Is Teaching a Hands-on Profession? Two Educators Warn of Sexual Harassment in America's Colleges
What forms does sexual harassment by teachers usually take?
The most widespread is verbal harassment, which involves singling out a female student in class and saying things to her of a sexual nature. It also includes what we call gender harassment, such as a professor telling a student she isn't qualified to be an engineer because women suffer from math anxiety. Because the situation is so common, a lot of people assume that it's not very dangerous. In fact, it isolates a woman in the classroom and tells her that somehow she's not as important as the male. It intimidates her and it lowers her self-esteem. Women drop out of courses or even college because of it. So it really is a problem.
What are some of the other forms of harassment?
One is touching a woman where she doesn't want to be touched—grabbing breasts, running hands up thighs. Another might involve a teacher asking a student repeatedly for dates, even though she says no. She may be intimidated by this because she doesn't know what can happen. Sometimes there can be an implied threat, and occasionally even a stated one. A woman in Pittsburgh told us about a professor who threatened to throw acid on her if she didn't succumb to his advances.
Yet women frequently don't report such harassment. Why not?
Fear. They're afraid that somehow they will be judged responsible for the behavior of the male. They're afraid of not getting their degrees. They're afraid of losing their entry into professions. They're afraid of losing all the money they or their parents have invested in higher education.
What kind of student is most likely to encounter harassment?
The only thing victims of harassment have in common is that they are students and therefore have less power than professors. The assumption that only campus-queen types are prey for the lecherous professor is incorrect. He tends to look for people who don't have very high self-esteem, who are not aggressive with males, who aren't experienced and sophisticated. He is going to try to find the victim who is least likely to confront him, least likely to complain and, in some cases, most likely to suffer.
How do typical victims react to sexual harassment?
Initially there is confusion, disbelief, denial and panic. Eventually there may be anger. There is always a sense of powerlessness. And there are real physical reactions to that kind of stress. Women report headaches, nightmares, weight loss, ulcers. There is almost an incest taboo involved. People are taught that teachers, like parents, have your best interests at heart. So when a college professor runs his hand up a coed's leg, it may seem very much as if her own father has done it.
When should a student become suspicious of a teacher's behavior?
When a professor begins requiring a student to meet him socially, after hours or in isolated settings, to accomplish normal academic work, that's a subtle indication that maybe something inappropriate is in the offing.
Is there anything else to look for?
Another sign is if a teacher is touching too much when a student doesn't want to be touched. Sexual talk is another thing that can red-flag a problem: if a professor persistently directs conversation into intimate realms, asking questions like "Do you have a boyfriend?" or if he initiates discussions of his own sex life. Those conversations may seem grown-up and sophisticated, but they may be simply a way to create a sex-oriented environment.
Does the lecherous professor try to disguise his motives?
Some do. One is the professor who presents himself as the coed's special friend. He acts as if he wants to hear all her problems. Adolescents do have problems, and they're flattered that somebody this intelligent is interested in them. A girl may be vulnerable. She's 2,000 miles from home. She brings him all her troubles. Then suddenly he wants something from her, which leaves her feeling guilty, confused and obligated.
Isn't there another side to this—the seductive coed who lures her professor?
Someone could probably write a salacious little book about the few students who entice professors, but that has nothing to do with sexual harassment. The issue, very simply, is that a paid professional should behave like one. No matter what a student does or offers, the professor is never acting responsibly if he gives in.
Is it possible for a professor to have a friendly social relationship with a female student without risking an accusation of harassment?
Of course it is. But dating relationships are quite another question. That is very dangerous ground for a faculty member to tread on. If something like a consenting-adult relationship is going to exist, that had better wait until the young woman is no longer the professor's student.
What are the problems?
It's very easy for a 19-year-old to think that she's a consenting adult and that she wants a relationship. But then she may decide in the November following September that she doesn't want it. Because she is involved with a person who is grading her and has an enormous power over her, she may not know how to get out of it. There is a real danger of unequal power even in the most caring of relationships. There are also questions of conflict of interest.
What should a student do if she feels she's being harassed?
The first thing she should do, if she can, is to approach the professor and tell him his behavior is bothering her. That gives him the chance to change it if he doesn't understand what he's doing. A student who is frightened to do that can go to a trusted faculty member, a dean, an ombudsman or an affirmative-action person. Another good technique is to write the professor a letter explaining the things he did that are troubling her.
Couldn't a professor retaliate for something like that?
That's why the letter is useful. It is written documentation and can include a warning that if the behavior doesn't stop or there is retribution, the letter will be the first step in a more formal complaint.
What is the worst thing a student can do about harassment?
She should never just let it pass. That's the reason the problem flourishes—because it's too easy to say, "Well, I'll be gone next year, so forget about it." What she does then is allow it to happen to another generation of college women.
Did anything surprise you while you were doing your research?
Several things: how widespread sexual harassment is; the crudeness of the experiences students reported; and the conspiracy of silence within the academic community about the fact that harassment occurs. On most campuses people already know who the lecherous professors are; they just haven't done anything about it.
Most of all we were pained by the aloneness of some of the people we call women, but who are really kids. It was painful to see the things these 18-and 19-year-olds had to endure, the hopelessness and resignation—the attitude of "Why bother saying anything? Who's going to care?"
Is the situation improving?
Yes, slowly. Women on campuses are becoming better educated about the problem, more willing to come forward and take responsibility for what happens to them. They understand that it's not something they have to live with. Then there is the requirement, under federal law, that every college have a policy prohibiting sexual harassment and a procedure for redress. Last of all, professors themselves are beginning to say of their lecherous colleagues, "We don't want to be judged on the basis of what these people are doing." That goes beyond rules and regulations. When this kind of behavior becomes taboo, then we can really solve the problem.
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