Telling about sexual harassment

A very participative research conducted by the Milano-Bicocca University and recounted in a book edited by Chiara Volpato investigates the issue in depth, revealing that harassers are in most cases known men who are part of the family, friendship and work circle. That harassment renews and reinforces the device of domination. And that -as in the case of sexual violence- the mechanism of self-blame on the part of the victims is a constant in their experiences.
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The book "Telling about sexual harassment. An empirical investigation" by Chiara Volpato (Rosenberg & Sellier, 2023) arose from the need expressed by many students of theUniversity of Milan-Bicocca by thoroughly investigate the phenomenon of sexual harassment. Chiara Volpato, lecturer in Social Psychology at the aforementioned university, enthusiastically welcomed the proposal.

Raccontare le molestie sessuali

The research team prepared a questionnaire which was distributed within the university and the first data that emerged was theunexpectedly high number of responses received: 1500 testimonies almost entirely by women. In fact, they accounted for 94.65% of those who took up the invitation to report an incident they had personally suffered. 69 complaints were made by men.

1500 answers for those doing research is an extremely high number because, as stated by Volpato "usually very few people answer the questionnaires". But in this case no, the responses were numerous and detailed because the opportunity to tell about a harassment suffered turned out to be important, a violation to be finally given a voice.

The dominant narrative has accustomed us to seeing sexual harassment as an exceptional event, something that happens outside the ordinary by a hooded man in a dark, isolated street.

The stories told by female students and researchers at the university tell us, conversely, of harassment occurring in everyday life by persons known that are part of the family or work environment.

Harassment is reported to take the form of groping in discos rather than on the underground, childhood memorieswhen a family friend attempted a sexual approach, disparaging attitudes on the part of his own superior in the workplace because his advances were refused.

Especially striking from reading the narratives is theinitial disorientation of the victimwhether child or adult does not immediately understand the violence suffered, She feels that something wrong has been done to her but first questions herself by asking: "was it my fault? Did I give any indication that I was interested in the man? I was dressed too skimpily?" only to realise later, sometimes years later, that they have been abused.

It is indeed impressive and sad to note how the girls in recounting the episode almost always describe how they were dressed. The author notes that "emerges the need, not always conscious, to defend oneself against the accusation of having provoked the harassment with one's clothing, an ancient, patriarchal, sexist accusation".

Added to this is the tendency of the harasser to de-humanise the victim behaving in a disparaging manner and treating it like an animal, prey or "a useless piece of meat to pass around".

The research also revealed another dark side of harassment, namely the effects on the psychophysical well-being of those who suffer them. More than 97% of the respondents in fact reported negative psychological consequences as a result of these episodes.

Harassment causes a increased levels of anxiety and depression leading those who live them to internalising the objectifying gaze of harassers and to perceive himself as a mere sexual object.

The text is interesting not only for the empirical data collected but also for the reflection that is induced by reading the numbers concerning the street harassment, facts that public opinion persists in considering as "harmless shenanigans"but which in reality are theexpression of male domination over women: the subjugation of women in public space, the objectification of their bodies that can be touched without their consent.

Only the development of a concrete awareness of the problem by society can lead to the eradication of patriarchal domination in relations between men and women. In order for there to be this civilised awareness, it is necessary for texts such as this one to be read mainly by men. At the presentation of the book in Vicenza, out of an audience of 100 people, there were 4 men, including a bookstore owner.

Text and images by Chiara Parolin

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