“No one has the right to know that information unless you choose to share it,” one psychologist told Moneyish
They owe you nothing.
Journalistic exposés on political, entertainment and media power players like Harvey Weinstein, President Trump and Kevin Spacey have encouraged a swell of survivors to say “me too,” inspiring a national reckoning on sexual assault and harassment. But where does that leave those who aren’t ready, willing or able to add their voices to the chorus?
Take Salma Hayek, whose New York Times op-ed last week on Weinstein’s alleged harassment around the making of “Frida” began with her explaining why she hadn’t come forward sooner: “When so many women came forward to describe what Harvey had done to them, I had to confront my cowardice and humbly accept that my story, as important as it was to me, was nothing but a drop in an ocean of sorrow and confusion,” she wrote. “I felt that by now nobody would care about my pain — maybe this was an effect of the many times I was told, especially by Harvey, that I was nobody.” (Weinstein, through a spokesperson, disputed many of her claims.)
On the flipside, one reporter during a recent briefing point-blank asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders if she had ever been sexually harassed, and whether she had empathy for those who come forward. She extended her empathy to sexual harassment victims, but maintained she was there to relay information from the President, not “speak about my personal experience on that front.”
“It’s their story to tell,” Vaile Wright, a licensed psychologist at the American Psychological Association and expert on sexual harassment and sexual violence, told Moneyish of sexual assault and harassment victims. “I don’t think we expect people dealing with cancer to disclose that they have cancer. I don’t think that we expect people who’ve been robbed to disclose that they’ve been robbed. We just don’t have that expectation of other people.”
“No one has the right to know that information unless you choose to share it,” added clinical psychologist and Yale University associate professor Joan Cook, who has extensive experience treating trauma survivors. “We can all do what we can do, when we can do it. There’s a thousand reasons why we may not be ready — and if you’re not, you’re not.”
Those reasons, Wright said, can include a fear of not being believed, self-blame and potential consequences in their work or personal life. There’s also “a lot of shame and embarrassment,” Cook said, along with the worry of being viewed as dirty or damaged. Some people have difficulty managing the symptoms that accompany their experience, she added.
Victims being pressured to share their stories should keep in mind that “you owe no one that information,” Cook said. “What you owe is to protect yourself — that’s first and foremost.” In the moment, she said, “you can choose not to answer it; you can dodge the question … There are ways that you can set the boundary and say no.”
You might start with a polite refusal — “I’d rather not discuss that with you” — and then up the ante if they don’t get the message, she said. “Insist, ‘No, I really mean it, and I’d like you to drop the subject,’ more emphatic and stronger … Most people at that point will get the social cue — but if they don’t, up the ante again.” You could also be partially honest and say you’ve “had experiences like that” but choose not to discuss them, Cook added, or state the consequences of their continued badgering — that you’ll get up and leave, for example. “No one has the right to know that information unless you choose to share it,” she said.
While sharing stories and letting others know they’re not alone are “admirable things,” Wright said, “there are lots of other ways that we can contribute to this overarching goal of reducing assault that don’t include disclosing your own personal story, if you choose that that’s not what you want to do.” For example, you can give money or volunteer your time to organizations that aim to reduce sexual violence (think RAINN) or donate clothing or personal products to your local domestic violence center, she suggested. You can also support legislation that protects women, lobby your elected officials and be “a good bystander” and intervene when you witness sexual misconduct.
“I think there’s a lot of ways that we can lend a hand … Certainly, disclosing is one part of it, but it’s not the only part,” Wright said. “I think all victims should have a choice of whether or not they want to disclose in that way.”
For the women and men who aren’t ready to come forward, Cook hopes the #MeToo movement provides assurance that “there was nothing they did to bring that on.” “I hope they’re able to see that there are so many of us out there that have experienced this,” she added, “and that they’re not alone.”
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