Feministe Feedback: What advice do I give someone who is being sexually harassed?

A very tough situation:

Hi Feministe,

This past year, my sister had a complicated experience with sexual harassment at her undergraduate institution. She told our family and also her therapist about this over the summer and has done a lot of really thoughtful processing in her personal life. Now she’s considering going to the institution’s sexual harassment counselor and initiating a formal complaint process. She is concerned that the professor be held accountable for his actions and also that he doesn’t turn around and take advantage of other students in the future. She doesn’t want the burden of keeping an eye on him entirely on her shoulders (obviously!). We’re all supportive of her looking into this, but my parents are concerned about the personal impact for her in going public (even in carefully controlled circumstances) with what happened. From a political/feminist point of view, I think it’s important for her to speak up, but also know there can be heavy personal costs to doing so. It’s unclear how the professor will react, obviously, when/if she lodges the complaint, and she will probably face some skepticism about her side of the story somewhere along the way. I would be grateful for any wisdom from your readers — especially people who have gone through a similar situation in the higher ed setting — on what to expect, how our family can support her, and what resources are out there for handling this particular part of the process.

Thanks in advance for any feedback!

Thoughts? Suggestions? Anyone dealt with a similar situation?

And remember you can send your Feministe Feedback questions to feministe-at-gmail-dot-com.

19 comments for “Feministe Feedback: What advice do I give someone who is being sexually harassed?

  1. SEK
    October 31, 2008 at 12:25 pm

    I had a student in the same situation, and one of the things the counselor told her after she’d come forward was “You’re not the first one to complain.” She took a lot of comfort in that, and I think it’s generalizable—if you’re having problems with this person, odds are someone else has too. There’ll be some skepticism, certainly, but that’s because some people are incapable of believing harassment ever amounts to more than a bull dyke being called “sweetie” by a kindly old gentleman.

  2. October 31, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    One thing that may comfort her is the knowledge that not only does she have a right not to be harassed, she has a right not to suffer reprisal for reporting harassment. So if the professor chooses to lash out at her, the law is on her side. She may want to address this explicitly when she talks to the relevant university officials — that may remind them to address it explicitly when they talk to the professor.

  3. leah
    October 31, 2008 at 12:39 pm

    Please tell your friend that she is not alone in dealing with harassment from professors. Unfortunately this is very common amongst undergraduate institutions, but a matter when brought to the attention of the administration is taken seriously and dealt with in a professional way. I don’t think she needs to worry about this going “public” just yet. Most likely this will remain a private matter between herself and the administration unless she choses to make it public. It is important for herself and other students to report incidents like these to keep them from happening again, and often the strength of one student will encourage others to speak out as well. If she does decide to make this public she should also be assured that she has a large community of people who are willing to support her and help her through these difficult times. An incident like this happened when I was a student to several young women on campus, and when one spoke out, the rest followed suit. The faculty banded against their colleague and voted against him returning as a full time professor when they felt a complacent dean would not do the students justice. Very few students ever found out about it, and those who did respected the privacy of the individuals involved. I would recommend her to find a faculty member that she trusts to guide her to the appropriate people to remedy this situation.

  4. Evan
    October 31, 2008 at 1:03 pm

    I agree with the words of support above. It takes a lot of courage to do what she’s planning on doing, and I think it’s great that she’s standing up in the face of what could be some unfortunate backlash.

    One of the things that she can do to make her case stronger is to compile a list of the times that she’s been harassed and the ways that it has happened. Those sorts of things protect against the professor saying that it was just an error in judgment (which, although highly unethical, can get a lot of people off the hook).

    She should also make sure that she talks to the appropriate agencies about their privacy policies first. Sometimes folks can be very good, but I know that my university’s policies are rigged in such a way that they often result in the professor and even others knowing who the complainant is. That’s not always a problem, but it’s something that is nice to know before, not after, the fact.

    Best of luck!

  5. susan
    October 31, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    If there’s a rape crisis center in her town or on campus they might be able to serve as victim advocates for her in the process. Most universities and/or colleges have an official process to report such incidences which can be confusing and sometimes disempowering, an advocate can help her navigate this as well.

    I’m a grad student at a big 10 University and last semester a woman came forward saying she had been assaulted by an economics prof. Once she came forward, about TEN other women came forward as well who had been scared to before. Reporting isn’t easy but, as someone else said, he’s probably done this to other women and it may make it easier for them to come forward. Unfortunately, the prof committed suicide before an investigation could commence. Also he was placed on PAID leave, which pissed me the hell off.

    Just keep supporting your sister and offer to advocate for her if there are no formal channels for such things.

