Just a few days after the unexpected and swift resignation of Roger Ailes from his 20-year reign as founding CEO of Fox News Channel, a guest on CNN's Smerconish show said:
"I'm surprised it took them [Ailes's accusers] so long to come out."
The guest—a self-described liberal who worked at Fox for seven years and has known Ailes for 30—said what many, but not all, were thinking.
When victims of sexual harassment or sexual assault don't immediately report what happened to them, someone invariably asks a version of:
What took her so long?
Having worked with trauma survivors—including victims of rape, domestic assault, human trafficking, and chronic childhood sexual abuse for over 25 years—I believe the reasons most victims of sexual harassment often remain silent, or come forward belatedly, are the same reasons most victims of sexual abuse rarely tell.
Sexual harassment is an abuse of power—just like sexual abuse. It's also illegal.
Harassment thrives and becomes entrenched when:
- The perpetrator is in a position of authority or power over the victim, or
- The system—whether it's a corporation, school, small business, or institution—overlooks, encourages, or silently condones the ongoing harassment of those who are in a less powerful position due to gender, race, orientation, or age.
Victims of harassment—and sexual abuse—often don't report perpetrators for four major reasons:
The abuser holds the power
Harassment and abuse can only happen in relationships where one person has more power than the other, or in a system where a hostile environment has been created and is tolerated. The less powerful status of the victim is always the first barrier to speaking out.
If I tell, something bad will happen to me
If you're a victim of harassment in the workplace, the first logical thought is that if you tell, there will be negative consequences.
Consequences can include being subjected to more harassment, demotion, retaliation, or losing a job altogether. Some victims observe the unfortunate fate of a former colleague who said "No" to a harasser, or reported a supervisor or colleague.
When you're in a job you love, and your livelihood is on the line if you speak out, your first—and logical—instinct may be to try to survive at least long enough to get the experience or tenure you need.
No one will believe me
Perpetrators (of harassment and abuse)—in an effort to intimidate and discourage victims from reporting abuse—often tell them, "no one will believe you if you tell."
Since victims of harassment are always in a less powerful position than the perpetrator, they usually assume that telling someone—whether it's the HR department or another colleague in the organization—is a very risky choice to make. In Ailes's case, as a powerful CEO with a 20-year history with the company, the reasonable assumption is that the believability scale would tilt toward him rather than an anchor, reporter, or other staff.
I was threatened not to tell
Many victims of sexual harassment (and sexual abuse) are told that if they tell anyone about the abuse, something bad will happen to them, their job, or even someone they love. When threats like these are made, victims usually keep their mouths shut and endure the abuse to protect their livelihood, or sometimes even their physical safety. Some quietly leave their positions without reporting the threats or harassment, hoping to move on and avoid retaliation.
One of the most persistent and erroneous beliefs about sexual harassment is that when a victim "goes along" with a perpetrator's inappropriate or offending behavior, she (or he) has given free and clear consent.
In any system with a hierarchy of authority or power, the person with less power cannot—under any circumstances—give unfettered and willing consent to personal invitations or advances made by someone within the system who has greater power or authority. To believe otherwise emboldens potential offenders, perpetuates harassment, and unfairly places the burden for bad behavior on the victim.
So let's not blame victims by asking why.
- Why did she go along with things she didn't feel comfortable with?
- Why didn't she say something sooner?
- Why was she afraid to speak out?
- Why was she wearing that?
- Why did she let it go on so long?
Let's listen. Let's hold offenders accountable. And let's do what needs to be done so that it doesn't happen again.
Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW, CSAT, SEP is the author of Moving Beyond Betrayal: The 5-Step Boundary Solution for Partners of Sex Addicts. For more information, please visit her website.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.