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Cultural Aspects of Sexual Harassment


 

WHAT IS SEXUAL HARASSMENT?

Sexual harassment consists of unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other physical or verbal behavior of a sexual nature which has the effect or intent of interfering with an individual's academic or work performance by creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment. Essentially, sexual harassment implies a power relationship between individuals which can seriously undermine the teaching/learning environment. The following examples of sexual harassment, although not all inclusive, are provided by the Project on the Status and Education of Women:

  • verbal harassment or abuse
  • subtle pressure for sexual activities
  • unnecessary touching, patting, or pinching
  • leering at a person's body
  • constant brushing against a person's body
  • demanding sexual favors accompanied by implied or overt threats concerning grades, employment, or evaluations
  • physical assault, including rape

Although most sexual harassment incidents involve a male staff member, male faculty member or male student harassing a female, there can be cases of women harassing men, women harassing women, and men harassing men.

WHY DO I NEED TO KNOW ABOUT SEXUAL HARASSMENT?

Based on your own cultural experiences, you may believe that sexual harassment is not a possible occurrence, or that it won't happen to you. In some cultures, for example, sexual harassment between a faculty member and a student could never occur because, unlike in the U.S., informal relationships between faculty and students are just not possible. Some cultures may assume that a woman appearing in public alone is announcing her availability for sexual activity. Or, it may be assumed that relationships between men and women are primarily romantic or sexual. In the United States, however, women frequently appear alone in public with the expectation that they will be treated non‑sexually, and men and women typically interact on a non‑sexual basis as colleagues and friends. Consequently, it is important to be aware of the ways in which relationships between men and women in the United States may differ from relationships between men and women in your country.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE SEXUAL HARASSMENT DILEMMAS I MAY FACE?

Sexual harassment can happen to anyone, and being aware of what kinds of behavior may constitute sexual harassment can help to minimize difficulties. The following descriptions of potentially harassing encounters are taken from the videotape The Wrong Idea, produced by the University of Minnesota.

It is the first day of class, and the instructor/teaching assistant is reviewing the course requirements. Because the assignments are difficult, he encourages students to cooperate with each other in working on them. He then singles out the only woman in the class, noting that she might need extra help. He jokes about the fact that there will probably be a lot of volunteers to help her. The men in the class react by laughing and looking at each other. The woman looks uncomfortable and embarrassed.

A male student employee and his female supervisor are finishing up their work at the end of the day. The supervisor approaches the student and compliments him on his work and dedication. Then she tells him he is attractive and probes to see if he is available. When she finds out he is, she comments on their shared loneliness and pressures him to join her for dinner.

A group of students from a class are in the campus pub with their male professor. Everyone except one female student has to leave. As the last male student leaves, he makes innuendos about leaving the professor alone with the female student. The professor asks the student if she has plans and she replies that she plans to study. The professor suggests going out as a couple and she proposes inviting others from the class. He protests, and she realizes that the conversation is more than just friendly. She makes an excuse to leave, while he pressures her for an answer to his invitation.

A male student comes to his female teaching assistant's office and, after closing the office door, asks for help with an assignment. As she begins to look over his work, he moves close to her and begins lightly brushing her leg with his fingers. She looks uncomfortable.

A female student comes to talk with her male advisor about her master's thesis. As she enters, he inappropriately stares at her body and, shortly after she sits down, he pats her hand. She tries to keep the conversation on the topic of her research, while he tries to bring it to a personal level. He suggests that they could work together better if they get to know each other more. She tries again to get him to focus on her question. He puts his arm around her and she looks uncomfortable. When he rests his hand on hers, she makes an excuse and leaves.

WHAT MAY HAPPEN TO SOMEONE CHARGED WITH COMMITTING SEXUAL HARASSMENT?

Sexual harassment is not only a violation of University policy, it is also a violation of state and federal law. While different cultures may permit varied behaviors between and among the sexes, certain behavior which could be interpreted as harassment will not be tolerated at this institution. Violators are subject to University disciplinary action and/or arrest.

WHAT ARE MY OPTIONS IF I THINK I HAVE BEEN SEXUALLY HARASSED?