  6. prefer not to say
    October 31, 2008 at 4:29 pm

    When I was in high school I was harassed in an extremely insiduous long-term way by a teacher. For a long time I thought I was just “making a big deal” so I kept it to myself. When things got so bad that I was scared to go back in the classroom, I told the administration. Who told me that I was over-reacting and should probably go on home-study. Then they had a social worker visit my family in order to assess what sort of mental health environment I had at home. It was made clear that if we made any more noise, all of the details of my family’s chaotic home life would be made public, and that no one would believe us.

    (At this moment, I am afraid to type these details even anonymously in a forum, because at this very minute I imagine every reader to be going “C’mon — if they sent a social worker to her home, she probably was kind of hysterical. There was DEFINITELY something else going on that had nothing to do with harassment. And besides, there are laws against those kind of things. No school board could get away with that crap.”)

    I just stopped showing up to school. I was the subject of much gossip, obviously. Months later — close to graduation — I accidentally found out I could file a complaint with the state. I did and after a thorough investigation the teacher’s license was revoked.

    But you know what? Two rounds of long-term therapy (and they were good therapists), a long training in feminist thought and a quasi-prestigious job later, I still feel like I’m crazy whenever I think about it. I still feel like it was my fault. I still feel deeply embarrassed and exposed that I let it happen, and I still can’t talk about it without crying.

    So, that’s real. Please, for all of you advocating that she go for it, never forget how real that is.

    Here’s my advice:

    First of all, the fact that your sister was greeted with belief when she first mentioned the problems means that she will most likely suffer a lot less trauma than I did should she encounter other people’s disbelief later on. So that’s important.

    Second of all, she has the right to approach the harassment officer to gather information before making any complaint whatsoever. Talk to the person about their own training. Talk to the person about the number of reported cases that actually result in discipline. Ask them what evidence is sufficient to take an action forward. Talk to the person about possible support networks for those suffering the effects of filing a complaint. Ask them if it would be more effective to hire a lawyer before making any complaint at all. It’s surprising how effective a lawyer can be in getting people to believe what you are saying.

    Third of all, I would tell herself to brace herself for both outcomes. I genuinely believe that if she files a complaint that results in no action, it won’t have been futile. Even filing complaints that are investigated contributes to an environment in which all employees watch themselves more carefully, are more discreet about their behavior. But to take the risk and file a complaint and have nothing formally done is deeply deeply damaging. It feels as if everyone has just told you that everything you’ve suffered is imaginary, and you are at fault for feeling it so strongly.

    On the other hand, if disciplinary action is taken against him, be prepared for incredible guilt. You will feel vilified — or even dissatisfied at how small the measure against him was — and then you will also feel profoundly guilty for having gotten him into “trouble.” Maybe she won’t — I HOPE she won’t — but this is a common reaction among even people who turn in rapists.

    Also, be prepared to feel like it’s all futile anyway. Sure he was sent to sensitivity training, but will that make any difference? Sure he’s not allowed to have female students in his office with the door closed, but if he violates that, who else will have the guts to come forward? Sure he got fired, but that won’t stop him from being an asshole to other young women in other situations.

    Intellectually, I DO feel like it’s worthwhile and necessary to rat out sexual harassers. Personally, I don’t know if I would ever have the strength to do it again.

  7. October 31, 2008 at 7:33 pm

    (((prefer not to say.)))

    I’d like to second what susan said: my college has crime and sexual assault services, and I’m pretty sure most colleges do. Even if they turn out to be not quite what you want, they would definitely the best people to ask who to go to.

    You said you think it’s important for her to speak up–please try extra hard not to pressure her if at any point she changes her mind about doing so. Take the time to explain to her that you’ll support her no matter where this goes or whether she chooses to end it.

    (Personal co-opting of thread alert: This is a huge part of why I’m irritated about the expectation that I’m supposed to meet with professors alone in their offices for conferences before the exams or about a paper. That shouldn’t be necessary; I shouldn’t have to put myself in a situation where I don’t feel 100% safe.)

  8. Peter
    October 31, 2008 at 9:42 pm

    I’m obviously not as qualified to offer any input, as others here. But, I had a good friend in grad school who filed a sexual harassment case against her advisor, and I think it was considered the one of the most prominent harassment cases in higher education in the state of california. There was a multi-million dollar settlement involved.

    I wish I could put you in touch with her. What she went through was incredible, and I’ve always admired her for sticking with it. All I can say is that the University was largely fair and supportive to her. For adminstrative and legal reasons however, the damn thing drug out for about 2 years. The professor, who was tenured, was ultimately shamed and chased out of the University.

