What About Sexual Harassment on Campus?

young couple flirting in a...
young couple flirting in a...

By Emily May, Debjani Roy and Jae Cameron

On January 22, President Obama made history by declaring sexual assault on campuses a core priority for his administration. In his speech announcing the formation of a White House Task Force to protect students from sexual assault on college campuses, he stated, "We need to keep saying to anyone out there who has ever been assaulted -- you are not alone."

The news that Obama's "got your back" was welcome considering the fact that one in five students is sexually assaulted while in college, but what about sexual harassment on college campuses?

While the steps made towards addressing sexual assault are applaudable, truly ensuring "safe, secure environments for students of higher education," will require a response not only to sexual assault, but to the entire spectrum of sexual violence taking place on college campuses today. This spectrum includes campus harassment, an issue that is often minimized, but one that is shaping the campus climate as well as impacting student performance in higher education.

Campus harassment includes whistling, leering or comments such as "hey baby" or, "can I get piece of that?" It also includes physical contact such as brushing up against someone, touching, gropin, or equally offensive non-physical contact like flashing and public masturbation. Campus harassment is a gateway crime, and creates a culture where words can escalate to physical contact and other forms of violence, including stalking, assault or rape.

And while you may just dismiss harassment as part of campus life, you can't ignore the impact on students. According to a recent study by Hollaback!, an organization dedicated to ending sexual harassment in public space, 20 percent of students said that harassment caused an inability to concentrate in class, and 23 percent said that harassment prevented attendance in class.

One contributor to the Hollaback! blog wrote, "I was walking back from the dining hall on my campus with a friend. There is a place called 'the hangout tree' -- benches where a lot of male college students sit and gaze at the women that pass -- so I walked by with my usual "'gnore all around me' attitude. Nevertheless, not today. One guy said, 'hey sexy baby, can I holler?' There were five other men jeering at his friend who talked to me. I passed by ignoring him and he shouted, 'You are an ugly bitch anyway.'"

This isn't just a few bad seeds on college campuses -- harassment is part of the climate. According to an AAUW report, more than half of male college students (51 percent) admit they have sexually harassed someone in college, and 25 percent of men (and 10 percent of women) admitted to targeting others with homophobic slurs in public spaces. And that's just the people who admitted to it.

Stories of campus-based harassment range from sexist, to racist, to homophobic. In the Hollaback! study, 67 percent of the students personally experienced harassment and 82 percent either experienced or witnessed harassment. Women, people of color and LGBTQ folks are most at risk.

Silence on this issue comes at a cost. When administrators, teachers and other students fail to take it seriously, many students may feel that they are overreacting, or that their overall discomforts, fear, and anxieties around street harassment are unfounded. These emotional impacts may be felt gradually over time as students are repeatedly exposed to harassment. What may, at first, seem inconsequential can build over the course of a degree, leaving long-term impacts that affect a student's performance.

According to research by Cornell's ILR Institute, harassment in public space has similar emotional impacts as sexual assault or rape including a sense of self-doubt, low self-esteem/self worth, and possible feelings of despair. This can also reduce students' feelings of safety on campus, impacting their mobility including their use of campus transportation, another site of harassment. Campus harassment can make a student question what they wear; what route they take to class; at what time of the day they go out; or if they should go to class, participate in extracurriculars, or go out at all.

This isn't just about quality of life -- it's about access to education.

Administrators know they have a problem. In the Hollaback! study, 55 percent of college administrators said that current systems are not sufficient to respond to harassment. But to take action, they need a mandate. Their radio silence is a product of the system: If they are the only ones to take action on this, they will be labeled the "harassment college" and their admissions will drop. But we know it's not just one college -- it's all colleges.

In his speech, President Obama stated, "...because when a young girl or young boy starts to question their self worth after being assaulted, maybe starts withdrawing, we're all deprived of their full potential."

Every student deserves a safe route to class. It's time for the White House to seize this opportunity and make it so.