Sexual Harassment Allegations in the Media Triggering Victims

By Monique Hassan

A growing number of sexual harassment allegations are currently seen in our media. One allegation has led to another like a domino effect. Some have taken the stance that the sexual harassment allegations are false and these are women attempting to force a feminist narrative while targeting influential men. I argue that sexual harassment allegations in the media can act as psychological triggers for survivors that previously did not speak out due to fear and other mediating factors.

This is not to say that all accusations are factual, we know that someone is innocent until proven guilty.


What is a Psychological Trigger

A trigger is a stimulus that acts as an alarm system, causing the person to recall an experience or a specific memory. They are transported back to this moment of trauma and it can be debilitating. The trigger itself may not be traumatic, but it can stimulate a previously traumatic event.

Triggers are unique and personal; what triggers one person will not trigger another. The survivor encountering a trigger will be transported back to that traumatic moment mentally and feel an emotional intensity similar to that of the time of the trauma. A person’s triggers are activated by anything that interacts with our senses. This means someone could smell the perfume their attacker wore, hear a loud noise similar to a gun or watch media stories about sexual harassment that cause their sexual harassment and/or assault to replay in their minds while bringing up unresolved emotions.

When a particular stimulus triggers an emotional memory, it could be a happy memory that brings a smile or it could be a painful memory that left them traumatized. Specific anniversary dates often trigger emotional memories in people. Such as, nearing the date when a loved one passed away, memories of that person become consciously present in our minds and we think back to the day it actually happened. One person may use therapeutic coping skills and handle this relatively well; another person may feel debilitating sadness.

Can Sexual Harassment in the Media act as a Psychological Trigger

Some research has suggested that viewing traumatic images in the media can cause PTSD-like symptoms. A study conducted in 2002 concluded that watching media coverage of 9/11 can trigger PTSD symptoms in the viewers. Additionally, the severity of their symptoms was correlated with the amount of time the subjects spent watching the media.

Psychologist Simon Rego states in a recent interview, reminders can be anything from visiting the place the assault occurred or hearing a story about sexual assault, which can provoke an intense emotional and psychological reaction.


We can deduce from this that survivors can be psychologically triggered by seeing constant media headlines about sexual harassment allegations.

We can also consider that survivors witnessing these stories may feel it is okay for them to speak out now because they won’t be alone, they might feel safer and feel that their voice can finally be heard.


Ways to Reduce Sexual Harassment Within the Ummah

If we consider that even half of these allegations are factual, we must acknowledge that sexual harassment and assault is a real problem in our society and this begs the question how we can stop it. Firstly, we should never shame or ridicule a woman or man that is accusing someone of this. Just as the accused is innocent until proven guilty, the accuser must also be given time to prove their case.

Brothers need to be reminded about their obligations in terms of modesty, it is their duty to show respect to women and lower their gaze. A brother that is constantly staring at women (other than their wife), watching pornography, disrespecting women and making flirtatious remarks is a part of this problem. They may not be guilty of sexual harassment, but they are feeding into the issue and enabling objectification of women.

Some women have adopted the belief that freedom means purposefully embracing the role of a sexual-figure and some sisters are abandoning modesty for provocative clothing. Yet these same women are shocked when a man addresses them with immodest words. This is not to say that a man has any justification to act wrongly towards a woman, he never does, but it is a reality check if you present yourself in a disrespectful and immodest fashions then you are opening the door wider to disrespectful and immodest reactions. It is a man’s job to respect a woman; it is a woman’s job to give the man something to respect.

The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Faith (Belief) consists of more than sixty branches (i.e. parts). And Haya (This term “Haya” covers a large number of concepts which are to be taken together; amongst them are self respect, modesty, bashfulness, and scruple, etc.) is a part of faith.

حَدَّثَنَا عَبْدُ اللَّهِ بْنُ مُحَمَّدٍ، قَالَ حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو عَامِرٍ الْعَقَدِيُّ، قَالَ حَدَّثَنَا سُلَيْمَانُ بْنُ بِلاَلٍ، عَنْ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ دِينَارٍ، عَنْ أَبِي صَالِحٍ، عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ ـ رضى الله عنه ـ عَنِ النَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ ‏ “‏ الإِيمَانُ بِضْعٌ وَسِتُّونَ شُعْبَةً، وَالْحَيَاءُ شُعْبَةٌ مِنَ الإِيمَانِ

Sahih al-Bukhari


I have to note that even the most modest of women can still be sexually harassed or assaulted. It is not an impenetrable shield, it is a helper and modesty impacts so much more than just sexuality (mindset, actions, bond to faith, freedom etc), but that is another topic entirely.


Reclaim the Islamic Lifestyle

In this hyper-sexualized society that condones teenagers having premarital sex and advocates for annual slut-walks (people walk in lingerie or nude on public streets) which are coined as empowering, we as an ummah must reclaim the Islamic narrative and push for Islamic standards within our own communities. We cannot succumb to the lifestyle choices pushed on us in modern society, we must adhere to the sunnah as much as we can and follow the guidelines given to us from Allah

If we examine many of our lifestyle guidelines within our religion, we find that much of it is meant to protect us from these issues. Just to name two of these guidelines we can think of modesty and gender segregation.

Modesty (men and women) this is so much more than just the clothing on our backs. We must speak with a modest tongue, act in a modest way and conduct ourselves respectfully.

We know that the two genders are not to free-mix unnecessarily, that does not mean we cannot talk or work with them. We have countless examples from the sahaba of men and women interacting in a respectful manner. This means we interact in permissible ways, we can never be alone with them, we do not touch one another and our spouses should always be aware of these interactions


Final Thoughts

The prevalence of sexual harassment and abuse on the media is a psychological trigger for many men and women that have been victims. This stimulus brings up past emotional memories that need to find closure and it is natural for someone to feel safer in speaking up when they see others doing it first. We must seek truth and justice in all cases and as an ummah we must seek to hold true to our Islamic lifestyle. It is also important to remember it is not only women who are sexually harassed and abused, this happens to men and we can see that with the story of Yusuf (Alayhum us-Salaam).



Exposure, threat appraisal, and lost confidence as predictors of PTSD symptoms following September 11, 2001. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15792033

SELF. We Asked Trauma Therapists How to Deal With Triggering News Headlines About Sexual Assault. https://www.self.com/story/how-to-deal-with-triggering-news-headlines-about-sexual-assault