    All I know, is that my friend endured significant emotional and psychological hardship. But, I think the University was largely fair to her, and she wasn’t stigmatized or anything. I think it was also all kept pretty hush-hush so it wasn’t neccessarily turned into a public spectacle on campus.

    So, I don’t know if this is typical. But, I sure wish I could put you in touch with my friend. She is an awesome person and probably knows more about this than anyone.

  9. Angela
    October 31, 2008 at 10:53 pm

    The best way to prevent sexual harassment is to establish strong personal boundaries. The minute he opens his mouth, you rip him a new one. And if he trys to retaliate by messing with your grades, tell your cousin Boo and he will make sure the guy does an 8-week stint at County Hospital.

  10. preying mantis
    November 1, 2008 at 1:05 am

    I really, really would not be surprised if, as others have mentioned above, previous complaints had been made or further complainants turn up after the initial complaint is made. My husband was sexually harassed by one of his co-workers while employed at a college, and one of the first things that came out when he complained was that the woman in question had a history of inappropriate comments and actions directed at male students. People with boundary issues and/or power-trip issues are rarely one-off offenders.

    And if it doesn’t really go anywhere–which might, unfortunately, not be shocking depending on the school–please remind her that the complaint having been filed or the alert being sent out will almost certainly result in an elevated level of scrutiny and/or the next student to express concerns being taken more seriously. Cold comfort, maybe, but it’s something to keep in mind.

  11. southern students for choice-Athens
    November 1, 2008 at 6:03 am

    Ok, so this is the writer’s sister, and she says her sister says she’s an undergraduate who has been been sexually harassed by a professor at her undergraduate institution (college, university, whatever). If it were my sister, I’d want to do the following two things.

    One, encourage her to speak up, as you want to do, but make sure she sees that there are many ways to speak up, some easier than others to do at first. The suggestion above to contact a local rape crisis center is a great one, they’ll certainly offer free counseling and referrals for legal advice, and are as well prepared to do some of the simpler tasks of talking out a harassment case as a much more complicated and violent case of sexual assault. They’ll also understand where their limits are and be prepared to refer her elsewhere to people who can help her further.

    The second think I would do is to seek out help on my own for myself, as anytime I start helping others I know I need to ask for help for myself, both to know I’m doing the right thing for someone I care about and also to build a support system for me if things don’t go as well as I would hope for the person I’m trying to help. I might do this by calling that local rape crisis center myself, not so much to “prepare” them for my sister’s call (I needn’t even need to give her first name, I could just says she’s Jane Doe) as to get information for myself on the campus history of handling similar cases and, as described above, referrals to local resources that I or my sister might follow-up on.

    When I ask for information on the campus’ history of handling similar cases I would be careful to say I don’t want to hear stories of cases that haven’t made the news, I just want general information, and if we’re going to discuss specific cases I’d want to just talk about cases that were in the news and not in any more personal detail than were covered in the media. It’s easy to get counselors talking about case histories which while they won’t compromise the privacy of the parties they’ll talk about (they won’t name names, of course) but it’s really not all that helpful to try to infer much on your own about specific cases as to how the entire institution, or even specific committees, will handle similar cases. There are too many variables from case to case to allow for that kind of generalization, and that’s inferring advice which counselors can’t give outside of specific cases, and then pretty much only to the parties involved who they are in direct contact with.

    It’s better to just try to inventory resources which your sister can then follow-up on and if you want to more research look into the specific procedures and rules involved for filing and pursuing a harassment case like your sister’s. Then you can have specific information available for her if she asks you for it, and pretty much only if she asks. I’d be better off playing my role as a supportive family member as best as I could, and leave the tasks of providing psychological and legal counsel to people more qualified than me. I could do a lot to help her get the best help for her, but after connecting her with that help I be better off on the sidelines for her to ask me for further help only if she thought it necessary.

  12. November 1, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    As someone who used to work in the dean’s office–PLEASE do come forward.
    Often I hear from students that want to complain about harassment, but won’t make a formal report. Without a formal report, action can’t be taken. And then I know that I have a slimeball, but have no way to censor him.

    In my university, when a complaint is made they come down on that shit like a hammer. As they should.

  13. Emma
    November 1, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    I’ve been in a similar situation. Most universities really do try to provide you some anonymity. The university really is on your side, in most cases. I have to agree with bug_girl: the administration will come down like a ton of bricks on the guy. She really should go talk to a dean.

  14. November 1, 2008 at 7:43 pm

    I guess we’re not troll-feeding? very good.

