Sexual Harassment Rampant Among Students, Victims Fear Social Repercussions

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Sexual Harassment at USF
Various forms of sexual harassment are prevalent on university campuses, but the victims of these incidents often keep silent to protect themselves and their friends. (Photo Illustration by Melissa Stihl|Foghorn)

Author’s Note: Initial reporting and interviews for this article were completed last spring. However, new reporting and updated interviews were done to address issues raised by the arrest on Feb. 12 of Ryan Caskey, a University of San Francisco senior who has been charged with the rape and sexual assault of four of his female classmates. Caskey has pled not guilty to these charges. We are aware this story includes graphic language, but it is important to acknowledge that sexual assault and harassment are happening on this campus and on many other campuses across the United States. The names of students and victims in this article have been changed to protect them.

One night, Jane Dixon and a few of her friends were outside Gillson Hall, a freshman dormitory at the University of San Francisco, drinking and partying, when things got out of hand. John, a good friend of Jane’s, was extremely drunk and high on cocaine. Jane knew John had had a crush on her for a long time; he even had a nickname for her: “monkey.” However, whenever John was intoxicated, he would try to make a move on Jane. On this particular night, he was lying in the dirt drunk with his pants down to his thighs. “He started looking at me and saying ‘monkey, monkey, monkey.’ I was like what, do you need help?” said Jane.
Jane noticed that John had an erection and tried to run, telling him to “put it away.” Jane said John continued to hassle her and said something along the lines of “Monkey, you gotta f- me, like you have to. We need to have sex, it will make my reputation so much better back home. You have the perfect body, and all I want to do is have sex with you.” It did not stop there; following this vulgar plea, he proceeded to pull out his genitalia, began masturbating, and chased Jane around. “I was drunk too. Everyone was laughing, and it was kind of like a joke,” said Jane.

This type of behavior may be appalling to a reasonable person and is legally considered to be sexual harassment; however, Jane’s reaction, or lack thereof, is typical of college students. Assistant Dean of Students Julie Orio said, “I think sometimes when situations come to us, it probably could have been resolved five steps before. But then it was kind of silence accepted, silence accepted, it’s not a big deal, its not a big deal, and then all the sudden it’s a big deal.”

News of USF senior Ryan Caskey’s arrest has the entire USF community talking about sex and violence. Many young women feel uncomfortable making waves in their social circles so they laugh off or endure offensive behavior from friends that they would never accept from strangers. And even if they do want to report unwanted sexual attention, it can be hard to know who to turn to or what will happen. “If it’s a situation where you have mutual friends, I think reporting [it] would cause a lot of unnecessary drama,” said Jane.
In 2005, a survey conducted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) revealed that 62 percent of college students say they have encountered some type of sexual harassment at school. The AAUW’s report emphasized that sexual harassment takes an especially heavy toll on female students, and that the majority of students do not report the cases.

According to the survey, sexual harassment is a major problem on most college campuses, and this university is no exception. In response to the recent events at USF, many students have blamed violence associated with military culture for the rapes allegedly committed by an ROTC student. However, it is important to note, none of the students interviewed for this story were in ROTC and such incidents are common on all kinds of campuses throughout the United States.

Peer pressure is especially tough for first-year students, who are in a new community and want to fit in, said Orio. Of the night outside the dormitory, during her freshman year, Jane said, “Reporting the experience never crossed my mind.” For some students, reporting harassment would disrupt their social lives, which in Jane’s opinion is much more important than “reporting one stupid incident.”

Another student, Elizabeth Smith, also chose not to report the sexual harassment she endured in a class her sophomore year. “Guys will make comments or say sexual things, and they just think it is funny. Because it happens all the time, our generation has become used to it,” said Elizabeth. Beginning around the first week of class, a male classmate of Elizabeth’s began commenting and writing notes about the way she looked and things she was doing. He would call her sexy, touch her hands and arms, and even attempted to caress her leg. Elizabeth verbalized her discomfort to her classmate; however, this behavior persisted throughout the semester. As a result, she dreaded going to class and avoided him on campus. “If I tried to report every gross comment a guy ever said to me, I feel like I would be in the counseling center every day,” said Elizabeth.
Victims of sexual harassment are protected under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) works with the Department of Education to protect civil rights in federally funded education and prohibit gender discrimination. Maureen Guilfoile, who worked as a Senior Equal Opportunity Specialist at the OCR from 1996-2005, said, “Schools subject to Title IX are required to maintain an environment that is free of sexual harassment.”

