To begin, the fact that we even ask this question underscores a social norm that women aren’t supposed to get angry or else she may be seen as a “choose your expletive.” Anger is viewed as an unacceptable emotion for a woman to express and so the angry, hurt woman (yes, she’s hurt, not just angry) is subject to being misunderstood at the least or criticized and disparaged at the worst. Add to that the shame and humiliation of being sexually harassed and then dressed down publicly for coming out and being angry—it’s a wonder any woman tells her story. The recent #metoo campaign gave voice to some women and surprised many in their circle who never knew until the hashtag announced that she has been hurt. A small measure of safety came in posting, in joining a movement that says all of the hurt, pain and fear beneath the anger will no longer be overlooked and hushed, if anyone will finally pay attention.
Let’s call it what it is. Anger is an emotion that conveys a message, often about injustice. Anger can be adaptive and is wired into us for survival purposes. We respond to the pain of being sexually harassed with anger because it is part of our natural physiology. Our fight-flight-freeze response (from our brain’s limbic system) is activated when we are threatened. This says a lot about why some women can talk about the harassment and confront it right away—moving into the fight mode, while others may withdraw and not come forward for years, if ever—staying in the flight or freeze mode, by pushing down memories or going numb. Our limbic response kicks in whenever we sense danger or actually have our physical or emotional integrity violated. And then it kicks in again every time a reminder, trigger or cue comes up after the incident has occurred, fueling the angry response to that pain and fear. So the anger resides with the woman as a companion to the assault, trying to protect her. But what society doesn’t see is that the anger is trying to communicate the pain and hurt underneath. Being able to express that vulnerability in a safe, nonjudgmental world without counterattack is the only way to let healing begin.