There is still so much stigma and avoidance around the topic of sexual assault within workplace environments. Considering April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, it’s time we remind ourselves how prominent, serious, and debilitating experiences with sexual assault can be, but also of the roles we can play as coworkers and employers in supporting sexual assault survivors in the workplace.
All of us have visible and invisible dimensions of diversity. But it’s the invisible ones that aren’t commonly discussed. Invisible diversity refers to the characteristics that cannot be readily seen but encapsulates our backgrounds, experiences, and characteristics that truly make us unique. These can be as common as diversity based on disability, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, military status, parental status, thinking style, culture, educational background, racial passing, a survivor of trauma, etc. Within a business, invisible diversity becomes an invisible identity marker for the employee, which they may not disclose.
Invisible identity markers can be a major part of a person’s life and may impact an employee’s ability to perform typical work activities and communicate effectively. Just because it’s not visible to the world, doesn’t mitigate the importance of recognizing, understanding, and addressing these invisible identity markers.
As a part of our DIBE (Diversity, Inclusion, Belonging, and Equity) series “More Than a Month”, Aparna, a Manager here at The Sound, shared with us her point of view on the topic of sexual assault awareness in the workplace, and how we, together, can break the silence around this invisible identity marker.
This is Aparna’s story…
This is hard… I’m not gonna lie. But sometimes hard things are worth it, right? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? Something like that? I know I’m not alone in this though, so here we go.
Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
A whole month dedicated to bringing awareness to this terrible, traumatic, heartbreaking, and world-flipping thing that happens to ⅓ of women worldwide: sexual assault (or violence). Not just women, but men, the transgender community, and literally anyone.
Growing up, I used to hear stories, watch shows like SVU, get warnings from my mom and cousins about college parties, etc., so I entered my early adulthood armed with some built-in defenses that I felt pretty good about. I knew what to look out for. I knew how to spot sketchy behavior. I stayed safe. I did everything “right.” Little did I know that I would end up getting raped by a man I’d been dating for a couple of months.
Honestly, it’s been 5 years since it happened, and I still can’t believe it. I still can’t believe that this is what broke me. Hell, it took a full damn year for me to even say the word ‘rape’ in a sentence in reference to what happened that day. I was in absolute denial. Not gonna lie, sometimes I still am. I had a relationship with this man. I saw him regularly. We were physically and emotionally involved. I cared about him. I trusted him. I felt safe. How could that happen?!
Unless someone has experienced something like this, it’s almost impossible to describe what it feels like to have another person completely shatter your sense of reality, destroy your sanity, and leave an unfillable hole in your soul. Because let’s be real, people and media tend to focus on the actual act of sexual assault itself: how horrifying it is, how unimaginable, how scary. Trust me, it’s all of those things… but what tends to be conveniently left out of the narrative is what comes after: the self-doubt, shame, guilt, denial, depression, nightmares, flashbacks, psychological trauma, unhealthy coping mechanisms… the list goes on and on.
It’s fucking brutal.
Ironically, looking back on it now, I don’t think anyone wanted to think about the aftermath, or what it means for a person to be sexually assaulted and have to go on living the rest of their life (if they do). I definitely had no damn clue what to do. I was just drowning in “it’s my fault”, “I should’ve seen the signs”, “maybe I didn’t scream ‘No’ loud enough”, “no one will believe me, I was dating him”, and the worst one, “I forgave him, so maybe there’s nothing to be upset about and I should just move on.”
Looking back though, the one feeling that overpowered everything else was that I felt alone. Painfully and utterly alone.
Fast forward one year later – I was at home and I saw a video on Facebook posted by someone I knew from high school talking about their experience with sexual assault. It was April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so she decided to speak up about her experience. Two things came up for me while watching that video:
- I immediately didn’t feel alone anymore. I felt seen and understood. I felt like this big piece of what has become a part of who I am was acknowledged. I no longer had to live with this invisible identifier.
- I understood the power of acknowledgment and conversation around sexual assault, which is normally uncomfortable for people. I realized that if I felt even the slightest amount of relief in knowing I’m not alone, I’m not suffering alone, that I feel seen and understood – then other survivors and victims probably feel similarly. In awe of her courage, and inspired by her to help others feel what she made me feel, I followed in my friend’s footsteps that day with my own post on social media.
That moment changed everything for me. I realized the power of speaking up, the power of awareness, the power of acknowledgment, and most importantly, the power of helping others not feel isolated by trauma. So that’s why I wrote this blog post. Not because I want to draw at your heartstrings and make you emotional (I mean, I’d be mildly concerned if this didn’t make you slightly emotional, but that’s not my problem to solve, haha). I wrote this to hopefully make you and others aware of how prominent, serious, and debilitating experiences with sexual assault can be… And to make you aware that you probably work alongside many people on a daily basis who have had some sort of experience with it in their lifetime, past or present.
