People Latest - - by Fanni Rodek

The sexual harassment blueprint: Do universities set the toxic template for adult life?

The sexual harassment blueprint: Do universities set the toxic template for adult life? Women deserve better. Powerful message on the street [IMAGE: Flick]

As the academic year starts, it brings excitement, apprehension, or sometimes, melancholia for students. But for some young women, September may also bring fear. The fear of possible sexual harassment from their peers or their professors. It had only been a couple of months since Brock Turner was sentenced for the sexual assault of an unconscious woman at Stanford University and he is already out of jail. The judge’s decision to send him to Santa Clara County jail for six months was recieved as highly controversial – the fact that Turner was released after three months on good behaviour, even more so.

The cast of Girls shared their response to unfair treatment of sexual assault on social media


We live in a society where, according to a poll, 80% of women are prepared for something bad to happen when walking alone at night. This comes from a Twitter poll by The Pool‘s Bridget Minamore, which around 3300 women answered. Even though this is not a representative sample, women experiencing sexual assault to some degree is not uncommon. However, the frequency during their university years is alarming. In 2010, the National Union of Students’ research on women students’ experiences of harassment and sexual assault exposed that more than a third of participants felt unsafe being on campus in the evening. More than two thirds reported about some kind of verbal or non-verbal harassment in and around their institutions.

Australia has just launched their first comprehensive prevalence survey on student experiences of harassment and assault and a week later they have already received 150 “deeply disturbing” submissions. The anonymity of similar research projects offers a chance to talk about something that we (for several reasons) cannot publicly discuss.

Sexual harassment is never acceptable, but at a time when it’s almost part of a female life it is less surprising when it happens at alcohol-fuelled parties between peers than coming from mentors and senior male professors. A couple of months ago, Professor Sara Ahmed, director of the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths, University of London resigned from her position in order to protest against students’ sexual harassment by staff.

On her blog, she wrote:

“When I talk about the problem of sexual harassment I am not talking about one rogue individual; or two, nor even a rogue unit, nor even a rogue institution. We are talking about how sexual harassment becomes normalized and generalized – as part of academic culture.”

She is not the only one noticing problems with the patriarchal, academic life. Recently The Guardian published a piece on the difficult position women academics are put in: “It usually comes from nice, affable, older male academics who are all hot on equality and feminism until they’ve had a few drinks at the pub, or, worse, when we’re away for a conference.”

They don’t claim that women never harass men, or that a female-led system would be perfect, but they are saying that maybe women would only steal your data “without trying to grope you in the process”.  Since finding a permanent position is almost impossible on its own, women don’t want to ruin their chances by raising their voice.

For example, when the assault happens between staff and students, it could be discussed without completely committing career suicide. But still, it isn’t. The reason? Universities use of non-disclosure agreements. So even when an harassment is reported, it rarely ever gets out to the public, leaving many victims unheard.

“Young women are terrified about the consequences if they make a complaint, then when they do, the university’s chief concern is to protect its own reputation by keeping the whole thing quiet,” said Ann Olivarius, a lawyer focusing on sexual harassment in UK and US universities. She also highlighted the lack of effective mechanisms to stop the pressure for sexual relationships put on students by senior staff.

Sexual harassment happens everywhere. Is it possible that feeling unsafe at colleges and universities foreshadows a life of fear and negotiations to avoid being assaulted? Because what is it like to be a woman in the workplace, where senior positions are once again held mostly by men? Unequal treatment, gender pay gap and further harassment.

Research conducted by Trades Union Congress or TUC showed that out of the surveyed 1500 women, a third experienced unwelcome jokes. Younger women, aged 18-24, seem to be more affected, almost two-thirds of them have suffered sexual harassment. It could be anything from suggestive remarks, inappropriate jokes, touching, hugging and kissing and even demands of sexual favours. Name-calling, whistling at us when we are walking down the street in complete daylight – these are also things we’ve all experienced.

Maybe we are overreacting certain situations, maybe the jokes are truly innocent. But when 12-year-old schoolgirls need to wear shorts underneath their skirts to protect themselves from boys exposing their underwear and groping them; when 85% of 18-24 year olds had reported of being harassed in public, maybe females need to keep themselves safe.


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