Countering Violence Against Women
Academia Is Still Plagued by Sexual Harassment and Assaults
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of stories on the topic of violence against women that Truthdig is presenting on a biweekly basis. To read other pieces in this series, click here, here, here and here.
One of the great accomplishments of the modern women’s movement was to “name” the hidden realities of women’s lives.
If you are old enough to remember life before the movement began, you may recall that the public blamed rape victims and believed they had probably “asked for it.” Most women felt too ashamed to report rape. Just two words existed to make sense of marital rape, date rape, domestic violence or sexual harassment: “That’s life.”
During the 1970s, many serious intellectuals began to redefine customs as crimes. Wife beating, previously viewed as a private matter, was renamed “domestic violence” and became punishable as a type of felonious assault. Rape, always described as an act of lust, came to be understood as a physical assault. Predatory behavior by a superior was newly defined as “sexual harassment,” a violation of a woman’s civil right to earn a livelihood.
Although many institutions began teaching professors and students about sexual harassment, it wasn’t until 1991 that these words entered public discourse. That is when Anita Hill famously accused Clarence Thomas, during his confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court, of outrageous sexual predatory behavior. At first, many women and men doubted her accusations, but soon growing numbers of women remembered a long-repressed event and realized that they too had experienced sexual harassment.
A few years after Hill’s testimony, I realized that a former professor—who had repeatedly called me, even after I consistently refused his attentions—had voted against my admission to a doctoral program (secretaries provided a great network of informers for the women’s movement). At the time, I didn’t care, because I didn’t like the department and had decided to pursue a different doctoral program. I never thought about it again until Hill’s testimony made me realize that this professor could have derailed my career.
I decided to write an article about what had happened. What mattered to me was not his name, but the fact that thousands of women were gradually realizing that sexual harassment could have or actually did change their lives. I didn’t disclose his name, the discipline, the university, or even the state in which this took place.
Astonishingly, I received a letter from this professor, accusing me of lying. Note that not one other man in the United States took the time to track me down and write such a letter. I ignored it, and sure enough, he became outraged. To be fair, he had been such a womanizer he probably didn’t remember what he had done. He wrote me again. With great indignation, he angrily demanded I answer his letter. This went on for a few months and finally stopped.
For years, I would bump into this professor on occasion and he would flee the room, afraid I would denounce him. He still didn’t understand that I had wanted to expose the issues and had no desire to write about him personally.
You’d think that after all these decades, sexual assaults and harassment would have declined. As a University of California professor, I had to take an online exam that tested my ability to understand sexual harassment. As a journalist, I had to watch a film that showed brawny men molesting female employees.
The effort to teach people about sexual harassment became increasingly widespread. Yet to this day, the media expose nearly pornographic stories about sexual harassment and sexual assaults that have taken place on university and college campuses.
Consider, for example, how many cases of sexual assault and harassment The New York Times exposed at UC Berkeley, the flagship of the University of California system, in a March 2016 article.
One graduate of Berkeley’s law school, Jennifer Reisch, described how a former dean had sexually harassed her 16 years ago. And not much has changed since. The most shocking accusation was made by Tyann Sorrell, executive assistant to Sujit Choudhry, who became the law school dean in 2014. (For some reason, he had failed to take the online exam about sexual harassment, but no one noticed.)
The initial investigation reported that Sorrell accused Choudhry of “hugging, kissing her cheek, squeezing her arm, rubbing her arms and shoulder, and holding her hands to his waist at the workplace.” Eventually, Choudhry was forced to resign as dean.
The list of complaints exposed at UC Berkeley alone is astonishing. The university fired an assistant coach who had tried to corner a reporter in a parking garage. “With all candor,” he admitted to university investigators, “I was trying to trick her into going upstairs.” In addition, according to the Times report, the university is investigating 16 other claims of sexual harassment and nine that involved sexual violence. Two other complaints have been filed with the federal government, and three women have brought a civil suit.
By now, you’d think such behavior would have declined and that men in power would fear women filing complaints with the office in charge of sexual assaults and sexual harassment. Perhaps more women are enraged, and that is why the numbers of complaints have grown. Or perhaps some of these women are lying. But having helped many students go through this process during my long career as a professor at both UC Davis and UC Berkeley, I don’t think many undergraduates or graduate students would willingly go through the interrogation that follows the filing of a complaint against a higher-up. By making such charges, a woman risks her future. It doesn’t take much for an aggrieved professor to write the kind of letters or make the negative phone calls that can end a woman’s career.
Students are convinced that the university is not doing enough to stop this behavior. As Nicoletta Commins, a graduate student in public health at UC Berkeley, told The New York Times, “There is a feeling that you [a faculty member] can do this stuff, and you’ll just get a slap on the wrist.” In response, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks announced a variety of initiatives to raise consciousness about sexual harassment and sexual assaults, including holding a half-day of activities for faculty and students next fall. To call this lame is an understatement.
Every day, the news is filled with stories about date rape, gang rape and sexual harassment on various campuses. The punishments do not fit the crime. Sometimes athletes get a slap on the wrist; often professors get paid leaves or a reduced salary.
I have no way of judging whether women are safer or more endangered at universities than they used to be. The sheer number of media stories, however, certainly creates the impression that there is an epidemic of sexual violations on campuses. And Vice President Joe Biden felt compelled to stand before the Academy Awards audience at this year’s ceremony and ask people to “take the pledge” that they would not engage in sexual assault against a woman or man.
What I do know is that most students recognize what has happened to them and that some women no longer silently slink away in shame. The good news is that feminism changed the terms of discourse and debate. What used to be hidden has been brought to light, giving young women a sense of entitlement and a voice with which to protest sexual injustice. The bad news is that language by itself has not changed men’s behavior.
Ruth Rosen, a former University of California professor and former columnist at the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle, is the author of “The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America.”