The Response to Sexual Harassment? “Don’t flatter yourself!”

The Response to Sexual Harassment? “Don’t flatter yourself!”

Written by Jessica Eaton

Follow and share on twitter @Jessicae13Eaton 

Email: JEE509@bham.ac.uk


Today, I become completely enthralled by a 522 (and growing) comment thread on professional networking site, Linkedin. 

In this blog post, I am going to show you screenshots of real comments made by professionals from all different sectors, made in the last 48 hours. These comments are direct responses to a female CEO who uploaded a post about her weariness of the sexual harassment and inappropriate comments she receives in her Linkedin inbox. So why was I so enthralled by this growing stream of comments? 

Because those comments were the most incredible, public and professional display of victim blaming I have ever seen. 

So first of all, let’s have a look at the post that started this whole thing off:


I read this post from a very successful female CEO and Founder of a large company; and I empathised immediately. I could hear the frustration in her post, the capitalisation speaks volumes. This is a woman at the end of her tether. This is a woman who is sick of having to tell male professionals on LinkedIn that she is not interested and that LinkedIn is not for ‘romantic requests’ – which is considerably more polite than the way I would have written that post. 

I was about to scroll away until I noticed the large amount of comments and I clicked to open them up because I instantly wondered if it was hundreds of other successful women saying ‘me too!’ 

And don’t get me wrong, there were some women thanking her for being so honest. There were a handful of women admitting that they had the same problem. However, I did wonder whether the nature of the other hundreds of comments would deter a woman from admitting it happened to her too. 

The types of comments can be broadly split into 5 main themes: 

1. Men ridiculing her for ‘moaning about’ being sexually harassed by directly saying that she was exaggerating or calling her derogatory names

2. Men trivialising and laughing off her complaint 

3. Men telling her that she should be grateful for the compliments and that she needs to lighten up

4. Women normalising the harassment, telling her that she is attention seeking and should get over herself 

5. Women disclosing the same sort of harassment on LinkedIn and then being shut down 

I am going to work through these 5 main themes and explain why they have direct links to victim blaming in sexual violence. 

1. Men ridiculing her for ‘moaning about’ being sexually harassed by saying that she was exaggerating or by calling her derogatory names 

Example 1


Example 2


Example 3


Example 4


Analysis 

This was a very common type of comment. If that isn’t bad enough, all of the comments were provided by people with their full name, photograph and employer’s name right next to the abusive and sexist comments. 

The comments vary between outright name calling and comments that imply she is being rather too self-congratulatory about being sexually harassed so frequently. A few of the comments criticise the way she looks to minimise the possibility that this has really happened to her (almost suggesting she is lying or exaggerating). Some of the comments tell her that they no longer want her as a business connection or that they wouldn’t even meet her for a coffee because she is so ‘scary’, ‘nasty’ and ‘rude’. One man announced that he was disconnecting from her immediately if she was going to moan about sexual harrassment. 

So, how does this link to victim blaming in sexual violence? 

Each of the screenshots above give accurate examples of the ways women are blamed when they experience sexual violence (and of course we must ensure we are acknowledging sexual harassment as a form of sexual violence). When women disclose sexual violence, it is common for them to have their experience minimised or trivialised. When someone responds to a disclosure with the words ‘grow up you old hag’ and ‘dog’ and ‘I’m still confused why you are getting so much attention’ – they are telling her that she is worthless, her anger is not justified and that she does not fit their stereotype of a sexual harassment victim. If she is disclosing sexual harassment then she must be lying, exaggerating or confused. And if she is the type of woman to do that on linkedin, she is clearly a ‘nasty woman’ and she deserves instant and harsh consequences for lying/bragging/exaggerating about her sexual harassment. 

