Facing criticism for victim blaming, Stanford revises sexual harassment guidelines webpage, but criticism persists

May 18, 2020, 2:21 a.m.

After the Stanford Sexual Harassment Policy Office (SHPO) website received criticism from faculty and students for “victim blaming” and minimizing sexual misconduct in guidelines for stopping harassment, the University has revised the SHPO page, removing a sample letter that tells victims how to confront perpetrators, and adding information about how to report sexual misconduct to the University.

However, activists say the site still has issues: A warning that false reports could result in discipline plays into the misconception that false accusations are common, which chills reporting, and the guidelines for reporting misconduct are still confusing and contradictory, these activists say. 

The guidelines, which are outlined under SHPO’s “What You Can Do to Stop Sexual Harassment” page, specifically address sexual harassment perpetrated by “a supervisor, a teacher, or someone else who has power over you.”

Fourth-year sociology Ph.D. student Emma Tsurkov, who serves as co-director of sexual violence prevention for the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU), said that she and another graduate student met with SHPO Director Laraine Zappert in February 2019 to “point out the problematic recommendation to confront one’s attacker” included in the guidelines. 

“We were told that it is language left over from previous decades, that was not updated,” Tsurkov wrote in an email to The Daily. “We were told SHPO would work on updating this. This should have been rectified long ago.”

On Friday, Stanford Law professor and Title IX activist Michele Dauber posted a tweet speaking out against SHPO’s recommendations. 

“Hey ladies, Stanford has some hot tips on what to do when your prof is creepy,” Dauber wrote. “Just tell him to stop and ‘typically the troubling behavior will stop right away.’” 

In the tweet, Dauber was referring to a sentence on the website that previously advised victims to “send a written statement” to perpetrators and said, “typically you won’t have a response to your letter, but the troubling behavior will stop right away.” Dauber said this trivializes sexual misconduct by suggesting that victims can stop harassment by simply asking their perpetrator. 

Meghan Warner, a third-year sociology Ph.D. student who studies sexual violence, echoed Dauber in an email to The Daily, writing that, “Every step of this guide is inappropriate. It’s based on the false premise that sexual harassment is simply a miscommunication.” 

Critics of the guidelines said they were especially upset by the website’s implication that victims hold any responsibility in their harassment. 

“It is deeply troubling that while survivors rights have been threatened at a national level with Betsy DeVos’s new Title IX regulations, the Stanford administration is also failing its students by providing victim blaming, and antiquated advice that may end up further harming them,” wrote former ASSU President Shanta Katipamula ’19 M.S. ’20 in an email to The Daily.

“It is never the job of a student to tell faculty to stop harassing them,” Dauber added in an email to The Daily. “It is the job of the university to ensure that we do not have faculty who are sexually harassing students.” 

Critics also took issue with a sample letter the website had provided as a template for students to send to a professor who is sexually harassing them. 

The letter, Dauber said, which begins with an address to “Mr. Eager,” “minimizes sexual harassment and characterizes it as simply boys will be boys.” 

“A professor sexually harassing a student is not ‘eager’ — they are dangerous and destructive predators who should not be teaching here,” Dauber wrote. 

“A student who experienced sexual harassment and is looking for information would get a clear message from this website: you are alone,” Tsurkov added. “The suggestion to confront one’s abuser is horrifying and is the opposite of trauma-informed, to put it mildly.” 

Warner criticized a portion of the example letter in which the theoretical victim writes, “Your persistent comments on my clothing and requests to meet socially are upsetting to me and I have told you they are unwelcome.” 

“Sexual harassment is not just ‘socially upsetting,’” Warner wrote. “It can have deep psychological, financial and professional implications as well.” 

Seo-Young Chu M.A. ’01, a graduate student who accused now-deceased English Professor Jay Fliegelman Ph.D. ’77 of sexual harassment and sexual assault in 2000, also took to Twitter to condemn the sample letter. 

Other students said SHPO’s guidelines were contradictory. 

