Faculty & Students Speak about Sexual Harassment

MSW Candidates Comment on Rape and College Culture

By: Lisa Viviani Goris, MSW Candidate

Sexual allegations are reaching incredible new highs in Hollywood as of late, yet it may be unclear as to what these allegations actually are.

Merriam-Webster online defines sexual harassment as “uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature, especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate (such as an employee or student).”

The question remains, though, whether this definition may be subjective.

Since the story broke in the New York Times on October 5, the one detailing sexual misconduct allegations surrounding Harvey Weinstein, every morning seems to be met with more reports of allegations involving professionals from media outlets, as well as other industries.

Prompted by the online movement #MeToo, in which Alyssa Milano encouraged anyone with personal experience of sexual harassment and/or assault to speak out, an outcry of unexpected proportions has swept the nation.

Initially, Milano prompted women to speak out, but men also used the hashtag in their Facebook and Twitter posts. The movement certainly brings to light the magnitude of this epidemic.

This issue can be translated right here, at CSI.  

Lara Halwani, a student in the MSW program, says she feels that society is “finally holding devious men accountable for their misconduct in the workplace,” and that if women continue to empower each other, we can resolve the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Halwani agrees that harassment can be subjective and states, “I do feel that some allegations must be thoroughly investigated, though, because of the subjective nature of the topic.”

In a research study exploring rape culture, MSW candidate Nicole Rufo focused on rape myths and culture amongst undergraduate and graduate social work students at CSI.

Rufo surveyed approximately 70 students utilizing a questionnaire based on a peer-reviewed survey.

Rufo said her work examined beliefs surrounding rape myths. An example of one of her survey questions was, “if a girl is dressed ‘slutty’ she is asking for it.”

The questions were scored on a scale from zero-to-five: scoring a zero meant not believing in rape myths,whereas a five meant a strong believe in rape myths.

According to Rufo, “the majority of the questions had a score of one to three, which on the surface looks great—that our student body doesn’t believe in rape myths—but my feeling is, that if you even have any sort of belief, that there is an issue.”

Based on her research findings, Rufo believes that college students may be somewhat unaware of what harassment is.

“While my study focused on rape myths and culture—based on the findings and the research that went into the project—I would assume that there is a lack of understanding of consent and rape culture as a whole, which could imply that their [awareness of] harassment is lacking as well,” says Rufo.

At the University of Connecticut, professor of English and Feminist Theory and accomplished author, Dr. Regina Barreca, clarifies the subjectivity surrounding harassment.

Harassment is when there is an uneven distribution of power within the relationship and that the person with the power is using to get what they want without acknowledging the response of the other person involved. I hug my students when they look sad or when they just got into grad school, but I ask if they’d like a hug before I do it,” Barreca said.

To any professor for whom this may be unclear, Barreca offers, “And here’s why it’s not okay for professors to sleep with their students: the students think they do well because they’re sleeping with the professor while what they should understand is that professors only sleep with their A students. The students end up feeling as if THEY are the ones who are ‘getting away with something’, and it compromises their understanding of their own abilities and excellence.”

Barreca translates this explanation to the workplace. “It’s the same with bosses having sex with people who work for them. People who are on the same level—who are not gaining or losing professional power or negotiating transactional payoffs based on sexual favors—are in a different arena,” explained Barreca.

Barreca also explained why the recent allegations are not threatening to innocent flirtations

“My own worry is the there is a danger of false equivalencies being made: flirtation is different from grabbing; making a pass is different from someone in a position of power who is using that power to coerce or demand satisfaction of their appetites; exposing yourself is not the same as asking if someone with whom you work would like to meet for a cup of coffee or a drink. You can flirt in public, in a group, in a crowd and not be worried—the rest you can’t. Do only things you wouldn’t be ashamed of having somebody say you did.”

So, how do we ensure we are all on the same page?

Rufo says education is key to understanding the importance of sexual harassment and rape culture. She attributes students’ ideologies to learned gender roles dating back to childhood.

“From a young age people are taught ‘if a boy likes you, he’ll be mean to you’ or ‘if you like a guy, you need to play hard to get.’ While it may seem silly, these ideologies follow us to adulthood and can bleed into our workplaces making for very unfortunate situations.”

Rufo points to a need for a combined educational effort, with seminars educating college students at the start of each semester on campus, and education at home in which young people are taught to respect themselves and others.

In addition to educating college students, victims of sexual harassment need to keep speaking out.

The mores stories that people allow themselves to tell, with courage and a sense of conviction that they did not “deserve” this or bring it on themselves, the better,” said Barreca.

“Voices raised in unison amplify each other, not drown each other out.”

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