Prevalence of sexual harassment demands intervention

[Content warning: This column discusses sexual harassment and assault.]

Before I came to Vassar, I lived in a conservative setting where discussions regarding social change rarely occurred among high schoolers. Hence, I had no idea that some people felt unsafe in party environments.

I’ve known people who felt uncomfortable in such settings—myself included—but it struck me personally as a great surprise to find out that so many people have and continue to experience legitimate anxiety in atmospheres that may have seemed benign and friendly to most others.

Many of my new friends at Vassar have told me of first-hand experiences regarding inappropriate treatment of women—although clearly, it isn’t just women who are mistreated. Experiences spanned from childhood to just a couple of weeks ago at Vassar—here at Vassar, where it seems as though most people are extremely conscious of such issues and ever-motivated to fight against such things.

I couldn’t help but ask myself, if these few friends of mine have gone through this, how many more of these people and stories are out there? And, also importantly, how many perpetrators are out there lurking?

I initially felt a strange sense of guilt at hearing my friends’ personal stories. However, I began to see it as a means of becoming more personally aware—not just about the bare, factual existence of rape, but about the day-to-day prevalence of sexual harassment at Vassar and the grave, traumatizing consequences that survivors are forced to face while perpetrators are so frequently let free and while third parties remain woefully ignorant.

For some people, sexual harassment may seem like an irrelevant issue, one that’s detached from their personal reality. Those people may realize one day, with shock, that so many people around them have been victims, and that the issue is, in fact, relevant to everyone. Just look at the numbers.

For example, as is cited in Boilerplate Magazine: “The [What Happens Here] survey, completed by Vassar College, found that 21 percent of female-identifying students at Vassar were sexually assaulted and 77 percent of incidents were left unreported. 90 percent of assault cases involved a cis-male perpetrator, and in 57 percent, the victim identified the perpetrator as a peer, colleague or friend” (Boilerplate Magazine, “What Happened Here,” 05.08.2017).

Does anyone take real action after looking at these numbers? It seems impossible to motivate people to do anything if they have never been involved in relevant cases. If you are one of those people, think again. Those numbers apply not just to some random strangers out there, but also potentially to people about whom you care the most.

While the #MeToo movement on Twitter is a positive sign and a powerful gesture that encourages victims to come forth and share their experiences, its limitations are glaring, as The Miscellany News Editorial Board has recently pointed out. It can be argued, for example, that the movement detracts from attention given to perpetrators’ culpability (The Miscellany News, “#MeToo movement must prompt mass action, education,” 10.25.2017).

Perhaps the most frequent criticism of the #MeToo movement is of the idea of the movement itself, insofar as it relies on the victims to come forward and be the actors, which is difficult beyond measure. Hence, the alternative that I am proposing is that the third parties—ones that are neither victims nor perpetrators—proactively prevent and report instances of sexual assault in addition to being more generally aware on a daily basis.

A group of knowledgeable third parties can create an atmosphere that attaches stigma to any type of inappropriate sexual comment or behavior. At the moment, we don’t have enough of this stigma. For example, some people see having sex as an achievement, regardless of whether or not there was consent given by all its participants. Such thoughtless remarks slip past our consciousness in the absence of real social stigma amongst all members of this society, and this must change.

But when third parties are aware and nearby, they can discourage such patriarchal discussions regarding sex. That discouragement is in itself a step towards fighting against sexual harassment. Any patriarchal remarks about sex or casual attitudes towards sexual harassment need to be met with immediate criticism and opposition.

In addition, innocent third parties need to be made more aware. I was blind to the pervasiveness of sexual harassment until I heard first-hand stories for myself. Yet, I pity that this was the only way for me to come to understand this issue better; it shouldn’t be the victims but the third parties—ones who are perhaps more aware and/or more personally prepared—who help other innocent third parties understand the prevalence and seriousness of sexual harassment.

Awareness is not only for the perpetrators, but also for third parties themselves. Innocence is ignorance when the topic is sexual harassment. And ignorance in third parties means that they may have actually been unknowing contributors to rape culture in the past; if you don’t know the fact that every kind of sexual harassment is serious, however minor it may seem to you, how are you going to stop yourself from becoming a perpetrator?

Third parties need not only to be made aware, but also to act proactively in confronting perpetrators. In preventing sexual assault and harassment, third parties can play a much greater role than victims or perpetrators. In a party environment where an intoxicated person is about to be taken advantage of, for example, a third party can step in to ask the perpetrator what they may be trying to do—or, in a much clearer situation, the third party may be wise to simply separate that person from the potential perpetrator. The victim, on the other hand, is often completely powerless and vulnerable.

Without third parties, there is frequently no one to protect the victims, because Vassar may continue to be largely ineffective at handling sexual harassment cases; indeed, as a recent Miscellany News Staff Editorial has pointed out, Title IX coordinators at Vassar tend to leave their positions after a short amount of time, preventing the building of trust between the coordinators and the Vassar community (Miscellany News, “Title IX adjudication process needs critical examination,” 05.04.2016).

Of course, there is a whole new set of difficulties for third parties themselves. If the potential perpetrator is a close friend of a third party, there’s a relationship issue in addition to a sexual harassment one. If the two are strangers to each other, it is tempting for the third party to remain silent due to a lack of knowledge about the potential perpetrator and about the situation itself.

Lack of knowledge doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of a relationship to the issue, however. We no longer live in the times of “not my business” or “their problem” if sexual harassment is involved. Much like child abuse and bullying, the ongoing issue of sexual harassment requires educated third parties to make a conscious effort to be proactive. No one will be faulted for trying to help. Even if they are, consequences of misunderstanding the situation is miniscule compared to consequences of rape, so step in.

It doesn’t take much more than that to bring about a tangible, positive impact for our people and for society. We simply need to be wary of all this on a daily basis, and we must be willing to condemn the perpetrators rather than to give them some arbitrary patriarchal respect.

As members of Vassar College—a community that has always been proud to stand on the front lines of progressive social change—we all have a moral duty to better educate ourselves on what sexual harassment is and what it means to the survivors.

The Miscellany News is not responsible for the views presented within the Opinions section. The weekly staff editorial is the only article which reflects the opinions of the Editorial Board.

2 Comments

  1. [Content warning: this comment uses words.]

    “Before I came to Vassar, I lived in a conservative setting where discussions regarding social change rarely occurred among high schoolers.”

    Maybe because the conservatives in your setting were not busy not raping women and young boys like big progressives Harvey Weinstein, Bill Clinton, and Kevin Spacey? As Vassar grads like progressive Meryl Streep who in full knowledge stood silent? For decades? Could that be why?

  2. Re: relevant excerpts
    “ever-motivated to fight against such things…traumatizing consequences that survivors are forced to face…77 percent of incidents were left unreported.
    21 percent of female-identifying students at Vassar were sexually assaulted!
    But,how to increase victim reporting ? How about a victim-center,trauma-informed approach to increase the prevalence of sexual assault reporting:
    Citizee.com
    (Interested individuals contact [email protected])

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