New Form of Gender Equity

Study finds little difference in reports by men and women of sex harassment on college campuses.
January 25, 2006

A new report by the American Association of University Women finds some surprising commonalities among men and women when it comes to sexual harassment. According to the authors of “Drawing the Line,” nearly two-thirds of all college students experience some form of sexual harassment -- with male (61 percent) and female (62 percent) students equally likely to encounter sexual harassment in their college experiences.

The survey was administered online to 2,036 male and female undergraduate college students, ages 18 to 24. The sample included students enrolled in public and private colleges and universities, including institutions offering 2-year as well as 4-year degrees. Sexual harassment was defined as “unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior which interferes with your life.” The survey also noted that “sexual harassment is not behavior that you like or want (for example wanted kissing, touching or flirting)”. Legal definitions of harassment tend to be much narrower than that used by the association.

Despite the nearly identical percentage breakdowns of sexual harassment by gender, 3 female students -- and no males -- presented their sexual harassment experiences during a Tuesday press conference releasing the survey’s results. Ashley Carr, the communications director with the organization, said that this was not by design, but by circumstance. “There was an effort to get students quickly,” she said. "And it was difficult to get many on short notice.”

Association leaders were especially concerned about outcomes of sexual harassment on women. “Female students are particularly troubled by sexual harassment,” said Barbara O’Connor, president of the association, during the press conference. “They are upset, embarrassed, angered and scared by these experiences, although it is rare that they actually report harassment to a college official. While most colleges and universities do have policies in place, sexual harassment continues to have a damaging impact on the educational experiences of many college students.”

According to the report, female students are more likely to be the target of sexual jokes, comments, gestures, or looks, while male students are more likely to be called gay or to have had messages posted about them via the Internet.  

Females are also more likely than males to change their behavior in some way as a result of a sexual harassment experience.  For example, on average they tend to avoid a building where the behavior occurred more so than a males.

“Harassers are more likely male (51 percent of males versus 31 percent of females admit to it), and they tend to do it because they think it’s funny,” said Elena Silva, director of research with the organization, during the press conference. “[L]ess than one-third say they harass because they thought the person liked it or because it’s just a part of college life. And less than one-fifth (17 percent) say they did so because they were romantically interested in the person.

“By far, the most common rationale of harassers, both male and female, is: 'I thought it was funny,'” added Silva.

Christina Sommers, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who considers herself a feminist but who criticizes many feminist groups, has concerns with the report. She said Tuesday that the report’s authors should have distinguished between “teasing, hassling and harassing behavior” in order to have had more valid results.

“They seem to want to make women out to be victims,” she said, charging that the organization has become more politically motivated in recent years. “So, they say that women ‘feel more deeply’ about sexual harassment. But what if men just aren’t talking about it or disclosing it? On lots of measures, women tend to ‘feel more deeply,’ but what does that mean?”

Sommers also said that she found it interesting that the numbers on harassment were so close, considering that there are fewer men than women on many college campuses. “For many women on campus, their problems are not ones of harassment,” she said. “It’s that they can’t get a date.”

“They don’t say anything about the lack of civility on many campuses,” added Sommers.  “Women often perform The Vagina Monologues on campuses nationwide, but the association doesn’t say anything about this new style of raunchy feminism.”

Carr said that despite such criticisms, women in the survey appeared to be more affected by sexual harassment, so it is appropriate that their issues be highlighted as such.


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