Who Counts When We Talk About Sexual Harassment?

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ask first by Robert Jack 啸风 Will on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licenseHere is a typical scenario that might be used on campus for a discussion about resources on and responses to sexual harassment:

A student in your course tells you that a member of her writing group for the course has been making inappropriate gestures and comments to her for several weeks. She reports that last night the group had a meeting at the library. After the meeting, everyone split up. She went to the study area on the third floor. About five minutes after settling in at a table to do some work, she realized that the problem group member was watching her from the stacks on the other side of the room. She says that she felt uncomfortable, so she gathered up her belongings and moved to a different area on the 4th floor. Unfortunately, she was followed and was being watched again. A few minutes later, the other student blocked her in the corner and tried to grope her. She fought back and got away, but now she is reluctant to come to class and does not want to remain in the writing group. What resources can you suggest to help her? How do you handle the situation?

This scenario works for a discussion on campus. The problem arises when this kind of scenario is the only kind that is discussed. You see, academic communities often have limited vision when it comes to dealing with sexual harassment, abuse, and violence. It may not be the issue that first comes to mind, however.

What’s the Issue?

Let me share an excerpt from Virginia Tech’s “What to Do if You Have Been Assaulted in the Past 72 Hours” instructions (scroll down to the last section on the page):

  • You can have a PERK exam even if you do not make a police report. You will not be responsible for the cost of the exam.
  • If you think you want to make a report to the police, the hospital will do a forensic exam to collect evidence, and can then do a drug screen if you think you may have been drugged.
  • The hospital will contact the Women’s Resource Center of the NRV and an Emergency Advocate will meet you at the hospital to provide support and information. These services are free.
  • If you wish to contact the police at one of the numbers above both the Women’s Resource Center and the Women’s Center at Virginia Tech have advocates who will go with you to make the report.

Those details are presumably just fine for the student in the scenario above. They don’t make sense for every student who may want to report an assault, however. Let me explain why by beginning with some statistics on sexual assault. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) reports the following details on their Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics page:


  • “Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted.” (Department of Justice)
  • “1 out of every 10 rape victims are male.” (Department of Justice)
  • “21% of TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming) college students have been sexually assaulted, compared to 18% of non-TGQN females, and 4% of non-TGQN males.” (Association of American Universities)
  • “4.3% of active duty women and 0.9% of active duty men experienced unwanted sexual contact in FY14.” (Department of Defense)


The RAINN page on Campus Sexual Violence: Statistics states, “Among undergraduate students, 23.1% of females and 5.4% of males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation.”


Do you see the issue now? If the student looking for help is one of the 5.4% of undergraduate male students who experiences rape or sexual assault, does support from the Women’s Resource Center and the Women’s Center at Virginia Tech make sense? What if you are one of the 21% of TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming) students? The issue, of course, is that far too many of the campus resources available discuss sexual harassment, assault, and violence as if they only happen to women.


This limited vision ignores any student who does not identify as a woman. As if being the victim of sexual assault is not traumatic enough on its own, these students are at least implicitly treated as if their experience couldn’t have happened. After all, there is no relevant suggestion for the support they will receive. Beyond what the absences in this policy say to male students, they suggest that we can only address the issue of sexual harassment with a binary definition of gender identity. We can do better.

Taking It to the Classroom

The first step to improving our campus discussion of sexual harassment may well be taking it to the classroom by going through the steps I discussed above:


  1. Begin by asking students to read a campus statement on sexual assault or harassment, like Virginia Tech’s “What to Do if You Have Been Assaulted in the Past 72 Hours.”
  2. Ask students to identify the audience and purpose for the instructions.
  3. Share the statistics on sexual assault from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
  4. Go back to the campus statement, and ask students to identify who counts and who is left out of the statement, relying on the statistics for support.
  5. Have students compose a document in response, such as one of the following:
    • Rewrite the statement to make it more inclusive.
    • Write individual letters or a group letter to the office on campus that is responsible for the campus resources and ask them to revise their materials to be more inclusive.
    • Write a class letter to the editor of the campus newspaper, outlining the issue and asking for action to revise the materials.
    • Create a campus campaign that calls for revision and/or outlines available resources and support for victims of sexual assault and harassment.
    • Have students dig through other, related statements and resources on the campus website, such as the materials on Title IX; and then ask students to report their findings to the class.
    • Ask students to research sexual assault and harassment on campus. Have students use their research to create infographics that communicate the information to readers. The infographics can be used as part of a campaign to improve the available resources on sexual assault and harassment.


Final Thoughts

Like several other posts I have shared recently, the idea for this post grew from my participation in an inclusive pedagogy cohort, but I have to admit that it’s a topic that has been simmering for a few years. I had not noticed the limited view of sexual assault on campus until I attended an employee orientation in 2013. As part of the sessions, a police officer came in to tell us all about what the women could do in case of violence. I’m not sure what the men in the room thought. I guess they were supposed to be taking notes on how to help damsels in distress.


I wasn’t amused, but I was too nervous about my new job to speak up. Now, not only am I willing to speak up, but I am also willing to ask students to speak up with me.

What issues inspire you to speak up on campus? How do you explore inclusive communities with students? Do you have ideas or questions about inclusive pedagogy? Please tell me in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.


Credit: ask first by Robert Jack 啸风 Will on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license

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About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.