by Kim Nguyen
While many of us are happy to see 2016 end, I feel the coming year will require fierce resistance, solidarity and deep connection. This past election took quite a toll on many of us and I didn’t expect that I would be so emotionally and psychologically affected by the political climate of the past year. I’m not sure exactly how the coming year will change but I am nervous about the safety and well-being of the people that I love, many of whom may be at risk of being verbally attacked, physically assaulted, or worse in the coming aftermath of this election. Some horrible things were said during this election that reminded me of my own experience – one that I didn’t tell many people about.
Earlier this year, I experienced an assault at a subway station. Some guy followed me into the subway and while I had my back turned, he reached up under my dress and grabbed me. I quickly turned, let out a blood-curdling scream and swung to hit him. He ran off before I could get my bearings. This experience came flooding back when I heard Trump say “Grab them by the pussy.” I remember when this incident happened to me, I felt intense anger, shame, and weakness that I couldn’t protect myself. My first reaction was to question myself about how I became a vulnerable target. I signed up for self-defense classes right away as a way to take control over protecting myself but I couldn’t get rid of the feelings of shame and self-blame. For months, I didn’t talk about the incident with anyone.
Eventually though, I realized that the experience was not my fault and that I wasn’t the one who needed to change. I watched a video of a woman filming herself get harassed by men as she simply walked on the street. The number of men who said something inappropriate to her, hissed at her, and even followed her was infuriating. But seeing this video made me realize that I wasn’t alone. So many other women have also understood how it feels to be … reduced.
Most of the cases in the media on harassment or assaults on women are met with intense interrogation about what the woman was wearing, whether she was drinking, or some other way that she could have been “asking” for it. I internalized these messages, but, I should not have been made to feel ashamed about what happened to me. All too often, women like me stay silent. But the silence around predatory behavior does more harm than good – we don’t realize how often things like this happen. Time and again, I’ve heard excuses like “boys will be boys” or “it’s just locker room talk”. These types of excuses turn predatory behavior into something normal, acceptable, or even natural. I have had countless experiences of sexist harassment as a young girl and woman. As time passed after this latest incident, I felt more frustration about how I was made to feel by a culture that shames women rather than predatory men. I realized we need to change a messed-up culture in which sexism occurs. I am tired of staying silent and am ready to take action for social change.
I started to wonder whether feeling committed to social change may help other girls and women stop blaming and silencing themselves when they experience sexism. Turns out researchers Watson and Grotewiel have been exploring just that question. They knew experiences of sexism (like sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual objectification or sexist jokes) often make women feel like they need to silence themselves like I did at first. Self-silencing happens when people keep their feelings bottled up inside and put other people’s needs before their own. The researchers thought that women with more traditional gender beliefs (i.e. men should act masculine and dominant and women should look and act more feminine and subservient), may self-silence more than other women. But they also thought that a commitment to social change (attitudes like wanting to work to improve women’s status) might help women be more able to recognize their experiences as rooted in sexism and less likely to self-silence. To find out, they surveyed 19-69-year-old women about their sexist experiences, their beliefs about traditional gender roles, their commitment to social change, and their self-silencing.
And what did they find? You probably won’t be surprised to learn that women who reported that they experienced recent sexist experiences and also endorsed traditional gender roles were more likely to self-silence. It seems that women who agree with traditional gender roles internalize their sexist experiences and keep them bottled up. This kind of coping strategy is not good for our mental health!
But the good news is that women who reported that they were highly committed to social change were less likely to self-silence. They recognized that their experiences of sexism were problematic and harmful; a commitment to social change seemed to help women understand their experience as a social problem rather than a personal problem. And I think that’s a good thing.
So, what can we take away from all these findings? Unfortunately a lot of women experience sexist violence and they focus on silencing themselves when they have these experiences. They don’t necessarily critique the root of the problem: a society in which predatory behavior is taught and often even encouraged among men. But it seems that women who are able to question these attitudes in society are better off: focusing on the issue of sexism itself can protect women from blaming themselves. This is the kind of attitude we need to come together and take action toward social change.
As a society, we have made a lot of progress for women to speak out about harassment and assault but we have so much more work to do. We need to speak up, stand up for and support each other. I’m really grateful that other women have come forward and shared their experiences so that I didn’t feel so isolated and ashamed about my own. It gave me a sense of strength and solidarity. As we move through the coming year(s), it will be important that we do not stay silent about ANY injustices that we witness or experience. I’m ready to stand next to anyone (stranger or friend) that might be getting attacked or abused. What about you? If you’re wondering about how you can take action for yourself and other women, check out sites like Hollaback that work to bring men and women together in the fight against sexual harassment and assault.
 Watson, L. B., & Grotewiel, M. (2016). The Protective Role of Commitment to Social Change in the Relationship Between Women’s Sexist Experiences and Self-Silencing. Sex Roles, 75, 139-150.