Sexual Harassment in Higher Ed

Written by
Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Jan 4, 2018

Jan 4, 2018 • by Katie Rose Guest Pryal

This is the third piece in a series about activism in higher education. College campuses have always been a place of activism in its many forms. In this series, I ask: Who can participate in activism, and how, as well as what dangers are there to us who do, and what can we accomplish? In each piece, I look closely at an issue that is affecting college campuses right now. Last month, that issue was the striking down of DACA. This month, the issue is sexual harassment and assault.

One of Many

During my higher education experiences, like many (if not most) of my women colleagues, I was sexually harassed by male professors. (I told one of these stories for The Toast back in 2016.) I feared for my career, my grades, my friendships. The men suffered no consequences. I walked around campus (each campus) panicked, terrified of what might happen to me, terrified of who was my enemy or my friend. I didn't realize until years later how traumatizing these experiences were. Or how normal. I blamed myself. After all, why did these men keep approaching me? It must be my fault, right?

I now know that it wasn't my fault. I also know that they didn't only approach me. But when you keep harassment to yourself like a secret shame, then you don't know who else is suffering as you are.

Men Suffering Consequences

On Nov. 10, 2017, Twitter user (and comics publisher) Iron Spike wrote a tweet that went mega-viral: “God, I could really get used to this strange new world of Men Experiencing Consequences.” She hit on two points that rang horribly true: (1) men were experiencing real consequences for harming women and children (2) for the first time in U.S. historical memory. Harvey Weinstein, the most powerful man in Hollywood, lost his company. Kevin Spacey, megastar, lost his hit television show. Charlie Rose, highly respected broadcaster, lost his contracts. The abusive kings were tumbling from their thrones.

After decades (centuries, millennia) of Hollywood and other powerful entities turning their eyes away from abusers and rapists or even celebrating them (e.g., Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Thomas Jefferson, ad nauseam), it seems that things are finally changing.

How are these changes translating to higher education? Are we seeing similar changes there? Similar support for victims and survivors by colleagues and faculty? Similar institutional support for those who come forward?

It doesn't look like it. As Caroline Fredrickson wrote for The Atlantic, it doesn't look like the “Harvey Effect” is going to hit higher ed any time soon: “Academia is particularly fertile territory for those who want to leverage their power to gain sexual favors or inflict sexual violence on vulnerable individuals.”

Change Must Start from Within

I spoke to a woman colleague recently, one who works in higher education, about an informational panel she attended for women students about how to handle sexual harassment. The panel was led by women faculty, although some male faculty were in attendance. One woman student asked about what to do when harassed while working an internship. What was the best response? What did the panelists recommend?

The women faculty on the panel said, unanimously, “There really isn't a good answer to that question.” The panelists recognized the difficulty in figuring out the proper response to harassment in academia, especially when working a hard-to-get internship.

Before the panelists could expand, a male faculty member in the audience spoke up. He said, “You can report harassment to Human Resources. That's the most aggressive move. The least aggressive is just telling the harasser in the moment that his actions are inappropriate.”

How wrong was this male faculty member's advice? Confronting a harasser in the moment is incredibly aggressive and confrontational. Every victim of harassment knows this. We also know other things. How to make the soothing smile. How to speak the appeasing words. How to escape without being harmed further.

But this male faculty member's advice—to a room full of women students—reveals a larger problem. Men in academia (some men—most men?) do not understand the peril, and attendant fear, women face all of the time, including in academia. They do not understand the appeasing we must do of men for even the most basic job retention, let alone promotion, whether we are graduate students, faculty members or staff. Beyond appeasement, we must ignore all kinds of harassment. We don't have a choice. What that student was asking was not how to make the harassment stop—she was asking how to make her life with a harasser just a little less awful.

Remember Harvey Weinstein's most famous victims: Angelina Jolie didn't go public or confront anyone, and her dad is Jon (“Deliverance”) Voight. Gwyneth Paltrow didn't either, and her mom is Blythe (“I have 25 Tony Awards”) Danner. Mira Sorvino didn't, and her dad is Paul (“Goodfellas”) Sorvino. (Really, Harvey? Do you have a death wish?) Ashley Judd didn't, and she's a Judd. If these powerhouse members of powerhouse families didn't think it was worth it to go public, to go to HR or to the courts, why would anyone? After all, it wasn't like Jolie, Paltrow, Sorvino or the rest were going to end up in the poorhouse, right?

But some of Harvey's victims did go public, and they did suffer, and they did lose their careers. What the Harvey stories should teach us is that women, no matter how powerful, learn to appease. To give the calming smile. To coddle harassers, and then, later, to warn other women in secret.

My only regret, in my own experiences of harassment in academia, is that I didn't warn others enough.