Nearly two thirds of U.S. college students are affected by sexual harassment — ranging from offensive jokes and gestures to touching and grabbing, according to a study released on Tuesday. Men are more likely to harass than women, but women and men are equally likely to be harassed on U.S. campuses, according to a report by the American Association of University Women. Researchers found that 62 percent of college students experienced sexual harassment, and 32 percent of college students said they were victims of physical harassment. “The primary form of harassment that we’re seeing is actually non-contact: it tends to be remarks, gestures and jokes,” Elena Silva, the report’s co-author, said in a telephone interview. “But the fact that one third of college students are experiencing some form of physical harassment is certainly a concern.” In a representative survey of 2036 undergraduates at U.S. colleges and universities, 41 percent said they had sexually harassed someone. “In most cases, these students say that they thought it was funny, the other person liked it, or it is ‘just a part of school life,’” the report found. Common types of physical harassment include being touched, grabbed or pinched in a sexual way, or intentionally brushing up against someone in a sexual way, the study found. Sexual harassment like most forms of harassment is an act seen differently by different people. Some people don’t see their actions as harassing, but as teasing. However, anyone who has experienced incessant teasing understands how something initially perceived as a tease can quickly move to annoying, and then to harassing based on frequency, context and content. The study above found that most harassment is intended by the harasser as a tease. Sometimes sexual harassment is deliberately malicious.
Too often behavior meant as an innocent tease is seen as inappropriate and even intimidating. The best advice I can offer to people who think they are teasing, is that touch of any kind is not ok without permission. Even verbal teasing is simply not appropriate unless you know the person very well and are sure what the response will be. When in doubt, don’t do it! For those that feel harassed, it is important to “nip it in the bud”. An immediate comment directly to the harasser about how the behavior is undesired should in most cases end the behavior. If the harasser doesn’t stop, or is in a position of authority over you, and you do not feel safe approaching the person directly, you probably have at least two choices. Send the person a written memo describing in detail the behavior, how it is perceived, and requesting that it stop. Or you can go directly to the person’s supervisor.
In all cases, keep a detailed written record of the behavior and your attempts to end it, and the response of those you approach. Should the problem continue, you will have a written record with descriptions, times and dates and the basis to take the complaint to a formal investigation. Bring your a copy of your written record up the chain of command until you have exhausted all options internal to the organization. If you can’t find satisfaction internally, you may have to bring the complaint to an attorney or a human rights ombudsman in your local community or state. The only way to prevent sexual harassment is with school and work place education. But even with education, the only sure way for the victim to protect her/himself is to have the courage to stop it.