Last time, I shared some of my own experience with sexual harassment, including a few of those inner reactions. If you haven’t read part 1, please do so before reading part 2.
Regardless of how others respond to your experience, it still happened.
SO NOW WHAT?
A huge part of the emotional aftermath is due to feeling powerless. I experienced a marked difference in two street harassment encounters. After the first encounter, I didn’t even know if teammates would be on my side. The second encounter ended at the police station. Knowing that the power was indisputably on my side decreased the fear I felt on the street afterwards.
In a case of street harassment, involve people nearby. Responding in some way as soon as possible helps alleviate the painful emotional aftermath. Don’t argue with the offender, but if you are able to, include bystanders.
To be honest, although gaining control is one of the most important factors, I am a lame example. Often, I first respond with denial, doubting the experience is real until it is past, thus hindering my opportunity for an appropriate response. I guess I still struggle because I am still learning.
Even if the incident is already past, take control by setting up precautions for your future self. Being passive means setting yourself up for victimization again.
“If it feels wrong, it probably is,” was some of the best advice I got when I moved to North Africa where some form of harassment was expected every time one left the house. One North African day, a rug vendor wanted to show me more of his wares. He led me to the back of the shop, to a quiet room full of rugs. My gut told me we were too alone, especially when he started making subtle preparations to keep out other customers. I thanked him for showing me his rugs and marched out of the shop, despite his protests.
Don’t be afraid to be angry…
…but also realize that anger is often, if not always, a secondary emotion. There is still something else underneath. Give yourself time to sort out what you’re feeling and as soon as possible, take those emotions–fear, shame, vengeance or whatever else it may be– to God because He’s not afraid of what you’re feeling, even if you are.
Realize that your emotions are part of the process.
You will face a lot of emotions, some of them unexpected. If you don’t face them head on, they will gnaw away at your sense of worth as God’s image bearer.
After harassment incidents, I do a lot of journaling. It helps me honestly examine what I’m feeling. It launches a talk with God and prepares me to talk with a mentor.
I was in a moderately healthy place when a follow-up incident occurred. Twenty-four hours later, I was still in turmoil when I journaled this:
And here I was, wishing I were not. Wishing I had the strength to say, “It is well with my soul” and feeling that anger-turning-shame…
Shame that in my inner longings for approval, I had stumbled across a sickened version of it and should have I already slain that longing? Shame that now I was the one in the spotlight and how did this happen and could it be my fault? But it wasn’t. It isn’t…
And where was Jesus in this picture? He was here, wrapping His arms around me when all I could do was swim through memories of past hurts and wish God would just turn men like this one into piles of ashes. I don’t know it because I felt Him there; I know it because I know it. Today that is enough.
And as for the shame. It has a name now and soon I’ll be ready to confront it rather than live with it.
Run to your Ultimate Protector.
After a recent incident, I was able to gain control of the situation, which ended in the man jumping off at the next bus stop, presumably in an effort to get away. I like to think so, at least.
The next evening, I was praying about an unrelated topic when God said, “You know that man who touched you last night? I was there.” And I knew He was telling the truth. No, He hadn’t smote the offender–not then anyway. But He is the God who sees and will deal with sin in His perfect timing.
(This is not a statement that higher earthly authorities should never be involved. In passing incidents, use discernment. In repeated or ongoing incidents, those higher earthly authorities should definitely be involved! Read Romans 13.)
Find out who you really are.
Ask yourself: “Who am I in the eyes of God?” If you don’t strip away your pretenses before a loving and perfect Father, you most certainly will feel the additional pain as you face a world of opinions about the incident.
After a particularly frustrating day of feeling unprotected by someone I thought should have protected me, I cried out to God in the middle of that shame and heartache. “Just tell me what to do!” I wailed.
And He said, “You are my child.” He offered no solution to the events, but spoke to the bigger problem. I had lost grip on my intrinsic worth and instead was clinging to the lie that I wasn’t worth protecting. But He reminded me that I belonged to Him and that was enough.
Find someone who will hear without judgment.
Find someone who will listen to your muddled thoughts and feelings and hear what’s behind all of that. If you don’t take it somewhere, it will come out, often in unexpected and uncontrolled settings.
Make sure it is someone with whom you can be completely honest about the situation. (Note that multiple debriefings could be helpful as your emotional waves ebb and flow.) Don’t lie about your role if you had one; that doesn’t make the offender innocent. Admitting the whole truth will help you get to the root of your shame.
Allow for repentance.
Is the offender truly sorry and truly repentant? I’m not talking about an “I’m sorry” to please authorities, but a humble apology and a true life change. Forgive. Don’t hold on to it. You will probably have to do this many times. But do it. Don’t let his or her power hover over you when you can be free.
However, there is no biblical basis that forgiveness looks like trust. Trust must be earned, not offered indiscriminately. If you have been sexually harassed by this person, in most cases, it’s okay to stay away or make them stay away from you, even if you have forgiven.
Let God be Lord of your sexuality.
You are a sexual being. God created you that way. And remember, He said “very good.” But in my experience as a single (especially in a culture where women are particularly vulnerable), sexuality feels more like a burden than a blessing. Something I need to hide and control rather than a gift to express.
There was a moment after many of the aforementioned incidents that I felt the invitation to surrender my sexuality and I saw the outstretched arms of Jesus, glad to embrace me. There was instant relief when I thought of Him piloting my sexuality. I felt safe. Like that part of me was no longer my enemy.
This has not been a once-and-done surrender, but no longer do I fight the enemy alone in this area of my life.
In surrender, there is freedom. Surrendering your sexuality might feel restrictive, but true freedom is being restricted in certain areas to enjoy fullness in others. Rather than being a slave, it is being a child of God and living in the fullness of that relationship. As a child, you give up the right to govern your own life or “call the shots.” Yet, the richness of sonship is so much better than living in the “freedom” of going your own way and finding you are a slave after all.
I don’t pretend to know everything there is to know about this topic. I write from my limited experience. I don’t respond well each time. Sometimes, it’s hard to forgive. Sometimes, I’m still surprised by the spectrum of emotions an incident will elicit– all of the way from pleasure to disgust.
Yet, I can cling to the truth that I am “very good” and when someone tries to diminish that value in the form of sexual harassment, it is not okay with me because it’s not okay with God.
May you cling to that truth as well. God made you in His image. That heavy load of shame you’ve been carrying? That isn’t yours to carry anymore. Unpack it, hurt through it, but ultimately leave at the feet of the One who has already carried it for you. And He did because you, His child, are worth that much.