Sexual harassment survivors bear the liability of shame

In the last year, explosively and with loud fanfare, the media has been exposing the ugly side of work for many women – experiences of sexual violence and harassment by powerful men in the corporate world, academia and social justice organisations.

This unwrapping of what women have always known and talked about has been met with mixed emotions and opinions. We know that not everyone is completely satisfied with the content which has been exposed or the exposure itself.

Statistics the world over tell us that men are the main perpetrators of sexual violence. The featured stories have positioned men at the centre of the narrative on sexual violence in the workplace. And so perhaps as the chief cause of violence against women, they should hold a central position in the narrative of the stories as they unfold before us.

However, one cannot dismiss the silencing of women that accompany these loud and public exposures. In the stripping away of lies and collusion by those in power, the survivor is caught in the middle. Her voice is more often than not, missing from the narrative, and where she is referenced, it is done in a manner that anonymises her experience.

Of course, however, this level of anonymity is completely justified because of the vulnerability that attaches itself to women who are survivors of sexual violence. In many instances, the anonymity and confidentiality that is provided to survivors are necessary and needed. Women more often than not require anonymity in the age of the #Metoo era because of their vulnerability to further victimisation and the threat of harm. #Metoo does not suddenly make women indestructible sheroes.

The risk of intimidation, bullying and retaliation are at the forefront of a discussion on confidentiality and anonymity. Inevitably there is an argument made that where those concerns are addressed, women are able to freely and publicly come forward confront their perpetrator and seek justice.

What is however far too often lost is the role that stigma plays in the need for women to have their confidentiality respected and protected. Of course, a man suffers the stigma of being publically identified as a sexual predator and the shame of public humiliation that immediately follows any form of exposure.

The reality, however, is that our social media newsfeeds are full of public shame and embarrassing stories about powerful men. Yet their embarrassment and professional and reputational harm is much shorter lived than the woman victim who decides to identify herself.

Every day, our lives are filled every day with the news of another rape and murder and our memories have been developed to largely put these negative ills aside as soon as the next tempting or abhorrent story of the day arrives. The man and what he has done is quickly forgotten and we are even able to forgive (even when no forgiveness is sought) because this is the standard to which we hold men accountable within society.

The survivor is forgotten far quicker because she was never presented as a holistic person in the narrative to begin with. She carries the stigma in a very different way. Her reality is that she occupies a dual space in our minds. She is the “voiceless” victim who has disappeared from the narrative almost as soon as her violations have been exposed.

Yet, she is also the inconvenient, slightly crazy woman from the moment that she experiences the violation. The woman that we should look out for, tread softly around and try as far and as best as possible to avoid.

In many ways, she embraces the opportunity to be easily forgotten. She needs for us to forget and move on; because she knows that the stigma will not be kind to her. The stigma she carries with her is of the woman who is on the wrong side of history. She challenged the status quo and opted not to toe the line.

She, in fact, stepped over the line and confronted patriarchy head-on, by naming its manifestation and its unacceptability. Through this confrontation, she has demanded a substantively equal society. Her professional future is, however, forever defined by that moment when she became a victim because although we are quick to forget her we do not want her to surface in our organisations, institutions or companies.

Recent media reports about the social justice sector detail how those who have blown the whistle on sexual violence were silenced through threats and intimidation. The labelling of those who have spoken out as ‘unbalanced’, ‘disgruntled’, ‘jealous of our success’ and ‘troubled’ in the media presents a clear pattern in a narrative that seeks to discredit.

In our commercial entities we have seen how, between Grant Thornton and Investec, they have confirmed the narrative of the inconvenient woman who does not fit into the corporate culture once she has reported being a survivor of sexual violence. After all, no one wants to let in the disruptor of power who calls us all to account.

Where are the many women who have come forward just over these last months to confront the patriarchy at Equal Education, Centre for Applied Legal Studies, the University of South Africa, the University of the Witwatersrand? The length of women who have been forgotten is a painful reflection of our commitment to transformation.

The reality is that we are all to blame for the stigma. Our socialisation and how we view men, their power and their entitlements ensure that we perpetuate the stigma of discrimination and the shame of being a disruptor.

We have been taught that as women we should not be these people who break down, but that if we play by the rules we will be rewarded. The time has come for us all to call out the stigma and create a work environment where women can come forward without the shame and liability that has been associated with a survivor of sexual violations and discrimination.

Charlene May is an attorney at the Women’s Legal Centre who heads up the Relationship Rights Programme.

First published at

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