When a person responds with ‘don’t flatter yourself, love’ – it is very clear that they have read the disclosure of sexual harassment, looked at her photograph and then made a judgment call that she is not nearly attractive enough to be sexual harassed and is therefore taking these comments the wrong way in order to inflate her ego. This relates to victim blaming as there is ample research that shows that juries are more likely to find a sexual violence perpetrator guilty if the female victim is judged to be stereotypically ‘beautiful’ and that juries are more likely to blame the victim if she is overweight and stereotypically ‘unattractive’. 

There is even a comment rating her as a 7 out of 10 – again insinuating that she is just not attractive enough to be sexually harassed so is probably making it up. 

 Another saying that she has a ‘face like thunder’ and is therefore not attractive or smiley enough to be sexually harassed. (I can tell you now that her profile photograph is a professional head and shoulders shot with a neutral expression – maybe he thought she needed to ‘smile more’.) 

The final comment is a perfect example of victim blaming. Example 4 is a man who is going along the lines of ‘if you don’t want to be sexually harassed, don’t look nice, or ever be seen by men, they can’t help themselves…’

Solution: Live on an island. Forever. No men allowed. (Apparently)

Victim blaming messages and rape myths achieved in this theme: 

– Only gorgeous women get sexually harassed 

– Men cannot help themselves and women are responsible for dealing with that desire 

– Women often make up or exaggerate sexual violence 


2. Men trivialising and laughing off her complaint by implying that she is full of herself and overreacting 


Example 5


Example 6



Example 7




Analysis 

These types of comments were frequent throughout with many people liking them and agreeing with them over and over again. Most of these comments referred to her ‘huge ego’ that she has because she spoke about being sexually harassed. For some reason, this large, organic sample of professionals thought that talking about sexual harassment was ‘bragging’. 

What’s interesting here though, is that I noticed that these comments were more likely to have women agreeing with them than any other type of comment. Men would typically start the thread by commenting on the size of her ego for ‘assuming’ that men found her sexually attractive and then women were quickly drawn to these threads and became involved. One woman in particular was relentless for hours and repeatedly commented that the entire thing was to boost her own self worth and to increase the number of men looking at her profile and contacting her – sort of like pseudo-reverse-psychology I guess… ūüė≥

So, why is this linked with victim blaming?

Well, overall, it fits very well with victim blaming messages that tell women that sexual violence isn’t that serious, isn’t that harmful and that sexual violence has been made into this big issue by us killjoy feminists who demand respect.  Comments like the ones above deliver two harmful messages: 

You are not worthy of being sexually harassed or of moaning about it and if you do disclose sexual harassment, it will not be taken seriously and you will look like a jumped up female who brags about strangers hitting on her.

Yeah. Right. 

Victim blaming messages and rape myths achieved in this theme: 

– Sexual violence isn’t that serious or harmful 

– Women shouldn’t talk about sex or sexual violence 


3. Men telling her that she should be grateful for the compliments and that she needs to lighten up


Example 8



Example 9



Analysis 

As you can see, some of these are very offensive and I found myself wondering how much harm they were doing as every second a new comment like this was added. The ‘be grateful’ theme was very common indeed, but exclusively put across by men. The messages ranged from polite but sexist comments telling her to lighten up, get a grip and enjoy the attention right the way through to horrid comments calling her names like the example above.

Either way, she ought to be happy, grateful and thankful for the sexual harassment and unwanted comments she keeps receiving. This has to be one of the most blatant examples of sexism I have seen recently. A woman discloses how frustrated she is with unwanted sexual contact from professionals in her field and a load of professionals in her field tell her that she should be enjoying it and to shut up. Appalling but real. These are real professionals on LinkedIn. I wonder if they behave like this in the workplace? 

So, how does this link to victim blaming? 

When women talk about sexual violence, it is the word ‘sexual’ that tends to stick in people’s minds. This (in addition to the fact that women are still seen as sexual objects with just one purpose) meant that sexual violence still gets categorised as ‘sex’ in the minds of many. The violence, the harassment, the assault: that tends to get lost. 

