma from these events can be devastating, Dr. Karen Lawson, clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine, says sharing these experiences in a safe space is the first step of the healing process.

“A person may not have realized what happened to them but feels uneasy, worried or scared of someone in the workplace,” Lawson said. “Seeking therapy is often very helpful. Most people have friends or supportive relatives but this is a topic that isn’t easily sorted out without professional advice.”

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Dealing with guilt

Victims of sexual harassment or assault often feel responsible for what happened. Lawson says it’s important to acknowledge these feelings and address them directly.

“When we feel guilt or shame, without help to put feelings in a healthier category, they usually don’t go away,” she said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean seeing a therapist every week for years and years, but it helps sort out what happened and helps the victim realize they are not at fault.”

“All situations can be helped by talking about it and creating an understanding that the victim did not bring this on by being the gender that they are, by the clothing they wear, or the job they do,” she added.

How to help a friend or loved one

If you are concerned about a loved one who has shared their experience with you, Lawson offers the following three tips to help:

  • Tell your friend, “I’m here for whatever you need.”
  • Say “Would you like to seek out a therapist? I’ll help you.” Let the person decide for themselves and determine the pace. Some people don’t want to be pushed to seek therapy. By forcing them to do something, it can create feelings of being victimized again.
  • If the sexual misconduct took place in a work setting, offer to help them decide if reporting it to the human resources department is desired. These incidents are often violations of company policy and should be reported as such. Ask them if there might be a need to report elsewhere and offer help to do so – whether it is to law enforcement or another agency. Again, offer to help, but don’t push your friend in any direction.

Lawson says the #Metoo movement has helped encourage women and men to speak out about their experiences and victims should continue to be supported.

“The #Metoo movement has brought a lot more awareness to this issue. Prior to that, many people have kept quiet about experiences,” she said. “This is a very real and very common event. People who have experienced this should be believed, supported and pointed in the right direction.”

Additional Resources

Learn more about the Baylor Psychiatry Clinic or call 713-798-4857.

See resources at the Houston Area Women’s Center.

Talk with a support specialist at the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).

-By Nicole Blanton

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