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No Longer Anonymous: We Carry the Memory, Must We Carry the Shame?

By Ella Campbell.

This article is based on lived experience. It explores the use of shaming tactics to silence victims of sexual assault in the workplace. If you or someone you care about needs support, please contact 1800 RESPECT at 1800 737 732. In an emergency, call 000.

“The victims … must carry their memories with them for the rest of their lives. They must not also carry the burden of silence and shame.” - Nancy Venable Raine (1998)

No Longer Anonymous, No Longer Ashamed

Shame is an unfathomably distressing emotional experience. Once the seed is planted, its roots spread deep into your psyche until you can’t stand yourself. Brene Brown calls it a master emotion, and the most powerful one at that. To feel shame is an act of self-condemnation, which motivates you to hide the truth of what happened and how you feel. In short, it keeps you silent.

On my own journey of recovery, it has been disturbing to learn that sexual assault in the workplace is conducted in a way that makes the victim believe it was their fault. To be clear, sexual assault isn’t necessarily violent or aggressive. It is defined as being involved in a sexual act without your consent. You may be touched in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, or pressured into kissing someone even though you don’t want to. You may have said yes to a sexual act, then changed your mind, and told them no. If they kept going, then the act is not consensual. These are a few examples of sexual assault.

Shaming is used to silence us

Perpetrators use their power and standing in the business as a coercive device to groom and manipulate the victim into a situation they don’t want to be in. That is certainly true for me. For years my stomach churned and my soul burned with self-blame from my own experienced. Quickly, this turned into deeply rooted shame, and that shame kept me fearful and silent.

These memories will be with me for the rest of my life. Must the shame and silence linger, too?

My silence ended a few weeks ago, and the iron grip of shame has lessened. The stories shared by women who have contacted me since then, however, have been shocking. Not only due to their heart-breaking severity but also in the parallels between them. There are disturbing similarities in the ways that perpetrators make us feel shame after sexually assaulting us in the workplace or a work-related environment.

How we are shamed and silenced

There are three common tactics perpetrators use to shame and silence their victims in the workplace. No doubt there are more but shining a light on these is enough. For now.

  1. Public Humiliation: The woman is publicly belittled by the perpetrator. He puts her down, embarrasses her in front of co-workers, and makes her believe her presence and person is insignificant when compared to his stature in the business. This often results in an early exit from a job or career followed by years of rebuilding and recovery.

  2. Emotional Abuse: This can be more subtle. Remarks about performance, appearance or behaviour made one-on-one, via message or email can make the woman shut down and stay quiet for fear of not being believed, losing her job, and damaging her reputation. She may eventually want to try to impress the perpetrator due to a budding trauma bond, prolonging her exposure to shame-inducing behaviour. Once again, long-term recovery will likely be required.

  3. Grooming: Some women experience shame through grooming, which is intended to control them. Example being, after the assault, the powerful man appears to like her. He dotes on her. Gives her ‘special treatment’, showers her with praise or gifts. When he doesn’t get his way with her, he punishes the woman, verbally or otherwise. She begins to wonder whether it’s her own actions that caused her to become a target, resulting in the normalisation of sexual assault.

If you see someone experiencing any of these shaming tactics, and you are concerned for their safety, call 1800 RESPECT for professional advice. If it is safe for you to do so, speak up and take a stand against this behaviour. Sometimes one loud voice is all that is needed to trigger a landslide of change.

What to do if you are kept silent through shame

Shame runs deep once embedded. Your own silence can be deafening and heavy. There are actions you can take if you are experiencing shame due to sexual assault and silencing tactics, such as public humiliation, emotional abuse or grooming.

  1. Shame cannot survive empathy: Find someone you trust, ideally removed from the workplace, and share your experience in a safe space. This can be an emotional challenge, but when you find love and care on the other side, the weight you’ve been carrying will feel a little lighter.

  2. Make time for therapy: Deeply embedded shame following sexual assault is a traumatic emotional experience. To rebuild and recover requires professional help. It took me a long time to engage in therapy, but once the decision was made, the world became a less scary place to be.

  3. Practise picking up the phone: Reaching out to trusted friends or organisations builds courage and breaks down the barriers of silence. Try booking in a regular time for a call, and don’t put pressure on yourself for it to be anything more than it needs to be, a chance for bravery, connection and love.

  4. Find safety and stability: Surround yourself with people who can support you. Leave your job if it is toxic, you will find another one. Create distance between yourself and the perpetrator and find your safe space.

  5. Report the incident to police, Workers Comp and Fair Work Australia: By breaking your silence to report perpetrators, and being heard as a result, you will find the shame will lessen greatly. Ensure you are safe, stable and well-held during this process, as it will require reliving a traumatic experience.

For more advice, watch Brené Brown’s talk on confronting shame.

A message to the perpetrators

If you have ever inappropriately touched, kissed, or performed a sexual act without the consent of a woman, this is directed at you. Many of us know who you are. Times are changing and word is spreading. You will not be saved. You will not be forgiven. You will be found out and held accountable, as will those who protected you, until all women can feel comfortable knowing that they work in a safe, equitable environment.

A message to the women

For those of you living in a cocoon of shame, hurt, fear and silence, there is hope and healing on the outside. While you experienced terrible treatment at the hands of powerful men, remember that they are the broken ones. They are the sickness. They are the problem.

You are the solution, and when the cocoon cracks, we will be here to help you fly again.

Together, we'll change this toxic culture.

This article was first published by Ella Campbell on LinkedIn and has been republished with permission of the author. For updates relating to Ella's story and #StopTheSilence, please follow @ella__campbell on Twitter. You can also contribute to the GoFundMe campaign set up by supporters to help cover Ella Campbell's legal fees.

Photo by Volkan Olmez.


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