If a beautiful woman is being contacted by businessmen because she is so desirable – what on earth is she moaning about?! 

It doesn’t matter that the person is a stranger or even a business contact who thinks it is totally okay to comment on her body or ask her if they can take her out on a professional networking platform. It doesn’t matter that she is an intelligent, powerful, successful CEO – as long as she looks nice and they can message her out of the blue, stoked with the right to be able to say whatever they want to a woman whenever they want and not only should she be polite – but she must be grateful too. 

Unless you’re only a 7 out of 10 – and then you’re lying about it anyway. 

Victim blaming messages and rape myths achieved in this theme:

– Women often lie about sexual violence for attention 

– Women enjoy sexual violence 

– Sexual violence is not harmful, it’s just sex 

– Women secretly love being sexually harassed 

– Women make a fuss about sexual violence to save face and to pretend to be righteous 


4. Women normalising the harassment, telling her that she is attention seeking and should get over herself 


Example 10



Example 11



Example 12



Analysis 

Now, we move on to the theme dominated by women. In this theme we see women ridiculing her for being ‘up herself’, telling her to take it as a compliment and stop seeking attention and some advice from a woman at the end who seeks to normalise the inevitable abuse she is receiving. 

Again, very common in the comments. I guess most people would assume that women might have more empathy or relate to her more, but we can see that far from relating to her, they distanced themselves from her and joined in with the ridiculing and minimising. 

So why does this link with victim blaming? 

There is a theory in victim blaming called the ‘defensive attribution hypothesis’ which argued that people who identify as similar to the victim of sexual violence are much less likely to blame them. So for example a woman might think ‘Wow, I am a professional woman too – it just goes to show that it could happen to me too.’ This is the same theory that argues that female victims would be better with female supporters and that women victim blame less than men.

However, this is rarely the case. Women are just as likely to victim blame as men and this is something I have been examining in my PhD. There are also potential reasons for why this could be. The first would be that the women who leave comments like the ones above are engaging in some kind of ‘self-preservation’ tactic by ridiculing her and distancing from her experience, they can assure themselves that it won’t happen to them and it must be happening to her for a reason. 

The second, which accounts for the woman who normalises and minimises her sexual harassment, is that women have absorbed systemic sexism and patriarchy for so long that it has truly become normality for them. So when a man acts inappropriately towards them, they have learned that this is a normal, everyday occurrence and that they have no right to be so angry about it – because all women experience it. 

The third is that women have been taken in by the counter-arguments to sexual violence and they erroneously believe that sexual power and abuse is part of men’s nature, that it’s natural for men to be so sexually demanding and abusive and that they cannot help themselves. This results in women being taught to ‘protect themselves and ‘reduce risk’ in a society supposedly filled with men who cannot possibly control themselves – which is an insult to millions of men.

These potential reasons are possible because women and girls spend their entire lives submerged in a society that objectifies and dehumanises them. A society that tells them that they must be attractive at all times but not a ‘slut’ or a ‘show-off’. That they are so desirable that men cannot help but rape them. That their body is public property. That they need to smile more. That they need to just accept sexism for what it is and move on. 

Women who have been successfully socialised to believe that they are a walking, talking, non-thinking sex object to be commented on and conquered are not going to defend a woman who is experiencing sexual harassment as they will probably take on the views of the patriarchal society in which they have been moulded. 

Sadly, the comments that concern me the most are the ones telling her to get over herself and that she is attention seeking. I see these comments as a direct result of women being pitted against each other in terms of aesthetics. The media have been having a field day with this for decades (Field decade? Field era?)…

Women are pitted against each other in gossip magazines, in reality TV shows, in competitions and beauty pageants, in lads mags where they literally rate readers’ girlfriends, in women’s mags where they rate fashion and make up and hair, in music videos and films in which women compete for male attention or a relationship with a man who is playing them both. 