If you believe that you have been sexually harassed, one of the most important things to realize is that the harassment was not YOUR fault. There is nothing wrong with YOU. The blame for sexual harassment lies with the harasser, not with the recipient of the harassment. There are a number of things you can do. First, consult with a representative of the Affirmative Action office, the office of International Student and Scholar Services, or the University Counseling Center, and consider the following options:

  • Tell the harasser to stop (bring someone with you if you think you might be sexually harassed).
  • Write down what is happening to you. Include dates, time, location, any witnesses, what was said or done, what you did to try to stop it.
  • Tell the harasser in writing that you object to this behavior, and describe what has upset you. Keep a copy of the letter.
  • Tell someone else! Talk with a friend, relative, or a trusted member of the faculty or staff.
  • File a complaint with the Affirmative Action Office.
  • If there has been a physical assault (including rape), it is a crime and should be reported to the State University Police (Extension 911 from on campus phones, 607-777‑2222 from off campus phones or cell phones).

WHAT WILL HAPPEN IF I COMPLAIN ABOUT SEXUAL HARASSMENT?

Given the variety of factors involved in sexual harassment incidents, including your own wishes regarding actions to be taken, it is not possible to provide a uniform description of sexual harassment complaint processes. Complaints are handled on a case‑by‑case basis, and confidentiality will be maintained to the extent possible.

When you come forward with a sexual harassment complaint you are taking a very difficult but absolutely essential first step toward ending harassment behavior, both towards yourself and toward others (the harasser may have victimized a number of other people over time and may continue to do so until stopped). The Affirmative Action Office, the Office of Student Conduct, the University Counseling Center and the State University Police all have personnel who will work with you to explain complaint processes and explore options most suited to your own needs.

HOW CAN I AVOID OTHER FORMS OF SEXUAL DISCRIMINATION?

Sexual harassment is a very damaging form of sex discrimination: it is demeaning, insulting, and embarrassing; it can destroy opportunities, threaten careers, and ruin lives. Publishing this information sheet may help stop sex discrimination in its most blatant and deliberate manifestation, but its more subtle forms will persist as long as demeaning attitudes toward individuals, especially women, remain unchanged. Unlike overt acts of sexual harassment, most gender‑biased attitudes are unconscious, and the discriminatory behavior resulting from them is normally non‑intentional. Intentional or not, however, such behavior‑‑like

sexual harassment itself‑‑serves to belittle women and to deny their full participation in the rights and privileges of employment and education.

While the following suggestions, provided by the Women's Studies Program Committee at California State University, Northridge, are directed toward eliminating sex discrimination in the classroom, they may be modified to address the treatment of women in general:

  • When making general statements about women‑‑as with any other subject‑‑be sure that what you say is accurately based on reliable information. Avoid using derogatory terms or stereotypic generalizations, such as "Older women don't belong in college," or "Women can't think geographically."
  • Avoid "humor" or gratuitous remarks that demean or trivialize women, just as you would avoid remarks that demean or belittle people because of their race, religion, or physical characteristics.
  • Avoid as much as possible using generic masculine terms to refer to people of both sexes. Continual use of the generic "he" or "man" evokes primarily masculine images and renders women peripheral or invisible.
  • When giving examples, try to avoid sexist stereotypes, such as making all authority figures men and all subordinates women.
  • Choose course material which does not ignore or deprecate women or use sexist language.
  • Monitor your behavior toward men and women to ensure that you are treating them in the same manner.

WHERE CAN I GO FOR MORE INFORMATION, ADVICE AND/OR ASSISTANCE?

The above information on sexual harassment was compiled from materials furnished by the Affirmative Action and University Ombudsman Office. For more information or to talk with someone about sexual harassment, you are encouraged to contact any of the following offices:

Affirmative Action, Library South Ground Floor Room 663, telephone 607-777‑4775
International Student & Scholar Services, Nelson A. Rockefeller Center, telephone 607-777‑2510
Office of Student Conduct, Dickinson Community O'Connor Hall Room G-14, telephone 607-777‑6210
State University Police, Couper Administration Building Room G‑35, telephone 607-777‑2393
University Counseling Center, Library North Room 1202, telephone 607-777‑2772

Edited by: Ellen H. Badger,
Valerie Hampton, Director of Affirmative Action
Original version of this publication was co-authored by Ellen H. Badger and Marguerite Allington, formerly the Assistant to the President for Affirmative Action.

Last Updated: 8/28/14