How many times have you heard men say, when confronted by workplace sexual assault of women, something like ‘It’s not all men!’ As if that makes it less serious, or should make women feel better about it. The implication being, ‘It’s not many men, so it’s unlikely to happen.’
For years I have pioneered the cause of gender equality and the dismantling of patriarchy, and I have never heard the real issue addressed at all.
So let me enlighten you!
What is it that enables a woman to be herself, to thrive, achieve and fulfil her career dreams?
There is one thing that determines this — just one!
How SAFE does she FEEL?
Safety, a word that is very rarely used in gender equality discussions, but upon which absolutely everything depends.
Let me explain.
We all know that the majority of men are decent and honourable, and that sexual harassment and assault are perpetrated by a minority. However, here’s the first problem. A woman’s experience is defined not by the honourable majority, but by the small number who abuse. (This is exacerbated by others who know but remain silent and institutions that choose to turn a blind eye of course.)
In my engineering career, I must have encountered hundreds of men — academics, students, technicians, men in industry — and I experienced significantly unpleasant sexual incidents with ten men — a tiny proportion. Yet that was enough to completely poison my experience in a career I had loved.
Right, so this leads us to the second point, which is even less acknowledged than the first.
What I’m going to say now isn’t something men really consider, until it is explained.
An incident of violation creates a very deep trauma for a woman. This trauma becomes frozen in her system, both in mind and body. These traumas do not clear or release with time. They sit there like a slow poison, affecting everything.
It doesn’t matter if the violation occurred yesterday, last year or last decade. The effect is the same.
This means ANY INCIDENT that feels like a violation, and so includes the full spectrum of actions. At one end, a hand placed on a woman’s thigh or bottom. At the other extreme, actual rape. Both are perceived by her system as violation.
You may think that a mere touch is nothing significant, and is easily forgotten, but this is not the case. Deep in her subconscious a woman is going to be aware of the fact that rape can and does happen. Her subconscious is acutely aware that she is often at a physical disadvantage in strength and size with men, and more likely than not, most men would be able to overpower her if they so chose.
This is programmed very deeply into our psyches. It’s about survival.
So when that unwelcome touch or grope occurs, every alert mechanism in her subconscious triggers. Her body has been violated, and this could be the precursor to major violence.
Logic, reason and statistics have absolutely no weight here. The trauma response is immediate, instinctual and intense.
The Longterm Cumulative Damage
Once this happens, that subconscious response remains on alert. The workplace which had been perceived as safe is now intrinsically dangerous. She now has a raised stress level, more anxiety, and her system is in fight or flight — chronically so.
Each time a sexual incident occurs, the original trauma re-triggers, and most importantly, the effect is cumulative. She feels less and less safe, her stress goes up and up. Her subconscious is on constant high alert, and each violation is felt with more and more acuteness.
Now, how much this process is on the unconscious level, and how much is conscious depends on the woman, and the severity of what she has suffered. She may be hideously conscious of how afraid her body is. On the other hand she may be unaware, but instead feels more unsure of herself, not good enough, and has difficulty speaking up and holding her power under pressure. She may feel under attack professionally, completely unaware that it is her violation experiences that are undermining her.
Regardless of what she is thinking consciously, her subconscious is thinking only one thing.
It’s not thinking ‘Most likely, these men are all honourable and I am safe.’
No indeed! It is asking ‘Which man is going to be next?’ ‘Where is the next violation coming from?’
How safe does she feel in the lift when it’s just her with one man? How safe does she feel going into a meeting where she is the only woman? How safe does she feel in that unisex toilet when a man comes in? The answer is not at all.
Not even slightly safe.
Every nerve in her system is on heightened alert feeling intense danger. This can do nothing but undermine her.
BEING safe and FEELING safe are two entirely different things.
There’s an essential distinction here. In my experience men tend to only consider the facts, but facts are not what we are talking about. The FACT of being safe and the FEELING of being safe are not the same. It is the feeling that determines a woman’s stress level, and her experience.
In my conversations with men on this subject they often don’t understand that these are not the same. They’ll say things like, ‘Nobody here would assault a woman, there’s no reason for her to be afraid.’
On one occasion I even heard, ‘That’s pathetic. How can a woman claim to be empowered and then think that every man is going to attack her.’
Being competent at your career has nothing to do with being able to fight off a sexual aggressor who is bigger than you!
As you read my words, perhaps you’re thinking that I’m being overly dramatic, that I’m exaggerating or being ridiculous. Believe me I wish that were the case.
