As we welcome the month of April, we also want to recognize Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month (SAAM). The month formally dedicated to bringing awareness to Sexual Violence was initiated in April of 2001 by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in Enola, Pennsylvania.
While the campaign focuses on at-risk communities, prevention efforts, or ensuring that spaces are safe for everyone, the importance of believing in and responding to the survivor has remained at the forefront.
To honor the decades of efforts and the vital, consistent value of believing and supporting people who have experienced sexual violence, the VUMC SHARE Center is dedicating this blog post to addressing the needs of people who have experienced workplace sexual harassment.
Q: After someone experiences sexual harassment, what can I say or do to support them?
Universally, people who have experienced sexual violence, including sexual harassment, have some of the same basic psychological safety needs at the time that they come forward to disclose their experiences. Whether you are a friend, leader, colleague or witness, the following needs may be helpful to consider as you respond.
One: To be believed and supported.
Although telling the individual that you believe them directly is helpful, you can also communicate this by being intentional about how you use language. For example, you could say, "I'm so sorry that happened" or "thank you for telling me that this happened" or "thank you for trusting me with your experience". Using basic active listening techniques may seem simple, but their impact is proven. Keep in mind the importance of being attentive and communicating with both verbal and non-verbal communication. Ask open-ended questions focused on how the person is now rather than what happened to them. At the same time, however, give permission for the person to decline to answer. Also, request clarification if you don't understand, paraphrase what you hear, be attuned to and reflect feelings.
Two: Information about what you will do with the information that they have shared.
Telling a friend or making a formal report to a supervisor or Employee-Labor Relations is a big step for anyone who has experienced sexual harassment. Recognizing that you may be asked to take action as a result of that choice, it is important to let the individual know what you will do with the information, including who you will contact and how. Offering an opportunity for the individual to contribute their ideas and preferences into your plans for that discussion works well to build trust and a sense of safety. Invite the person to join you in those follow-up conversations to engage in the process actively in order to take back their sense of control.
Three: Validation of their experience and education to challenge beliefs.
Many people who have experienced sexual harassment, as well as other forms of sexual violence, may benefit from having their experience normalized. Saying things like, "it makes so much sense that you are feeling this way", for example. Any kind of harassment or assault is confusing. It makes us question what we might have done to cause this to happen. I'm here to say that no matter what you did, didn't do, how you felt, it doesn't make this your fault at all. The person who said or did those things made the choice that led you to feel this way. It may also be important to keep in mind that some people who have experienced sexual harassment may need additional support and could benefit from psychoeducation and counseling with a professional to better understand the complex dynamics involved in sexual harassment.
Four: Options and choices about next steps.
One of the most important things that we can all do as friends, colleagues, leaders, and witnesses is to provide information about other sources of support. While encouraging someone to seek out services or file a report of sexual harassment can be helpful, it is imperative that the ultimate choice for seeking out resources be left up to the individual and according to their own timeline. As a support person, be sure to communicate boundaries of your availability and energy clearly and with compassion. People who are providing support to someone who has experienced sexual harassment are also encouraged to contact Work/Life Connections-EAP to care for yourself and gain greater understanding into how you can support others.
If the harassment occurred at VUMC, there are several resources that can be easily accessed including the VUMC SHARE Center (see below), VUMC Employee-Labor Relations (for formal reports of sexual harassment). The National Sexual Assault Hotline 800.656.HOPE (4673) can refer to the closest support program. Their website includes a lot of helpful information.
About the VUMC SHARE Center: The SHARE (Sexual Harassment: Awareness, Response and Education) Center offers confidential counseling and consultation to VUMC faculty, staff, and Allied Health students who have experienced or witnessed workplace sexual harassment. The SHARE Center staff are exempt from mandated reporting of sexual harassment and all appointments are kept confidential to the extent permitted by law. We also provide education and programming about sexual harassment to the broader VUMC community in order to increase knowledge and awareness and to promote equitable relationships among colleagues. To make an appointment, you can call 615-936-1327 and request Heather Kamper, LCSW or another SHARE counselor. Follow the SHARE Center on social media through @WellVanderbilt on Twitter and Instagram. Visit the SHARE Center website.