Title IX protects students from unwanted and unlawful sexual harassment at all university programs, on and off campus. Guilfoile said a student should report the incident to a school official and file a complaint with the OCR. “To file a complaint with the OCR a student can mail or fax a letter, fill out the OCR’s Discrimination Complaint form, or use the OCR’s electronic complaint form,” said Guilfoile.

Agencies including the OCR and the Department of Education are working diligently to protect students from sexual harassment; however, it is not society or the government that decides if behaviors are harassment, it is the individual. “What’s key with sexual harassment is it’s ‘unwanted’ so the person has to make the claim that it’s unwanted,” said Orio. Universities have written policies to protect students from such actions, and are attempting to provide their students with the vital knowledge and resources to deal with harassment.
University Policy

Administrators at USF say they are making strides to raise awareness of sexual harassment and that the necessary resources are available to students. Orio said, “When we do any type of training on say, sexual assault, we know that for every one report, there’s many others that go unreported.” Orio explained that USF focuses on educating students, especially first year students, about where to go and who to talk to, but the students have to be receptive also. “We’ve tried different things. I think some things have gotten better than other things, I don’t know if it has affected the entire community yet,” said Orio.

Although USF administration may believe the institution’s resources are sufficient for students to deal with sexual misconduct, they appear focused on training and advising employees rather than educating students, where the real problems lie. For instance, all faculty are required to take an online sexual harassment awareness course, similar to the AlcoholEdu course incoming students must take. “As our training efforts have taken root, which includes how to communicate concerns, more individuals have come forward,” said Maye-Lynn Gon-Soneda, assistant Human Resources director.

Gon-Soneda said students should know where they can report incidents about sexual harassment. However, some students and resident advisors agree that many students don’t. When sexual harassment victim Elizabeth Smith was asked if she reported her experience, she shrugged and said, “No, I didn’t really know what to do, or where to go.”

According to Debbie Lee, senior vice president of Family Violence Prevention Fund in San Francisco, “more often than not, sexual assault happens between people who know each other.” She explained that when people are acquaintances or have been friendly, they often feel it is their right to take the next step. “We need to create an environment where people are encouraged to come forward and when they do, the victims need to be believed and supported,” said Lee.

Students, faculty, and staff of USF have various definitions of sexual harassment, explanations of how people respond to it, and ideas as to what influences those behaviors. Department Chair of Gender and Sexualities Studies Bernadette Barker-Plummer said she thinks sexual harassment at USF is “quite pervasive.” “In my time at USF (14 years), many female students have talked to me about men seriously harassing them in some way, from insistent calling and following, to more general calls and comments on the streets.” She said that female students in her gender studies classes have often said their lives are much different from those of their male peers because of the small everyday harassments.

Defining Harassment

Orio said she thinks the term ‘sexual harassment’ is very broad, and that many people experiencing harassment don’t realize it. She said she believes students don’t report sexual harassment for reasons including “embarrassment, time, will the people believe me, do I want to go through this again, do I want to have to talk about it.” Orio also suggested that students don’t come forward because they aren’t convinced others will support them or agree that it is actually harassment.

Natalie Gomez, a third year resident advisor at USF last spring, said she is not surprised that young women dismiss harassment experiences. “There’s a certain level of apathy with sexual harassment, people feel like it’s commonplace, [because] it’s accepted in culture.” Some students think they don’t have the right to complain and should instead accept the behavior. Gomez said many students are afraid of judgments that might be placed on them if they attempt to speak out against sexual harassment.

During her years as a resident advisor, Gomez had many students come to her to talk about being sexually harassed. However, many of them did not want to report or release the information to a supervisor or staff, because the incidents involved drugs and/or alcohol and they didn’t want to get in trouble. Jane is a perfect example of a student who fears reporting sexual harassment to authorities, because drugs and/or alcohol were involved.

