What It's Like To Return To Work After Being Sexually Harassed

It’s been one year since the New York Times and New Yorker investigation into the sexual misdeeds of Harvey Weinstein unleashed the #MeToo movement and a courageous fury over the ways women are mistreated. We look back at the movement that has completely reshaped the way we think of men, women, sex, and power.
Every day at work, when Andrea*, a thirty-something, looks up from her computer, she sees the person who sexually harassed her, and who she says has “vocally opposed” her advancement in the company since the harassment began. Andrea’s “repeatedly rebuffed” this person’s advances, but it’s hard to completely avoid him. For example, he oversees photography for the company, and Andrea’s superior has asked her several times to to have a new headshot taken.
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“The thought of sitting still and smiling while he gazes at me, taking my photograph, adjusting my posture or the tilt of my head, makes me want to peel off my skin, climb out of it, and run screaming from the building,” she says. “So far, I’ve brushed off my [boss’s] comments, urging me to update my headshot, but I can’t do that forever. Eventually, I’ll have to decide whether to risk my career by speaking up, or to be 'revictimised' for the sake of a fucking headshot.”
Andrea says she didn’t report the harassment out of fear of retaliation, both from her boss and the harasser himself. This is a common reason survivors of sexual harassment and assault don’t come forward. Many also may fear that they won’t be believed, or that authority figures won’t do anything to help. These are all valid reasons, and explain why only 310 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police. More specifically, a 2008 study found that less than 5% of people who’ve experienced sexual harassment or assault in the workplace report it.
And those who do report assault or harassment often face negative consequences — some temporary, such as retaliation from the harasser or management, and others more permanent, such as increased stress, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Jane*, who’s in her late twenties, says it took six months of “near daily harassment” for her to report her harasser to her company’s human resources department. “I knew what was happening was wrong, but I had a growing seed of doubt in me about how the information would be received,” Jane said. “I was trying to ensure that I had enough evidence and [could] avoid being too emotional [before coming forward].”
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When she eventually spoke to her company’s HR department, “it was awful,” she says. “I felt like my male VP did not take me seriously after I tearfully explained in detail what happened,” she says. “It was obvious that HR did not think much of it, because the person who harassed me received a verbal warning, a literal slap on the wrist.”

Eventually, I’ll have to decide whether to risk my career by speaking up, or to be 'revictimised' for the sake of a fucking headshot.

Andrea*
Eventually, her direct supervisor intervened, forcing her harasser to move desks, and eventually buildings.
“That is when the retaliation began,” Jane says. “The retaliation was worse than the initial harassment,” she says. “It made me regret saying anything; it made me regret standing up for myself. I even considered quitting the industry altogether. All of this contributed to an environment so toxic that I was diagnosed with panic disorder and severe anxiety, which I reluctantly took two medications for to attempt to control.”
In the last year, since #MeToo gained prominence and more and more people came forward with their experiences of sexual violence, assault and misconduct, there have been plenty of conversations about the nuances of being a survivor. But an aspect that’s been overlooked are the ongoing mental health implications of being harassed, especially when you have to face your harasser day after day in the workplace.
A CNBC survey from last year found that one in five Americans have experienced sexual harassment at work. And sexual violence has long been considered a risk factor for mental health problems. According to a study from earlier this year published in The Lancet, 80% of teenage girls who had been sexually assaulted suffered from anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other conditions months after the event.
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Jane later discovered that two other female coworkers had made harassment complaints against the same man, and she says that even though he was fired two and a half years after the first time he had harassed her, it wasn’t because he had harassed her and two other co-workers, or that he had retaliated against them after they had reported him to human resources — but rather because he failed to report to a shift.
Areva Martin, an attorney specialising in workplace rights and women’s issues, says that while sexual harassment and assault in the workplace is illegal, companies often don’t take action for a variety of reasons.
“The typical reason [companies don’t take action] is they are protecting the employee who [they see as] valuable to the organisation,” Martin says. “Everyone knows about [the behaviour] but no one takes action because of the revenue that person is producing for that entity.”
Another reason human resources departments may not take action on harassment or assault claims is if they don’t believe that what happened qualified as harassment, and dismiss survivors by telling them that they misunderstood this other person’s actions or words.
“We’re seeing that now with Brett Kavanaugh,” Martin says. “Despite all the studies, despite all the research on how sexual assault and why survivors delay coming forward, that’s a really hard concept for a lot of people to accept. So if you start with believing that sexual assault and harassment don’t happen, you minimise its existence, you excuse away that conduct, and it’s easy for you not to take any action.”
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After the person who assaulted her was let go, Jane says, “I remained on the team for another year and a half, but the company culture had taken such a toll on me that I had to leave for my physical and mental health,” she says.

