Drawing the line on sexual harassment

Imagine it’s a warm, sunny spring day in Chico and you are a young woman walking to Meriam Library on the Chico State campus to study. On your way, you pass a group of guys hanging out in front of the Bell Memorial Union. One of them makes a sexual remark and an obscene gesture in your direction, and the group bursts out laughing. You hurry into the library trying to ignore them, but you feel embarrassed and self-conscious. The term sexual harassment flickers briefly in your mind. Do you report it or write it off as typical college behavior? Or maybe it happens so often you don’t even notice anymore.

If so, you would not be alone. Drawing the Line: Sexual Harassment on Campus, a recently published national survey from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation, reports that nearly two-thirds of undergraduate college students, male and female, say they experience sexual harassment.

Conversely, the survey reveals only 7 percent report it to their university, even though many students—women in particular—admit they feel upset by the experience.

Students at Chico State are no exception. Though Chico State policy says that the university prohibits sexual harassment, it continues to happen. A university-compiled list of “common forms of sexual harassment” on campus includes a wide range of behaviors: obscene gestures, sexual innuendos, sexist comments, obscene or insulting sounds, jokes about sex or gender in general, sending lewd cartoons or letters, leering, sexual propositions, insistent invitations for dates, implied or overt threats, inappropriate touching, assault and rape.

The authors of Drawing the Line contend that the pervasiveness of sexual harassment on college campuses, along with students’ complicit silence, contributes to an unacceptably hostile learning environment. At the same time, many college students feel that the most common forms of sexual harassment are not a big deal.

Part of the problem for Chico State employees and students alike is the sometimes subtle and complex nature of sexual harassment. In certain circumstances, the most common actions may be inoffensive, or even welcome, advances. An insistent invitation, for example, generally becomes harassment when it reaches the level of “unwelcome” sexual conduct. The line between welcome and unwelcome can vary from person to person, and often the harassers don’t know when they’ve crossed that line.

“I think that’s the key here; most people don’t even know they are doing it when they do it,” said Ingrid Cordes, Chico State’s director of Employment Practices & Employee Disability Programs, the Human Resources office that handles sexual harassment claims involving university employees. “They don’t know it’s inappropriate.”

To help clarify what is and isn’t “inappropriate” behavior, Chico State initiated a mandatory two-hour, interactive online sexual harassment training for approximately 900 supervisory staff in October of 2005 in compliance with new state laws. Since then, Cordes says, the number of reported incidents has actually increased.

“People now see that what they’ve been hearing, seeing, is inappropriate,” she explained.

For instance, after completing the new training, Frank Pereira, a lecturer in the Computer Science Department, says he became hypersensitive to his own potentially inappropriate behavior. He now tends to err on the side of caution. Though he teaches courses on 3D character modeling and digital photography—media that often depict the human form—Pereira now knows not to keep any nude works of art in his office. Though he has no problem with such art, he says, “I understand their point of view, that it does intimidate some people,” he said.

Words can make people uncomfortable, too, and Pereira has learned to choose his wisely. “You gotta be careful on what you say,” he continued, “so you are alert to little words you use.” The most reliable way to avoid sexual harassment, he says, is to just “use common sense and your good judgment.”

Common sense might mean something different to different people, however.

That’s where Cordes steps in. Most claims that reach Cordes’ office, though, don’t even require an investigation. In her department, a formal sexual harassment claim is filed only in two specific circumstances: quid pro quo sexual harassment, in which someone asks for sexual favors in exchange for a grade, a raise, or the like; and sexual harassment that is severe and pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment. Cordes said that since she started working in her current position in June of 2002, she hasn’t seen a sexual-harassment claim reach that point.

“Most of the reports that I get don’t rise to that standard,” Cordes said. “They are simply inappropriate cartoons that are on a faculty member’s door, or inappropriate conversations. And just for me to go and talk to that person and say, ‘Look, what you are doing or what you have said is offending somebody and I want you to stop.’ …Usually that’s all it takes.”

Linda Schurr, Chico State’s Student Judicial Affairs Adviser, says the same is true in her office, which handles student-to-student sexual harassment on campus. Of the 13 reports of student-perpetrated sexual harassment her office received in the 2004-2005 academic year, she said most were “resolved in an informal way.” Usually, the students were brought in to discuss the behavior, which resolved the issue.

But, Schurr also acknowledges—in accordance with the Drawing the Line survey results—that many students never report student-to-student sexual harassment. Schurr attributes the students’ reluctance to file claims to four main causes: the fear of retaliation, the feeling that the harassment is somehow their fault, the hope that if ignored the behavior will go away, and uncertainty of the definition of sexual harassment.

But some students, Schurr said, can be particularly vulnerable to common forms of student-to-student sexual harassment if it is a recurring issue. “Certainly if it’s repeated and makes them feel uncomfortable, they should do something about it,” Schurr said. She encourages students with questions to talk to her in the Student Judicial Affairs office.

Though the campus’s Human Resources department and Student Judicial Affairs office provide a safety net for Chico State students and employees, the university would prefer to avoid common forms of sexual harassment altogether.

Part of ending the problem is educating Chico State’s 15,919 students, in addition to the university’s supervisory employees. To that effect, Cordes is working with the Campus Climate Committee to publish a sexual-harassment awareness brochure aimed specifically at students. Cordes said the brochure would be distributed across the campus to help students “understand what is inappropriate and what they can do about it.”

Though 97 percent of college students, according to the AAUW survey, say they know what sexual harassment is, most of them, like Chico State freshman Stephanie Bishop, can give only a very vague description.

“I’d define sexual harassment as any unwanted things said or done,” she said. Bishop said she and most of her friends have experienced sexual harassment, but nothing she would report. In fact, if she did need to report something, she admitted, she wouldn’t even know how.

For the most part, though, Bishop, like college students across the nation, doesn’t see the need to report common forms of sexual harassment.

“I just think that, I mean, as big a topic as sexual harassment is… it’s very common and a lot of people learn to just kind of brush past [it].”

So far, sexual harassment on campus—jokes, remarks, gestures or looks—haven’t interfered with Bishop’s college career. But, she said, if someone who made her uncomfortable wouldn’t leave her alone, she would find out how to report it. That’s where she would draw the line.