Why does that matter to you, you may wonder? Well, let me tell you.
The people you work with and work for are the people you naturally spend most of your (awake) time with. It’s just the truth. Do the math! So, imagine not having a safe, comfortable, and empathetic space to exist with sexual assault trauma.
For some damn reason, there is still so much stigma, discomfort, and avoidance around the topic of sexual assault, especially within workplace environments. Why? Have you ever actually stopped to ask yourself why? Well, do it now. Take a minute to think about it.
We talk about race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender identity, mental health, religion, love, and pain. Yet for some reason, we can’t seem to discuss the importance and impact of sexual assault outside of annual harassment training?? Seriously??
This hush-hush culture and mentality simply perpetuate survivors’ feelings of shame… as if sexual assault is something so controversial that I should hide this part of myself. That I must never bring it up even if I’m mid panic attack or trigger flashback, for fear of making someone uncomfortable… or even worse, worrying that I might shatter the environment’s delicate sense of (false) reality that sexual assault isn’t common or appropriate workplace conversation.
Workplaces have some responsibility to at least acknowledge the prevalence of sexual assault, provide educational resources for employees, and support victims and survivors – similar to how some companies currently support and advocate for mental health. But there is an unfortunate amount of silence. Deafening silence. As if no company wants to talk about sexual assault at all.
Enough is enough. You know what they say – silence is approval… when you’re silent, you risk appearing as if you’re in denial that sexual assault is something people you work with or those who work for you have experience with. This needs to change. Supporting sexual assault survivors in the workplace is no longer a choice, but a necessity.
So, I leave you with this:
If you’re a leader: Please lead by example, be inclusive and create a space for those with an invisible identity marker. Use this month to talk about sexual assault within your organization or team. Educate yourself on the different forms, impacts, and also manifestations of sexual assault trauma. Foster a sense of belonging by helping your employees feel like they can show up as their whole selves. Demonstrate that you’re not only educated on the subject, but you acknowledge its importance and are empathetic. Support victims with resources and ways to get help because this topic, like many others, deserves more than one month’s worth of attention and discourse.
If you’re a coworker: Be comfortable being uncomfortable. Share this blog post, and use it as a conversation starter. Be bold. Be empathetic. Remember that you can never go wrong with giving someone a hug and saying “I’m so sorry that happened to you, thank you for sharing that with me”. And always be mindful of conversation topics and jokes – you never know what people around you may have experienced.
I’m a qualitative researcher, so for all you “qualies” out there: Our work gets personal, it requires people to channel their emotions, and it’s our responsibility to be mindful of what we ask and what it can bring up for people. We should always be cautious of trauma triggers and be armed with tools to support survivors when conversations get tough, because trust me, they do. To that point, make sure to ask for support for yourself when you need it too. If you need to opt out of a project, please feel empowered to do so.
Lastly, to all my fellow survivors and victims of sexual assault out there: You are strong. You are loved. And you are not alone.
We appreciate Aparna’s courage and vigilance in shedding light and amplifying the voice of survivors of sexual assault.
Additional takeaways for acknowledging Invisible Diversity:
- Don’t assume everyone is like you even if they look or act like you. It’s easy to fall into the Affinity or “like me” bias where you assume people that share the same or similar characteristics as you are just like you. Truly get to know the people you engage with to find differences.
- Don’t expect disclosure. Research shows that people with invisible identity markers or invisible disabilities are unlikely to disclose them. Many people are “passing” and are able to hide their invisibility or social identities due to fear of discrimination and harassment. Leaders need to create a safe environment where people feel comfortable sharing their needs without fear.
- Be aware of social cues. As mentioned above, employees may feel uncomfortable disclosing their identity out of fear, so the person may use social cues as a way to feel out their environment and start subtly disclosing their identity. Be mindful of verbal or non-verbal cues during discussions or meetings.
- Be inclusive in your language. Inclusive language recognizes that words matter, and word choice can be used intentionally or unintentionally to include or exclude others. Using inclusive language is a great tool to make your workplace more equitable.
- Recognize that communication styles vary. Life experiences often shape the way we communicate, so communication styles are as unique as the individual. Some cultures are more direct and open to discussing different topics, whereas others are taboo. Being mindful of barriers within communication styles can help you better connect with colleagues with invisible identities.
- Advocate for education and awareness. Advocating for all types of diversity will increase awareness and education. As leaders, you can develop a team culture that is not only diverse but celebrates the differences that make us diverse.
Sexual assault is an ongoing struggle for survivors, and yet supporting sexual assault survivors in the workplace seems to get deprioritized. Take the time this month (and beyond!) to educate yourself on how to be a better leader, colleague, friend, and family member to those who carry this invisible weight. Because it’s more than just a month.