    I also want to agree that even complaints with no action are still meaningful (although totally frustrating and awful). Investigations into accusations like that often go on a permanent record (this is someone that the administrator in charge of hearing these complaints can tell you about), and can also make the difference if a later claim is filed.. cumulative evidence. So it’s still meaningful for any potential future victims, as well as reflecting poorly on someone in a way that they will have to justify to anyone that sees their record.

    hang in there, sister-of-commenter!

  15. November 2, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    I would tell her that any action she takes is a step int he right direction, and to not be surprised if the admin is hostile or blames her, or if nothing gets done, or if they treat it as a simple case of he says / she says. But, there is a chance they will be responsive, and it will make a difference, even a small one, if she steps forward, even if she doesn’t get the outcome she wants and deserves. Good luck to her.

  16. November 2, 2008 at 6:36 pm

    I notice that you are wanting to know what “advice” to give. Has she asked for advice? I agree with southern students, and would personally focus on being a support. I would leave the information piece to local experts (every institution and state/province has different policies and laws). You can also ask your sister what she needs and wants from you; perhaps there are pieces she is finding too overwhelming to do by herself, i.e. maybe she wants back up in talking with your parents.

    Angela, I have seen women with strong boundaries be victimized by sexual harassment. The fact is, anyone can be sexually harassed and it is not the actions of the victim that are of concern.

  17. truffula
    November 3, 2008 at 2:32 am

    I work at a University. A friend and fellow employee here recenlty decided to do something about a work environment/bullying situation that had gone on for some time. I’m really proud of her for this. She started at the Ombuds Office and from there it went to our Dean’s office.

    The Ombuds Office is a good place to start (the women’s resource center could be a good option too, if the campus has one). The ombudsperson helps students and staff evaluate options in as anonymous a setting as there is on campus because they don’t start a paper trail the way other offices must. For some people, that’s the safest-feeling first step.

    If the decision is made to make a formal complaint, an ombudsperson can attend meetings involving the student and administrators, to help keep it productive and on the up & up. Someone upthread suggested hiring a lawyer. Whatever the student does, she should have a support person/advocate with her in any meeting.

  18. southern students for choice-Athens
    November 5, 2008 at 5:37 am

    Just a quick reply following monika’s post above…the reason why being nondirectively supportive was emphasized in our post (amy and joseph here, at least two of us sign off on every post we do under the group’s name, though the “I” in our post above was joseph writing in the first-person) is because the question was originally posed by the “sister” of the woman harassed in the beginning of this blog topic, and because the email dropped several other references to how the family feels about her experience of harassment and the case and various issues involved.

    This isn’t to imply that the writer of the question posed by the “sister” (and indirectly by her family) doesn’t have the best interests of the woman at heart, but even if the same could be said about all family members who have taken some sort of position on this, there’s a tendency both for groupthink to take on a position of it’s own, and if only unconsciously to encourage the wronged party to pursue actions (or not pursue them) as much for the interest of the group as for the individual involved. This happens in part because the group has it’s own interests and is wronged in it’s own ways, maybe in significantly different ways from how the individual supposedly at the center of the case was wronged.

    This might be the case here even though the sister says she told “her therapist about this over the summer and has done a lot of really thoughtful processing in her personal life”. That’s also why we emphasized getting advice from local authorities, like a community crisis center, which would have a different perspective from both her therapist and also from on-campus sources that she might be familiar with.

    Her therapist may have a very good understanding of her feelings and interests but they probably won’t have direct experience with how students have faired in administrative/quasi-legal proceedings on campus, especially with a long-term perspective of how policies may have changed on campus in recent years. While campus resources like counseling centers and women’s centers may have a great deal to offer students in general and women in particular, once a student starts an administrative/legal process against a professor or administrator those resources may have a conflict of interest in providing unbiased advice on how to proceed in an adversarial way against that professor or administrator – and there may be more than one party involved who the woman who was harassed may run up against, if there are other parties in the administration who are supportive or who may come to the defense of the accused.

    This has seemed to become more the case in recent years, especially maybe the last 10-15 years or so, as colleges seem more and more to get victims (and sometimes accusers as well, especially if they’re undergraduates and not faculty or staff) who are alleging harassment or worse to agree to proceedings which are really much more restrictive of their legal rights than similar proceedings were 15 or more years ago. Off campus, local resources like a rape crisis center would have a better perspective on issues like that. On-campus resources, especially those that are often mostly student-run like campus women’s centers will be staffed by people who may be personally less knowledgeable about that (as these policies have changed over years and maybe over a decade), and even when they’re personally aware of issues like this those on-campus, quasi-official agencies may not be quite as free as off-campus resources to criticize administration policy, especially in how it may have changed in ways to reduce expectations of student’s due process rights in recent years.

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