This is not an accident. When women are pitted against each other, they are much weaker as a community (and they make lots of money for companies profiting off their competition to look perfect). 

The comment ‘get over yourself’ could be seen as a woman saying to her ‘you’re not even that attractive’ or ‘you’re not worthy of this much attention’ or ‘you think a lot of yourself, don’t you?’ Those three words speak volumes. 

Why did a woman read the experience of constant sexual harassment of a female business connection and instantly respond with a flippant and derogatory remark? Is it because she felt threatened? Did she think ‘Why is she getting all of those messages from men? She must be bragging. I mean look at her, she’s not even that attractive!’ 

I see this as a direct result of pitting women against each other.

(Note: the relative beauty of the woman and the actual appearance is irrelevant here but the way she was quickly perceived as ‘not that attractive’ in many of these comments makes me wonder whether her assertive post suddenly made her seem less attractive to people who originally found her photos attractive until they realised she had an opinion). 

Victim blaming messages and rape myths achieved in this theme: 

– Women lie about sexual violence for attention 

– Men cannot help themselves 

– Women need to accept that sexual violence is a part of life 

– Women don’t have a right to talk about sexual violence 

– Sexual harassment isn’t that serious 


5. Women disclosing the same sort of harassment on LinkedIn and then being shut down 

Example 13



Analysis 

This was the rarest type of comment but, as I said at the beginning of this blog, I wonder if that’s because the comment thread was so hostile that many women read the thread but didn’t disclose the same sexual harassment as the original poster because they could see what they would be up against. The example above gives a flavour of the responses to women who did dare write ‘me too!’ 

The exact same levels of judgement are thrown at the women who disclose similar sexual harassment. 

Why is this linked to victim blaming? 

This one is slightly more obscure but is strongly linked to victim blaming of the self. Self-blame. We know that self-blame is very common in sexual violence and there are lots of reasons for this but one of them relates to the example above. Women are consumers of media, opinion and thoughts about women – and they absorb the messages from as early as the toddler years. They grow up listening to and watching stories of female lives, trauma, mental health issues, experiences and abuse where the women are picked apart, criticised and judged for why these things have happened to them.  Women learn that disclosure = judgement. 

Not only this, but they learn to blame themselves using the same victim blaming messages that they are expecting to be judged with at the point of disclosure. Was I drunk? Was I wearing a low cut top? Did I come across as a flirt? Should I have behaved differently? Is my story believable enough? 

When the answers to these questions are less than perfect, women are able to accurately predict the responses they may receive based on all of the responses and messages they have ever seen before. They may think ‘well, I guess what I said could have been misconstrued as flirting so I am probably to blame’. Once the self-blame sets in, victim blaming become so much more powerful because you have the social victim blaming coming from myths, gender roles and victim stereotypes, then you have the directed victim blaming about the character or behaviour of the woman and then you have this new layer: the woman themselves, employing these messages to blame herself and to agree with the victim blaming messages of herself and others because she knows that unless she is the ‘perfect victim’ (shown to be completely and utterly innocent) she will be judged by these values and she knows she will lose. Badly. 

Closing Comments

This blog was a reaction to a LinkedIn post by a successful female CEO and Founder. She has not only experienced significant sexual harassment in her private messages that led her to speak out about the nature of the professional networking platform but also paid a heavy price for thinking that people would agree and empathise with her. The comment thread (which is still growing at the time of writing) became a petri-dish of all different types and styles of victim blaming which I sought to expose and explain. The thread is shocking and probably triggering for many people, including people who have experienced sexual violence. It provided a window into the prevalence of victim blaming of women – but in a unique context: sexual harassment in a professional workplace environment. I did attempt to challenge some of the commenters but I became one of the women who got spectacularly shut down. 

Please call out sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace – and everywhere.

The screen shots were taken on the 5th November 2016. All names and photos have been (badly) removed to preserve anonymity of the poster and the commenters. 

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