Why separating sexual harassment and rape is dangerous

As the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault scandal continues to expose more public figures in and outside the film industry, and gives a lifeline to survivors courageous enough to speak out - I thought it telling how some sections of the public have been tripping over themselves to denounce any sort of link between inappropriate sexual behaviour and rape.

I say this because I know people who have been victims of both, and in most cases it was these ‘innocuous’ acts of knee-touching that eventually escalated into something more serious.
Mix that together with perpetrators being in positions of power, a culture where vocalising victims’ concerns are ridiculed/ ignored or vilified, then it stands to reason that some will doubt their intuition and risk exposure to further abuse.

Harassment and rape
I keep hearing that the conflation of inappropriate behaviour with rape devalues the latter – as if both acts were somehow separate. 

This mindset speaks to those corners of society that seek to normalise sexual deviancy. It also ignores how the abused will be perceived by society. We’ve all heard it before. When abuse victims come forward decades after the event, they risk being branded as gold diggers or are challenged for not speaking out sooner. And yet, when people speak out about sexual impropriety, they can be branded as “too sensitive”.

There is clearly an assumption that there is some sort of Richter scale with an unsolicited sexualised remark at the lower end in terms of its impact on the recipient, while rape sits at the higher end. But this assumption fails to factor in the variables. We all react differently to harassment and abuse. Some people are vocal, while others internalise its effects. The assumption that a touch on the knee is minor ignores the contexts within which these acts occur, past experiences of the victim and the power dynamic that exists between the perpetrator and recipient. According to the Psychology of Women Quarterly suggests that sexual harassment can result in lasting trauma for recipients.

What if....?
We have heard that LBC journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer was able to nip her situation in the bud by reprimanding Sir Michael Fallon for touching her knee. If she hadn’t, would that have been the end of the story? And if Lupita Nyong'o had accepted the massage that Weinstein was insistent in offering her – would her experience with him have been different?

While we will never know, I think it is important to emphasise that ‘grading’ harassment or violence without context and failing to assess the intentions of the harasser only serves to weaken the voices of the abused.

I know this because, for years, my friend was being groomed by her stepfather. It did not start with him breaking down her door to rape her but began with a strong hug that lasted too long, unsolicited visits to her bedroom, and a hand brushed against her breast – all of which he could and did explain away. She lived in that pressure cooker environment until she had the courage to tell her mum who told to cover up more, avoid him and fitted her with a lock on her bedroom door. At no point was there any effort to tackle the step-dad’s behaviour and in doing that, my friend took on the guilt which had an impact in her education, her relationships and her ability to communicate. She was raped eventually on multiple occasions and ended up running away from home. But my point is the damage was being done before this final act and her confidence and ability to speak out weakened.

Culture shift
I too know what feeling powerlessness after a man twice my age and highly respected in the circles I was in – stroked my bum and spewed some lewd remarks in my ear before sticking his tongue in my mouth. Not only did I not know how to respond this behaviour, I did not feel anyone would take me seriously. Years later I learnt that this man has a penchant for young girls; a string of rape allegations trailing after him and was arrested (and later released) after one of them went as far as the courts.
I did speak out in another incident but only after the harassment escalated. But my concern was not taken as seriously as I would have liked because the perpetrator was a woman. Instead, it was seen as a bit of a joke and that person kept her job and sat opposite me in the same office.

My point is that people may be appalled by the actions of Weinstein and his ilk but if our culture fails to recognise the incremental damage that sexual harassment can play in contributing to rape culture, then experiences of those assaulted will continue to be undermined.

What are your thoughts on this issue? 

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