“It stood out to me that the student who statistically, will most likely be a woman in this example, is required to not ‘be polite’ in one sentence, but ‘keep it polite’ in another,” wrote fifth-year earth systems Ph.D. student Katerina Gonzales, referring to a section of the since-updated page that tells victims “this is not a time to be polite or vague” and later encourages victims to send a written statement that is “polite, low-key, and factual.” 

“This highlights the impossible standards that survivors of harassment and violence have to abide by,” Gonzales wrote. 

According to Gonzales, the initial page on the website “puts the onus and blame on the target of the harassment” with guidelines telling victims to “consider the possibility that the harasser may not realize that a particular behavior is offensive.”  

After receiving criticism from Twitter users and student activists, SHPO updated its “What You Can Do to Stop Sexual Harassment” page on Saturday. 

“It was brought to our attention this weekend that the current website contains some dated content that seems to make light of the very serious matter of sexual harassment,” wrote University spokesperson E.J. Miranda in a statement to The Daily on Sunday. “We apologize for that and have made some changes to the site.”

Miranda added that the University will launch a new website in fall. 

“New policies are being developed in line with federal regulations that were just issued and which go into effect August 14,” Miranda wrote, referring to the updated Title IX regulations published by the U.S. Department of Education last week. 

Before it was revised on Saturday, the “Some steps you can take, or ask for help with” section of the site advised students to “speak up,” “tell the person to stop” and to “consider the possibility that the harasser may not realize that a particular behavior is offensive.” 

The section now tells students to “report” the misconduct to Stanford’s Title IX coordinator and “consult” with Stanford resources to “explore options towards resolution.” 

Also before Saturday’s revisions, the second step of the guidelines had recommended that students “send a written message to the harasser,” that is “polite, low-key and factual,” stating that “this can often succeed in stopping sexual harassment.” 

This was changed to include an additional statement telling students that “It’s okay to ask for the conduct to stop” and reaffirming that “this is not a time to be polite or vague.” The section still encourages victims to send a written message to their harasser and maintains that “this can often succeed in stopping sexual harassment.” 

SHPO also deleted a note on the previous version of the page telling victims, “If the message is to work, it must be a private communication between the persons involved, so don’t send a copy to anyone else” and removed the statement that “typically, you won’t have a response to your letter, but the troubling behavior will stop right away.” 

Finally, the SHPO site no longer links the controversial sample letter

After SHPO published revisions to the site on Saturday, Dauber tweeted, “VICTORY! They removed the creepy ‘sample letter’ and remembered to include as step 1 information on how to actually report to the University.”  

However, Dauber and other critics of the site said the changes were not sufficient. 

Dauber criticized the site’s inclusion of a warning that “making a false report or providing false information is grounds for discipline.” She noted that this could potentially dissuade victims from reporting. 

“This evidence-free sentence is threatening punishment for an incredibly unlikely event,” she wrote, which “both reinforces the myth that victims lie and chills reporting.”

“Repeated empirical research has shown that the number of intentional “false reports” of sexual violence is less than 10%,” Dauber added, citing research by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. 

Moreover, critics said the updated site still presents confusing reporting policies, directing all victims to the Title IX coordinator, despite the fact that Stanford’s administrative guide for sexual harassment says the Title IX coordinator handles “incidents involving students,” while non-student victims should report to SHPO.  

“The website itself seems to focus more on providing generic ways an individual can respond to sexual harassment rather than providing helpful tips for reporting or clarifying a complex policy,” wrote ASSU Co-Director of Sexual Violence Prevention Krithika Iyer ’21 in an email to The Daily. 

Dauber also denounced a new statement that was added to the website with the revisions. It tells victims that “It’s okay to ask for the conduct to stop,” language that Dauber called “infantilizing and inappropriate,” as she called upon the University to provide evidence that “sending a message to a harasser can often succeed in stopping sexual harassment.”

“Simply encouraging students by suggesting that there is evidence that this could work to take a risk by writing a letter that may be career ending for them,” Dauber wrote. “Delete it or show your work.” 

Contact Sarina Deb at sdeb7 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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