“We try to educate around that you can’t consent to sex if you’re intoxicated, that’s not consensual sex. But I don’t really think that’s known or thought about, so people can find themselves in situations where they actually didn’t consent, even if they thought they did or somebody thought one did,” said Orio, who knows there are grey areas when it comes to understanding sexual harassment.

Vice President of University Life Margaret Higgins was interviewed last week for some answers regarding the recent acquaintance rape/assault on campus. Many students have voiced concerns and fears of reporting sexual assault to authorities when drugs or alcohol are involved. Higgins said, “The consequences of the harassment or assault usually far outweigh the consequences of another violation of the student code of conduct.” Higgins stressed the importance of reporting sexual harassment or assault. “While I do not condone drug and/or alcohol abuse- the focus of the investigation and charges is usually placed on the harassment or assault.”

“I hope all of our students- regardless of personal consequence- would report any case, or even suspected case, of sexual harassment and/or assault,” said Higgins. “The consequences of not reporting can affect not only the student but the entire student community.”

“Most of us know or feel when a situation is turning bad or dangerous, but we sometimes override that instinct, especially when we are young, we want to seem cool or hip,” said Barker-Plummer. However, Barker-Plummer believes there is nothing to be lost in reporting harassment, and the student will only gain self-respect and safety by taking action.

Resident advisor Gomez said she also thinks that students are unaware of the resources that are available to them if they are sexually harassed. “Whether they [students in the dorms] know it or not, we [resident advisors] are a resource,” said Gomez.

In an attempt to educate students, the University provides every incoming student with violence prevention resources and a copy of the Fogcutter, the student handbook, which explains the sexual harassment policy. Students receive this information about sexual harassment during orientation, but Orio acknowledged that a lot of information gets thrown at students during that time, and the number of students who actually sit down to read the information is probably small.

Orio said students often don’t want to hear about assault, or harassment, or anything negative. She noted that students have an attitude of “that’s not going to happen to me,” so they tune out during orientation.

Campus Resources

Although students say that they do not know where to go or who to speak to, for the most part the resources and information exist. A concerned student can go to the Dean of Students Office, where a student resource team has been set up as extra support for students. This additional resource is someone who “can sit down and talk with them, advocate for them, and go to intake meetings with them,” said Orio.

Orio supervises a full-time coordinator of Judicial Affairs, who trains and advises hearing officers about sexual harassment. Through either in-person training or an online tutorial, faculty and staff are given a basic knowledge about sexual harassment and California law. The training addresses how to proceed if somebody approaches them with a sexual harassment concern, where to refer them, and other steps they should take. “We rely on ongoing education of faculty and staff to serve as early warning systems to prevent and correct sexual harassment,” said Gon-Soneda.

Resident advisors attend sexual harassment training in the summer, where for three weeks outside sources speak to them about such issues; they also attend a crisis issues seminar, and learn how to deal with the issue of sexual harassment and its aftermath.

Orio said, “Safety is one of the biggest needs, and how can we expect someone to perform well academically, socially, or personally if those basic needs aren’t being met.”

Students may choose to seek support or report an incident of sexual harassment; however, that does not change the emotional toll that the harassing behavior has on their academic experience. Students experiencing sexual harassment, specifically in the classroom, might feel uncomfortable there, find it hard to concentrate, or skip class and study groups to avoid the harasser.

Lasting Impact

Jane Dixon, the student who had the lewd experience outside her freshman dorm, has endured many more experiences of harassment, none of which she reported. In one case, Jane felt threatened by the harasser, and said whenever she saw him on campus she never made eye contact and tried to avoid him. “When I told people about it a few people were like ‘that’s not cool, that really sucks.’” But many of her friends dismissed her fears, telling her “that’s just his personality.” Jane was ecstatic when he transferred schools, but was equally disheartened by her friends’ lack of understanding during a difficult time.

Elizabeth said the comments made her very uncomfortable and made it difficult to stay focused. “I would usually laugh or blow it off, because I didn’t want to have any more conversation with him than was absolutely necessary,” said Elizabeth.

