Welcome to the Jungle: Sexual Harassment in College

By Guest Blogger

Part of the #HERvotes blog carnival.

One commonly noted sign of progress in the gender equality battle is that women now make up the majority–yes that is more than 50%–of college students. This is an enormous advance and reflects the hard work and dedication of generations of women: Women who have fought to be heard and taken seriously in the education system. From an educational standpoint women definitely stand out; unfortunately, the college experience is not just consigned to lectures, exams and textbooks.

Sexual harassment is a paramount concern for young women in today’s social climate. We prepare our youth with college entrance exams, AP courses and “Week-One” icebreakers, but there is no curriculum or learning curve that adequately prepares for the new freedom college life offers. Maybe it’s a result of my own collegiate Biology major, but I can’t help but equate the social college experience to that of a wild animal jungle. Life may rely on discipline within the classroom, but once outside of those doors there is no truly enforceable law and order.

To comprehensively analyze the issue of sexual harassment would require hundreds of pages. There is the fact that men, who throw the parties, inhabit the fraternities and dictate what makes their coed colleagues attractive, most often define social tiers and social order. There are the issues of self-esteem, bullying and lack of sisterhood to be dealt within the women’s culture. Worst of all there is the school administration that turns a blind eye–or worse blames victims–for fear of losing financial backing or support.

A few months ago I was visiting a friend in Brooklyn, and sincerely doing my best to leave work behind (there is no rest for the feminist), when I just couldn’t hold back. Our barista was lamenting that her college just released a report that stated that there were no rapes on her campus and she “just knew that was not true!” I admit it, I interjected. I explained to her that more often than not the reports are sent to potential donors including well-heeled parents, alumni and federal agencies, who, as hoped for by the college, will bring in an important source of their revenue. Federal law requires that colleges and universities, to retain federal student aid under Title IX, distribute these statistics annually.

I could tell that initially she wasn’t catching my gist. I decided just to lay it out for her, “People don’t donate and are reluctant to apply to schools that report a lot of rape and sexual harassment.” At first she didn’t want to believe that money beat out the safety of students, but after a short while it clicked. I launched into my conviction that schools should hire women’s advocates to assign to all cases of rape and sexual harassment to ensure the victim is treated respectfully and the facts are collected without bias. On my way out the door, she yelled out to me “this is why feminism can’t be dead.” I told her I agreed.

Unfortunately, sexual harassment is not a phenomenon that just pops up when young adults unpack their belongings, dreams and expectations at their new college campus. In fact, the American Association of University Women just published a new study Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School documenting the growing pervasiveness and dire consequences of harassment experienced by students in grades 7-12. One approach that can help to combat this discouraging trend is to hold educational institutions to the level of accountability that is required to comply with Title IX to protect our youth.

Another important step is to protect the legislation under Title IX of the Education Amendments, prohibiting sex discrimination, including sexual harassment. A combination of pressures and congressional opponents are threatening to weaken the enforcement of Title IX. We can’t afford to let this important legislation, and legal resource, be taken away from our young women and children. Until we can fix the system, it’s the only recourse we have. Advocate with your voice, advocate with your vote.

“Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, which can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Thus, sexual harassment prohibited by Title IX can include conduct such as touching of a sexual nature; making sexual comments, jokes, or gestures; writing graffiti or displaying or distributing sexually explicit drawings, pictures, or written materials; calling students sexually charged names; spreading sexual rumors; rating students on sexual activity or performance; or circulating, showing, or creating e-mails or Web sites of a sexual nature.”

—U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights

1 comment

  1. I completely agree with this post! I am a college student myself, and while I do not know anyone who has actually been a victim of rape, I do know many women who have been place in uncomfortable sexual situations. When reading this blog I found it appalling that universities would rather receive donations over the safety and well-being of their students. Ultimately, this is something that NEEDS to change, and I feel that having a specific counselor on campus to directly deal with situations relating to sexual harassment would be a great start. Thanks for the post!

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