She had just taken on a new role as office administrator for a relatively large Cape Town company in July 2017. But soon her manager’s seemingly innocent advances took on a sexual undertone.
“He called me into his office one day and started chatting as normal,” she says. But then things escalated quickly. “He invited me for a drink and said we can go somewhere afterwards. Even then, I still didn’t get what he was saying. But then he said ‘I just want you to stand naked in front of me and I’ll masturbate.’
“At first I thought I imagined what he said. I made up some excuse and walked out.”
In shock and mostly embarrassed, Nikki avoided him for weeks after that. But because she reported directly to him, it was hard. And then things came to a head when he called her back into his office a few weeks after the incident. “He told me not to tell anyone of the things we spoke of. Nobody should know; and if I tell anyone, they will take his word over hers,” she recalls with a slight quiver in her voice.
That’s exactly what happened. Angry and feeling betrayed, she reported the incident to HR. “Nothing came of it. Absolutely nothing. It was my word over his. He had been with the company for years; I was just this young girl that came waltzing in a few months prior. Whose side do you think they took?”
Months after the HR outcome, she resigned. “I couldn’t stay there any more. Things got so bad that he was nasty to me at times, and it got to a point where it became unbearable,” adds Nikki.
In hindsight, she realises she should have read the signs. It was her first job fresh out of college. She was young, naive and impressionable - the very reasons he chose to prey on her, hoping he could buy her silence with sexual innuendos thinly veiled as compliments.
Nikki’s story is a reality for many women in South Africa. According to a survey conducted by Columinate in September this year, 30% of women and 18% of men reported having been victims of unwanted sexual advances in the workplace. About 15% of those surveyed reported the advances as being verbal in nature, and 38% admitted that it turned physical with unwanted touching.
The most shocking part is that 22% of women keep quiet about the abuse.
“There is no ‘correct’ way for victims to respond to or feel about abuse,” said Hein Hofmeyr, a clinical psychologist at Akeso Nelspruit. “In the beginning, the victim may be in denial. People who are abused also experience confusion, fear, hopelessness, helplessness and shame.”
Educational psychologist Tammy Epstein believes part of the problem lies with absent fathers or absent role models. “When boys are raised without a father or a father figure, there is a breakdown in the family unit which may lead to adverse effects on the psychological development of boys,” she explained.
US-based transformational coach Bethany Webster has another theory called the Mother Wound. In the age of the #MeToo movement where mass disclosures of sexual assault have come to light, Webster felt the need to understand misogyny and explore the first relationship a man has with a woman - his mother.
“For both girls and boys, the relationships with our mothers are one of the most significant relationships in our lives. It’s impossible to overstate just how foundational this relationship is and how it impacts our well-being well into our adulthood,” noted the author and motivational speaker on her critically acclaimed blog, Womb Of Light.
At its essence, the Mother Wound is a product of patriarchy, of living in a culture with the domination of women at its core. She affirms that, for men, it comes down to the specific dynamics that played out between a boy and his mother, as well as how the father supported or thwarted that primary connection.
Webster’s Mother Wound theory may also explain a man’s need to dominate. “Unfortunately, it’s well-documented that socialisation of the boy involves to some degree learning to dominate others, to shut down his emotions and to devalue women,” she added.
But there is hope. Firstly, not all men have been indoctrinated with this toxic status quo. And, secondly, it can be reversed. Webster says healing personal trauma is central to undoing the patriarchy.
“It’s crucial that men get support from other men who have already done a significant amount of work on this journey themselves, including professional support from male therapists skilled in this area,” she concluded.
* Not her real name