Picture this: a wife comes home from work and tells her husband that her male boss, after several days of offering to take her out for a drink, insisted today that she accept. She is not yet sure what it means but it made her feel uncomfortable. Her husband says, “Don’t be so sensitive, he probably got carried away and didn’t mean to make you feel that way.” This puts a seed of doubt in the wife’s mind and she goes back to work undecided about how to respond. The refusal to take no for an answer persists or grows in intensity, becoming a pattern of sexual harassment. But the lack of support and potentially serious consequences to her job cause her to stay silent. She starts to feel anxious, avoids work tasks. Eventually she resigns or is asked to leave, harming her career in the process.

In a post-Harvey Weinstein world, the serious threats women face at work can no longer be brushed under the carpet. And yet, responding to women’s experiences of sexual harassment with empathy and support poses a challenge for even many woke men and, sometimes, other women as well. Accepting that men can use power to victimise women sexually and professionally poses a challenge to their worldview.

The first instinct, often self-protective, is to dismiss the threat or minimise it as an exception. Or even worse, to characterise sexual harassment as an unavoidable hazard at certain types of workplaces. Such responses are devastating in most contexts but can be especially heartbreaking and corrosive in marriage – because of the expectations of trust and support, the husband’s response is often more significant than that of a friend or family member.

How to react?

Sexual harassment can take a heavy toll on women’s physical and mental health and affect job performance and satisfaction and career growth. A meta-analysis of 49 international studies showed that sexual harassment is linked to illness, anxiety and depression as well as lower job satisfaction, productivity, organisational commitment and overall well-being. It is important, therefore, for everyone in their lives, and especially the men, to know how to respond. Recognising the woman’s concern as valid can help her feel that she is not alone, which is especially important for survivors of any type of trauma. Listening to her without judgement will help her evaluate her options, deal with the victimisation more safely and confidently and bring the couple together

First – avoid a reactive and/or dismissive response. It is natural to respond with shock but it is important to listen to the whole story without jumping to conclusions. The listener does not have to determine if the incident represents culpable sexual harassment but just listen with an open mind.

Second – don’t jump to problem solving or advice giving, even if tempting. Suggesting solutions reactively minimises the complexity of the situation and the negative choices facing the woman. It may also make the wife reluctant to confide in the husband, which creates isolation. Instead, she should be given the space to express her feelings of shock, anger, self-doubt or fear – all normal emotions for a woman being sexually harassed.

Solidarity and support

Let’s take an example, based on actual experiences of young women reporting harassment to colleagues and friends, to illustrate the problem with advice giving. An intern working at a large corporate firm – we’ll call her Asha – was regularly on the receiving end of sexist and inappropriate comments about her clothes and appearance. These comments came in from many quarters but were especially encouraged by her boss. One day, after calling her in for a meeting in his office, he groped her bottom while continuing to talk about work. Shocked and scared, she pretended nothing had happened. When she recounted this incident to colleagues, she received understanding looks and this advice – “Stay away from him.”

So she did, avoiding any situation in which she might find herself alone with him but she was forced to interact with him for work. Although the advice helped Asha keep her internship, it did not acknowledge the powerless and unsafe position in which she found herself. It also left the issue unresolved. It would have been more helpful here, if the listeners had asked questions, acknowledged the unfairness and allowed Asha to process her emotions. Such a response may have allowed her to consider her options more deeply and act in ways that increased her level of safety at work.

Third – express solidarity. Research shows that when either one person in a couple is facing any stress, it is better if they can cope as a team. Supporting each other, expressing care and affection and solving problems together can enhance the well-being of the stressed partner and make the relationship more resilient. For example, reading about the Indian laws and company policy for sexual harassment will build solidarity and highlight potential solutions.

Fourth – encourage your partner to seek support. It is important to recognise that women, who are predominantly the targets of sexual harassment at work, can be more attuned to experiences of victimisation. Receiving support and guidance from other women professionals can help immensely, especially if they can connect with others who have experienced something similar. Talking to a mental health professional as a couple can also help the woman to cope with the burden harassment places on her mental health and relationships.

Power imbalance

Finally, allow the conversation to be an ongoing one. Studies show that sexual harassment at work is often multi-dimensional – it involves a range of subtle and explicit behaviours such as lewd comments, refusal to take no for an answer, groping and offers of quid pro quo sexual behaviour. Be patient and acknowledge that there may be no easy or ideal solutions. Your partner may need to continue talking about her experiences.

Sexual harassment is not just about sex or sexual violations. It is about power. And when a woman encounters comments about her body, badgering for dates or unwanted attention, it reminds her of the fundamental inequity in the workplace. It is crucial therefore that the listener and especially the husband, one whose response is significant, acknowledges the injustice and powerlessness in its entirety. Only then will the expressed support have any meaning.

The writer has a PhD in Couples and Family Therapy and practices as a couples therapist in Mumbai.