Gender studies professor Barker-Plummer said that experiencing sexual harassment has extremely negative affects on a student’s academic experience. “It can undermine her focus, make her afraid and stop her from pursuing her life.”

Jane Dixon seems resigned to living with unwanted sexual attention, and her reaction is representative of many young women.

“[Stuff] like that happens all the time, and you just have to blow it off. You have to like give it up that you’re a decently attractive person, and there are always going to be…men,” said Jane.

Many students avoid repoting sexual harassment because they dont think it’s a big deal, don’t know who to report it to, or don’t want the drama of making a public accusation. “Unless we deal with it, it won’t change,” said Lee. “Instead of sweeping issues under the rug, by reporting sexual harassment, the community is made aware and people can seek the help they need.”

Gomez, the veteran resident advisor said, “It takes bravery inside the individual, I understand that it’s a hard situation; but it’s not necessarily for you, to do something about it, but for the rest of the community and for the health of the community.”

10 COMMENTS

  1. Good article Sam! Really important for everyone to read. It starts with all the small stuff we brush off and ignore like “sexy texties” then it escalades into a bigger problem.

    good reporting!
    -S. Luu

  2. I’ve heard stories about less-extreme but still unwelcome sexual attention and that type of thing, “creepy” sexual texts, etc..

    I think one of the problems girls have with this, which I believe the writer may have mentioned, is that we aren’t exactly sure how far someone has to go for his actions to be “sexual harassment” and not just something you can blow off as annoying and immature.

  3. I agree it’s hard to know what exactly constitutes sexual harassment, but I think it’s important to remember that anything that is unwanted and that makes the person feel uncomfortable is harassment and is not acceptable behavior.

  4. Sexual harassment is something that in most definitely not addressed enough in our society and should be talk about more.I would like to thank the author for addressing this very important issue. I AM HOWEVER VERY UPSET ABOUT THE AUTHORS VIEWS TOWARDS ROTC. These men AND Women have taken oaths to protect this country and rights of freedom of speech and you continue to bash them because of one bad apple. you should be ashamed of yourself…

  5. I would actually like to retract my previous statement. I apologize for my comment on the author of this article, I believe she scripted a great article that was very UN-bias and informative. I hope that we can all address the problems of sexual harassment at college campuses and report happenings that do occur to avoid future catastrophes like the one we recently had.

  6. It’s really frustrating that it takes something like alleged rape to get people talking about sexual harassment. I think the major problem, especially on university campuses, is that the line between what is and is not appropriate is so ambiguous. Women (and often men as well) expect to be subjected to some form of verbal harassment. For women, the clothes they wear, the people they spend time with and the alcohol they may consume become methods for excusing harassment. This is completely inappropriate. It’s horrible what it takes to start a conversation about sex, sexuality and boundaries, but I’m really glad we’ve finally started to have the conversation.

  7. Thanks for all of your comments. I agree Melissa that it’s horrible it takes a rape to start this conversation, I should have submitted this article a long time ago…when I actually reported it. To Kyle, I was wondering why you thought I was being biased toward ROTC, because I was pretty sure I said that this WASNT an ROTC problem but a cultural and campus problem. Anyway, thanks again, and I hope more people will get involved.

  8. I saw your blog, and thoght some of your readers might be interested in reading an OCR Resolution Agreement. I think that most public schools ignore the requirements of Title IX until there is a complaint. This school district apparently did nothing and had nothing in the way of title ix

  9. i personally think that you guys are freaking out about some perverted ugly guys that never get sex. just punch them in the face and leave. you don thave to make a big deal about it my god.

  10. This is really a good article that everyone must read so that people will know what you can say when you’re being harassed by somebody. Nowadays harassment is found everywhere on Earth. It has it’s biggest incident reports in town. The best thing to do is to know how to avoid being harassed. One method is to have a safety device as protection. I have also experienced harassment by somebody. He wanted me to withdraw all the money that I have in my bank account. Good thing I have this safety device that my friend recommended me to use. The thief failed to continue his wrong doings after I stopped him. I want to share it with you and your family so you can protect yourselves from any harassment. Just visit this website http://www.SafeTREC.com/

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