Politics & Media
May 06, 2014, 06:46AM

Discussing Sexual Harassment

We have to keep talking about it.

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Last week saw the release of two major federal reports: the Department of Education’s list of schools under investigation for the possibility of Title IX violations in mishandling sexual assault or harassment cases; and the Department of Defense’s report that sexual assault reporting in the military is up 50 percent from the previous year. What both college students and enlisted military personnel have in common is that they're usually made up of young people who are fresh out of high school. We’re seeing problems not only of high rates of sexual assault and harassment among young adults, but also a chronic inability among the adults to be competent at dealing with this situation.

The Sociologists for Women in Society released the results of a decade-long study on sexual harassment and assault among teenage girls. Their conclusion: Girls underreport their attacks because they’ve come to find a certain level of mistreatment to be normal. They described being groped and dealing with lewd comments as something they don’t think twice about because it’s so common and happens to everyone. They also expressed no faith in educators or administrators to do anything more than chastise them for being “bad girls” if they reported any misbehavior. The girls in the study also said they believed their female peers would not be capable of standing beside them in the wake of reporting a boy for sexual misconduct.

We don’t have to dig deeply to find criminal cases, and the mishandling of them, that show the girls’ concerns are valid. In the Steubenville rape case, we saw a town that viewed their star athletes being accused of rape as more tragic than a 16-year-old girl getting raped. And eventually, two girls were arrested and convicted for using Twitter to bully the victim after the boys’ conviction. It wouldn’t be irresponsible to conclude that if communities like this are tolerant of rape, then sexual harassment isn’t up for discussion.

As part of her Women in the World series, well-traveled editor Tina Brown hosted a roundtable discussion with teenage girls and adult women from around the world. There’s a point in the conversation where they darkly bond over having the same experience as students: at some point they will speak up in class, and a boy will tell her that he has another use for her mouth. One girl relates a story where a group of boys make lewd jokes about gang raping her, then chastise her as a prude for taking offense. Another girl tells a similar story, ending with her worry about whether to take something like that as a joke, or to be genuinely afraid. While the adult women are consoling, and make mention of how they’ve dealt with it in their own lives, none of them uses the term “sexual harassment” to describe these kinds of incidents. In fact, the adult women view these events as an inevitable occurrence for being a woman who pursues a path of education and a career.

This might actually be the most difficult point of discussion—the idea that all men are sexual predators in want of a warm body. When people respond to the high rates of sexual assault on campus and in the military with “That’s what happens when you put young men and women together,” what they’re really saying is that they believe every man is a sexual predator waiting to happen, that women should anticipate rape because they left the house, and this is really just a new version of “boys will be boys.” However, people who study sexual predators have a different story to tell.

In a joint study by UMass and Brown, they concluded that less than 10 percent of men fit the definition of a serial rapist, but those who do will prey on their victims for decades. A more real life example of this would be Detroit’s forensic testing of the city’s rape kit backlog, of 1600 kits tested, 100 serial rapists were found. As of November 2013, one man had been convicted of raping four women. The lesson here is that it only takes a small handful of predators to terrorize all the women.

While there are less concrete numbers in the realm of sexual harassment because it is an inherently abstract topic, I’d like to use Bob Filner, former mayor of San Diego, as an example of sexual harassment in action. While Filner hasn’t been accused of rape that I know of, he has been accused by at least 19 women of harassment and assault over a period of about 30 years. His behavior speaks of a certain narcissism particular to sexual predators; while he never denied the allegations, he described himself as a victim of “the hysteria of the lynch mob.” Which means he doesn’t believe that what he does was wrong, he’s just sorry he got caught.

Given the changes in what we know about sexual predators, we’re still very old-fashioned in how we discuss sexual harassment and assault with teenagers. In speaking with some college kids and a relative who is a former high school teacher, I came away with the impression that when it comes to adults discussing these issues with younger people, the adults really don’t know what they’re doing. The girls I spoke with said officials at their school talked to them about sexual harassment by enforcing the dress code. The boys said they just got vague instructions on being respectful. The former teacher said his school just had meetings about updates to the discipline code, and that’s about it.

Nearly everyone I spoke with reported hearing rumors about things happening off-campus, at worst implying that every school has its own version of the Steubenville rape case—girl gets black-out drunk at a party, guys think it’s funny to stick things where they don’t belong, and when the girl finds out, everyone makes it her fault for being such a slut instead of seeing it for the crime that it is. So with these terrible experiences and no skills to constructively deal with them, these kids go on to college and the military, and we wonder why there’s a problem.


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