The majority of American career women will experience some form of sexual harassment: Statistics range from nearly half to 65 percent. Though the prevalence of harassment for working women is troubling, the beliefs that reinforce, and indeed produce, this kind of harassment are much more troubling. These beliefs begin in school environments, and constitute a widespread abuse at Stanford and other colleges.
Let’s start with some definitions. Sexual harassment can range from suggestive remarks to assault. Such comments and behaviors are not merely jokes forced on sensitive types; sexual harassment is at best distracting and at worst undermining of the recipient’s ability to live and especially work freely. Whereas street harassment is often reduced to an unsolicited compliment, sexual harassment at school or at work, even online, is often reduced to a joke. Instead of seeing instances of harassment as funny, students at this institution must understand the root of the phenomenon in degrading gender ideology and its context in rape culture. Placing harassment in context shows how something seen as so innocent and playful at school becomes something so harmful in more formal working environments.
Gender scholar Michael Kimmel writes in his book, “The Gendered Society,” that sexual harassment is a psychological response to the threat of women in the once male-dominated workplace, a defensiveness toward feminism and a fear of homosexuality and “sissyhood”: Harassment reinforces male prowess and female submissiveness. It is a form of “gender policing” in which women are objects that must be reduced to their fundamentally sexual nature to make them unwelcome in the world of non-sexual ideas and action. Experimental studies support the idea that harassment, a typically gendered behavior committed by men, flows from gender ideology. One shows that men with these reinforcing beliefs about the threat of female equality demonstrate a significantly higher likelihood to engage in harassing behaviors relative to men who don’t share those beliefs, especially when the target was considered a feminist. Another study shows that men who are more interested in egalitarian relationships with women are more likely to identify certain actions as harassment than men who don’t share such interest.
The connection between harassment and rape culture, then, becomes a matter of the beliefs that the perpetrators of these acts share. A culture in which harassment is normal directly contributes to a culture in which rape is common and permissible; in which Title IX is a joke, not a law that prohibits unsafe accommodations and environments for women; in which domestic violence leads three women every day to be killed by an intimate partner or former partner. It is important to take these abstract notions of gender and sexuality seriously because beliefs about gender and inequality influence women’s safety.
This is an especially important task at a place like Stanford. For one thing, college is a time to question one’s beliefs and examine one’s origins. For another, when it comes to sexual harassment, school is like a playground where words and actions are tested before being carried on to the “real world,” wherever that may be. Sexual harassment is rampant in American schools where girls and boys develop norms of associations by gender, often learning to interpret the world through the lens of girl or boy.
What does this result in? Nationally speaking, 62 percent of women report harassment and 51 percent of men report harassing during their college years. This reality permeates the highest rungs of the societal ladder. Anita Hill, who declared during Clarence Thomas’ U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991 that he had sexually harassed her while he was her boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was interrogated and shamed in response.
But her story, so common and alive today, sparked debate and later, national legislation against sexual harassment. While her speaking up was ultimately fruitful, her experience is awfully reminiscent of that reported by rape victims, who are consistently questioned and shamed.
We must make greater strides to see the value of personal narratives, paying special attention to the lasting beliefs that produce these wide-ranging situations — from Elliot Rodger shooting at “sororisluts” to Evan Spiegel writing about shooting “lazers at fat girls.” By now, I’m tired of treating harassment like it lacks severity. My winter quarter last year was marked by relentless verbal jabs and winks, and when I admitted that I was bothered, my friends asked if I was “into him,” like the distraction was a joke. Harassment isn’t a joke to me, nor should it be to you. Rather, it’s pathetic. And it’s almost as if we’re all four-year-olds wandering this campus fending off cooties.
Will so many women ever get to stop asking people to grow up?
Contact Caitie Karasik at ckarasik ‘at’ stanford.edu.