The Cost of Harassment for Women

Two news stories caught my eye this week.

The first was the story of a local peeping tom dubbed “the potty peeper”, for having engaged in some fairly disgusting behavior at the recent Hanuman Festival in Boulder. After discovered in one of the port-a-johns at the festival, the man admitted to a pattern of spying on women through peepholes he created. The police found peepholes all over Boulder, including at several local restaurants, and on the Naropa University and the University of Colorado campuses.

The second item was a publication of recent findings from a  Michigan State University study on gender differences related to sexual harassment. This study raises the possibility that sexual harassment has become so commonplace for women that they have built up resistance to harassing behavior . Women apparently reported feeling little distress about ‘bothersome’ types of sexual harassment (as opposed to ‘frightening’ types.) In contrast, the study found that men experienced greater amounts of distress in reaction to both types of sexual harassment.

This effect, said lead investigator Isis Settles, may be similar to the way people build up immunity to infection following exposure to a virus.

So what might that mean, to ‘build up immunity?’ What does that actually look like?

I doubt there is a woman alive who hasn’t experienced some sort of sexual harassment in her lifetime. The “potty peeper” got plenty of local press about  his behaviors. But how many women can relate a story about being spied on? How many women have had sexual suggestions made to them in passing? How many women have been judged on their appearance? How many women have experienced a ‘quick feel’ from a man, be it a ‘friend’ or a stranger?

I have no figures on this, but my guess is MOST women have experienced most if not all of the above, and we have experienced it repeatedly. So yes, no doubt, we build up an ‘immunity’ of sorts to this kind of harassment. We learn to brush it off like an annoying fly. We learn to laugh it off. We learn to close off our ears. Or take an extra shower.

In other words, we learn to ‘tune it out.’

There is a word for ‘tuning it out’  in the vocabulary of  human psychology. It’s “dissociation.”

Dissociation is a separation from the self, and a disengagement from identification with one’s body.  We all dissociate from time to time, like when we daydream, or get lost in a book. Dissociation is usually a very benign, and sometimes very pleasurable, human experience.

Dissociation is also a way that trauma victims cope with abuse. In moments of trauma, leaving one’s body can be the best way to protect oneself. And those who are repeatedly traumatized over time can develop habitual patterns of dissociation. At its most severe , this pattern is called Dissociative Identity Disorder.

One of the problems with dissociation is that once someone ‘leaves’ her body, she no longer can defend it.

A young woman I worked with, “Beth”, suffered a series of traumas as a child. She was harassed, terrorized, and abused by a violent and mentally ill brother. As a woman, Beth lived a pattern of dissociation. She ‘spaced out’ a good deal of the time, and was socially withdrawn.  In our work with Somatic Experiencing, I helped her slowly re-familiarized herself with her body. In one session, I gently encouraged her to visualize being with an “aggressive” acquaintance she had recently been “bothered” by. Beth followed the sensations of her body, and noticed her hands begin to tighten. She noticed herself making fists. Her fists tightened her arms. And for the first time in a VERY long time, she took a posture to defend herself. And finally, after years of dissociation, the words came out: “DONT MESS WITH ME.” With that, her whole body shifted and her eyes became bright again. Beth came back to her body.

In Somatic Experiencing, working with trauma victims often means helping them regain their defensive orienting response. Defensive orienting is focused toward assessment of a situation, and the need to flight or flight. It narrows focus and it activates the appropriate physical response.

So if our defensive orienting is ‘off line’, then what? We’re not focussed, and we may not respond appropriately.

The Michigan State study makes me wonder. What is the cost of women’s “immunity” to sexual harassment? Have we learned a pattern of dissociation that takes the appearance of tolerance, but actually masks unregistered trauma?

What is the cost of all those ‘little traumas’ that women experience – the moments of ‘bothersome’ harassment that we seemingly flick off our shoulders? If we walk away from these moments, if we minimize them, have we lost our own defensive orienting response as women?

Perhaps it is time for all of us to come back ‘on line’, and return to our bodies. Perhaps it is time for us as women to listen to our hearts, our bellies, and our hands.  To learn, as Beth did, how to take a stand.

There is a phrase that we all need to know how to speak. “DON’T MESS WITH ME.”