Why Sexual Assault Awareness Month Belongs in the Workplace by Mindy Stokes
Does acknowledging April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month at work make sense? Is it appropriate to bring up a topic that’s so personal in the shared workspace? How does this matter fit into our business landscape? Should leadership consider it in this new era of diversity, equity, and inclusion?
When personal issues or injuries are addressed in the workplace, we typically think of employees in wheelchairs, or in need of an ergonomic assessment, or some other accommodation. Or the need for inclusive materials such as literature written in languages other than English and gender-neutral bathrooms.
When acknowledging the sheer number of women and men who’ve been assaulted in their lifetime, it is a reasonable expectation that one-third to one-half of all staff have suffered some type of sexual trauma. It’s a crime that wrecks humans at every level: individuals, families, communities, countries. It costs Americans $127 billion a year, precipitating lost wages and jobs and is the reason for $750 billion in unplanned health expenses.  When it’s framed in this way, the question becomes, “Why wouldn’t we address it?”
Sexual trauma isn’t a one-time event. A person isn’t touched inappropriately, without their consent, proceeding with life as normal. The injury is so invasive, physically, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally that it is present in every interaction from then on. It’s as if the trauma gets lodged in the fascia in every muscle, limb, and organ of the body screaming for attention until attended to.
Whether it’s a smell, color, a song, or a tone of voice, someone’s posture, or how their co-worker interacts, a person can be triggered. The result is a cascade of emotions and thoughts that invade the psyche. Am I safe? Am I heard? Am I seen? Am I losing my mind? Can I get through this?
As humans, we can’t help being affected by seemingly benign things from time to time. It’s how we recover that is the key to our freedom. It’s this phenomenon employers need to address.
I am not suggesting that we have full on conversations at work about traumas. I don’t know that it would be beneficial because we don’t want people breaking down, left exposed and debilitated, unable to function. What is appropriate is to begin identifying sexual assault as an injury that has occurred in a significant number of employees’ lives. An injury invisible to the naked eye, but an injury, nonetheless, and recognizing it is a start.
It is incumbent upon us to address that many of us are carrying these invisible scars everywhere we go that impact all of our interactions — with others and ourselves. So today, I ask each and everyone of us: have you or someone you know been sexually assaulted? How would you like your employer to be of service creating a shared space psychologically safe for all of us?
Our workspaces must be built in ways that allow creativity to flourish and misunderstandings to diminish. We can create a shared language to address these wounds, and free ourselves and one another from the hurts of the past and thrive in today. Regardless of if we are at home, in the car, the grocery store, and yes, even at work.
Only when DEI’s umbrella is big enough to include sexual assault will it embody its ideals. And only then, will a huge swath of employees in every organization experience safety at every level resulting in strong satisfaction and generous business outcomes.