In a recent shocking report published in the British Journal of Surgery showed that 63% of female surgeons had experienced sexual harassment and 30% sexual assault. The World Health Organisation estimates that 30% of women experience violence (sexual and physical) in their lifetime. The Office of National Statistics in the UK estimates that 7.1% of women have experienced rape or attempted rape since the age of 16. The incidence of sexual harassment, uninvited touching and other lesser acts is of course very much higher and goes almost entirely unreported.
In my career, there wasn’t one single institution or company in which I did not experience violation incidents from colleagues. I have heard the same story again and again from my many clients, female students, and professional friends.
From the young woman in IT who, having been groped by a colleague once, felt so violated and traumatised that she had to leave her job, to the scientist who had her drink spiked at a conference and found herself being raped in another delegate’s hotel room.
And what about those sexual ‘jokes’? It may seem like ‘just banter’ to the men laughing, but to the woman in the room who has been attacked, her heart is pounding with fear as her whole body relives the experience.
Not only do the numbers (most likely an underestimation) show that most women will suffer acts of violation in their life. My own extensive research and testing of subconscious programmes in many individuals has proved conclusively that the subconscious is indeed perceiving even small actions as profound violations, and is locked into trauma and hyper-vigilance as a result.
How can you make a difference?
As a man in that male-dominated career, you are probably safe to assume that nearly all the women there have experienced sexual violation to some degree, and are in fact holding these very intense trauma experiences.
They don’t show it. They probably look competent and confident.
But trust me — under the surface it can be another tale!
So, to my male readers I invite you to consider the female perspective I have explained, and look at your workplace with fresh eyes.
Has my female colleague been subjected to sexual assault or harassment? It’s very likely that she has. It’s very likely that she has violation trauma making her feel intrinsically unsafe around men. ALL men. She doesn’t know who is trustworthy, and her body certainly doesn’t know!
Are normal work situations likely to trigger any violation traumas she is holding? Think about the meeting where she’s in a minority. Standing in the lift where men are pushing close to get in. Shouting her down with your loud voice just because your vocal cords are a lower frequency than hers. Being alone in a room with her. Having a discussion standing up where you might have a height advantage that makes her feel subconsciously intimidated. All these normal things can trigger the violation trauma.
Think about how you could change these scenarios to make her subconscious feel safer to be there.
Are you dismissing things as normal or trivial that are actually significant violations? You probably are, and it’s no blame to you. Anything you have seen many times just looks normal until you consciously notice it. We have all come from a more patriarchal past where the ‘boys being boys’ justification normalised no end of violation. But I hope that with my insight on the female experience, you will choose to see the great harm these actions cause, and view them with different eyes. If you are in authority, use it to dismantle any male entitlement to violate women you become aware of. Lead by example.
The fact that it’s ‘not all men’ is irrelevant. Just one man is enough to ruin a career, or ruin a life. Just one man can destroy someone’s feeling of safety completely, and in doing so make the whole world feel intrinsically dangerous.
The Divine Masculine
Let me be clear about this. A man creating a safer environment for a woman is not sexist. It’s not disempowering her. It’s not undermining her or calling her out as weak or inferior.
Quite the reverse! It is making it safe for her to be empowered.
A gentleman walking a lady safely to her car at night isn’t disempowering a woman, it’s dealing with a genuine danger.
Similarly, this more insidious danger is very real to women, and any man who does his best to understand this, and counteract it, is genuinely promoting gender equality. Why? Because it helps remove the disadvantage created when a woman is living with violation trauma.
The masculine and feminine are a universal polarity. Yes we all have both elements within us, but living in a female body comes with a very real physical danger from men.
It is when a woman feels safe and supported by the masculine, not threatened by it, that she is free to relax and shine in her brilliance. That is when men and women both become free to be themselves and express themselves, and most importantly work together valuing their strengths and differences.
That is when the new power paradigm can really awaken in the world.
Would I still be in engineering if a minority of men hadn’t believed they had a right to my body? It’s quite possible that I would.
Would I have had a very different life experience? Most definitely!
Let me leave you with this:
Please NEVER let a harassment or sexual assault go, without calling it out.
It may just look like a trivial act to you, but to the woman who has to carry the emotional scars of that violation, it destroys her feeling of safety and in doing so, will undermine her forever.
Dr Anne Whitehouse
Power Alchemist & Author
If you’ve been affected by violation trauma, here’s how I can help you:
1) If you’d like to share your story in complete confidence, please feel free to message me.
2) My book, ‘Pull Back Your Power’, shows you how to shift the power balance back to you when your power has been drained by trauma.
3) If you’d like help one to one, let’s talk.
4) If you’re an organisation or school interested in a talk or workshop, please message me.