Is Sexual Harassment Really Harmless?

stop-sexual-harassmentRecently, a case coming out of Oakland University has grabbed the attention of the local and national press (editors note: and another post right here on HAVEN’s blog). Joseph Corlett, a 56-year old OU student has been removed from campus for three semesters for using a writing assignment in an English class as a chance to write explicitly about numerous female professors. If you are so inclined, you can read his journal entries here. Corlett was found guilty of intimidating behavior, but not sexual harassment. He is not happy about the decision made by the school, so he is poised to sue. Now, let’s assume that Corlett’s actions do constitute sexual harassment (because they do). Corlett’s lawyer has drawn attention to a very pervasive myth by saying, “obviously he’s got a wild sexual imagination in some instances, but it’s not harmful.” How harmless is sexual harassment, really?

There is a simple reason why Joseph Corlett and his lawyer do not think this is a big deal: they are men. Men simply do not live in a reality where they are likely to be raped, beaten, stalked, or harassed. They do not constantly consider whether their behavior will protect them from an attacker. They do not feel threatened by every member of the opposite sex that walks down the street. Women do. And because of this, women find sexual harassment unnerving, threatening, and disrespectful. Taking all of this into account, when a woman tells you that she is intimidated, she is automatically correct. As our colleague Cara pointed out, intentions do not matter in sexual harassment. Right to free speech does not over shadow her feelings of being threatened, no matter what a harasser’s intentions are.

This is not just a case of a teacher being too sensitive and a man with a “wild sexual imagination.” Sexual harassment is condoned behavior taught to us by a culture that exploits and objectifies women’s bodies. We live in a culture where girls and women of all ages are taught to tolerate sexual harassment as a normal and inevitable part of their school or work day; as a consequence of simply walking down the street. The objects of Corlett’s desire are women who are experts in their field and who teach at an accredited university. Yet, this man has turned her into nothing but a sexual fantasy. The message to women and girls is clear: It doesn’t matter how smart, funny, successful, etc you are; what matters is how you measure up to the standard male fantasy. The frame of mind that tells a man “a woman’s body is there for me to look at and write about” can easily become “a woman’s body is public property for me to grab” or “a woman’s body is there for me to have sex with.” In this way, something as seemingly “innocent” as sexual harassment can easily turn into sexual violence.

Disrespect of women begins early. Even as early as adolescence, young women are already beginning to experience society’s disregard for women. A study last year by the American Association of College Women found that sexual harassment is prevalent for children in grades 7 through 12. 56% of girls and 40% of boys complained that they had been sexually harassed and gave examples of “unwelcome sexual comments, gestures, or jokes,” “being touched in an unwelcome way,” and “being called gay or lesbian in a negative way.” Especially disturbing is that the study found that teens who experienced sexual harassment did not want to go to school, had trouble sleeping, and often felt sick to their stomachs. And Corlett’s lawyer has the nerve to argue sexual harassment is harmless behavior?

We hope for our youth to experience some semblance of a carefree existence before adulthood. We like to believe the notion of women as sex objects are a pressure that only grown adults need to cope with. We want teenage girls to develop fun hobbies, learn about themselves, and perhaps find their first love in a safe environment. This is not a reality. Sexual harassment is prevalent early on in life. Girls as young as twelve are already being pressured to see themselves as sex objects. Boys as young as twelve are already getting the message that it’s alright to disrespect the opposite sex.

This is why these attitudes need to be confronted, and the earlier the better. At HAVEN, our Prevention Education program informs children as young as eight to avoid sexual harassment. Our “Gender Respect” program teaches third, fourth, and fifth graders that they should respect any type of gender presentation, avoid harassing behaviors such as name-calling or unwanted touching. Sixth and seventh graders are introduced to the term sexual harassment, encouraged to give examples that they see in their school or in the media, and are given tools to stop sexual harassment when it is happening to themselves or their classmates.

Our youth are our future. At HAVEN we believe that intervening with youth is the number one way to eliminate violence against women. That is why programs like HAVEN’s Prevention Education program exist, to reach out to our youth and teach them that this behavior is not OK. For more information about having a representative from HAVEN’s Prevention Education Program speak to your school, contact Cristy Cardinal, Prevention Education Director at (248) 334-1284 ext. 360.

By Liz Oakes, First Response/Court Advocate and Kathryn Kucyk, Prevention Education Specialist

Courtesy of HAVEN.

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