Being in the same space or environment causes 'revictimisation' — or what's called repeated traumas.

Deborah Serani, PsyD
Susanne Babbel, PhD, author of Heal the Body, Heal the Mind: A Somatic Approach to Moving Beyond Trauma, says that many survivors do end up leaving a job where they’re harassed or assaulted because they might encounter traumatic reminders of the incidents when they come into the workplace.
“Seeing the abuser reminds the survivor of the violation of their body, but also poses a threat of future abuse,” she says. “The survivor has to fear their safety every day they are exposed to the abuser, which can cause anxiety and depression, suicidal thoughts, behavioural changes, and physical health issues.”
PTSD, a mental health condition that some people may develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, can be particularly common following sexual assault. A 2001 study found that 94% of survivors experience PTSD onset within two weeks after the incident.
When someone experiences PTSD after harassment or assault, they can, as Andrea said, be re-traumatised each time they have to confront the incident, such as reporting it to HR, or interacting with the abuser. Christine Blasey Ford, 51, who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, said during a Senate hearing that she suffered from PTSD symptoms throughout her life after being assaulted as a teen, and that she had to “relive [her] trauma in front of the world” when she came forward.
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“Being in the same space or environment causes 'revictimisation' — or what's called repeated traumas,” says Deborah Serani, PsyD, a licensed psychologist based in New York. “If the abuser is there, the traumatic reactions will include severe physical and mental health symptoms of PTSD. You not only relive the assault, but every moment you are there, you're in a state of fight-or-flight.”
After being sexually harassed for months at her job by someone who repeatedly asked her out after she turned him down multiple times, and who made unsolicited comments about her body and clothes, Anna*, who’s in her mid-twenties, says things came to a point where she dreaded coming into work every day.
“Every time I had to go to work I was so scared that he would be there, [scared] of what he'd try to do that day,” she says.
If reporting the misconduct is out of the question, it may seem like the other obvious solution is to leave the job. But not everyone has the option of quitting, especially if they don’t have another job lined up and can’t afford to be unemployed. And not to mention, some people love their jobs otherwise, and don’t think it’s fair to feel pressured to leave just because of someone else’s actions.
“Many victims do not speak up out of fear to lose their job and financial security, and receiving a negative job reference if their boss assaulted them,” she says. “In addition, the victims might feel shame and blame themselves for the assault.”
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But in some instances, Dr. Babbel says that the trauma of constantly confronting the harassment or assault leads survivors to look for another job, or even go on disability because “the trauma reminders can cause severe emotional distress and physiological reactions.” But even going on disability, however, can have consequences.
Maria*, who’s in her thirties, says she didn’t report her assault because the perpetrator was her superior, and because they had been drinking and she wanted to avoid a “he said, she said” situation.
“I ended up spiralling into anxiety and ultimately went on disability for anxiety because I was unable to get myself out of bed at times,” she says. “By the time I came back from disability, I was told that they were doing a reorganisation and my position was being eliminated.”
While society has a lot of work to do in better supporting survivors, Dr. Serani says we can start by believing them.
“Being believed is a vital part of recovery for anyone who's been sexually assaulted. Isolation leads to greater feelings of shame, self-blame, confusion, despair, sadness and anxiety about the assault,” she says. “A 2018 World Health Organisation mental health study on sexual assault and PTSD indicated that early intervention and support can limit symptoms and onset of PTSD.”
Dr. Serani continues: “And that connection, support and belief from loved ones is vital to recovery.”
If quitting a job isn’t an option and HR is unhelpful, Dr. Babbel says survivors might find it helpful to look to the support they have from loved ones in order to build resilience, as well as look to mental health professionals to help work through some of the trauma that may come up when dealing with seeing an abuser in the workplace.
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And in the meantime, Martin says that companies need to help survivors by taking their claims more seriously.
“[People] are made to feel like, ‘you’re disrupting our status quo, this is the norm,’” she says. “But it’s illegal for a company to allow [harassment and assault] to exist. So HR directors dismissing legitimate claims are violating laws that says you’re supposed to be in a workplace free of hostility.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.
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