When Sexual Harassment Is a Campus Tradition

A faculty member recounts feeling that she couldn't complain about an event that humiliated her and other female professors, but was viewed as "good fun" by many others.

July 28, 2015
 

I have a picture saved in a folder on my laptop. It is a picture of me, and it was provided to me somewhat reluctantly. It’s a photograph of my face, taken from my faculty profile page at the religious college where I used to work, placed onto the body of a scantily clad lingerie model. This Photoshopped image was part of an annual tradition, one that used such manufactured images of many of the faculty and staff members at the institution as part of a presentation designed to “skewer” faculty and staff for humorous effect. Sometimes it was a suggestion that a religion professor who was also a Baptist minister actually wanted to be the pope. Sometimes it was a joke that one of our very tall business professors was secretly an Olympic beach volleyball player. The year that I was on the docket, I was a Vegas showgirl, and thus my head was superimposed upon the body of a midriff-baring, garter stockings-clad lingerie model in a semitransparent bra.

This performance was done during a convocation for students, but it was popular among faculty members and administrators, who made a tradition of attending the annual “roast.” Aside from the general fact that mocking faculty members in front of a group of students already skeptical of us is pedagogically questionable, the sexually suggestive Photoshopped picture of me -- and similar photos of some of my female colleagues -- was a clear case of sexual harassment.

But this had been done for years. It was simply “tradition” and we were supposed to be part of a family -- and what family doesn’t pick on one another just a little bit?

I like to think of myself as a strong woman, one who won’t put up with abusive comments or disrespect. I’ve learned to ignore street harassment; I’ve spent a lot of my life figuring out which battles are the ones to fight, and complaining about the minimal harassment I’ve experienced in the workplace really wasn’t worth the disruption to my life, though I would like to think that if it represented a pattern of behavior -- and others were being harassed as well -- that I would step forward and tell my own story.

But this I was afraid to complain about. I wasn’t present at this convocation, but all the same, it was humiliating -- so humiliating that some of my colleagues who were at the convocation wouldn’t tell me about it and refused to make eye contact when I asked them directly about what had happened. It was several days before someone involved with the program finally acquiesced when I said I wanted to see the image myself and sent me a copy of it. The experience undercut my authority in the classroom, as many of my students were already inclined to believe that women should not have positions of authority over men.

Nevertheless, I was afraid to complain.

I was afraid to complain about it, because the person who did the presentation every year was an administrator, one who, when we had our first mandatory sexual harassment training session for the campus employees, started with a joke: “If these rules had been around when I met my wife, I wouldn’t be happily married today.”

What was I going to do? This was a prominent member of our small-town community. I had seen administrators retaliate against faculty members for asking what I thought were reasonable questions or making reasonable complaints about their treatment, and I was untenured in a work-at-will state. Did I really have any choice? I had the evidence. It was a clear case. Quite likely, it would have simply resulted in administrators apologizing and being embarrassed, but it also like would have resulted in having to hear multiple times that “he’s a part of an earlier generation” for whom such things were different. More importantly, I feared I also risked losing my job, but without any proof that it was retaliation. I’d seen other people at that institution fired (or, more euphemistically, told that their tenure-track contracts were “not being renewed”) under mysterious circumstances. Because there was no record of any discussion -- and the fact that work-at-will means that employers don’t have to give you a reason to let you go -- those people could not prove any discrimination had taken place.

While this is certainly anecdotal and only my own experience, it does color the way that I think about claims of sexual harassment, both by faculty members and by students. When we think about harassment and our approach to it at universities and colleges, we need to remember that they are workplaces, despite all the talk about being members of a family or part of a community, with real disregard for equity. It’s difficult in many environments to come forward with complaints of harassment -- particularly when young scholars are being discouraged from doing so, either through well-meaning but ultimately wrongheaded advice like Alice Huang’s a few weeks ago, or through the outright attack on those who bring complaints about the harassment. It’s also difficult when so many of our institutions have steeped themselves in decades-long traditions that blur the boundary between work and personal lives, particularly when we forget that colleges and universities are not always the bastions of progressivism that the public sometimes thinks we are.

We need to think about these places and their traditions, and consider how an unexamined status quo can contribute to a larger environment that allows sexual harassment to go unchecked for years and that preserves and promotes a culture that thinks of women in positions of authority as merely objects to make fun of, not as leaders of institutions. Academe is part of a larger culture that promotes such objectification constantly, and I think it’s important to hear the voices of women who claim to have been marginalized or discriminated against, when those women are brave enough to come forward, and think about the legitimacy of those complaints. What seems like acceptable “good fun” to some people may seem unacceptable and hurtful to others, and their opinions and insights need to be considered.

Is there potential for abuse of Title IX or sexual harassment statutes as they currently exist? Of course. The potential for abuse of the system exists in any system. But even as we discuss the merits of Title IX complaints, we cannot forget the continuing problems that exist, those continuing problems that gave rise to the need for Title IX and sexual harassment laws in the first place.

These things are still happening, and we do ourselves and our students a grave disservice by cloaking them in the name of tradition and “good fun.”

Bio

The author, an assistant professor of English, no longer works at the institution described in this piece.

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