The Hug Police Invade Higher Education

June 9, 2006

It’s best not to hug anyone at Gettysburg College. At least not unless you want to get charged with sexual misconduct.

Maybe Gettysburg administrators didn’t watch enough Care Bears when they were children. Maybe they were victims of drive-by huggings. Whatever their motivation, the result is an overbroad sexual misconduct policy which makes no distinction between rape and a spontaneous hug.

The controversial policy, being challenged by the free speech watch-dog group the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), sets the parameters for acceptable sexual contact. There needs to be consent, which it defines as “the act of willingly and verbally agreeing to engage in specific sexual conduct. If either person at any point in a sexual encounter does not give continuing and active consent, all sexual contact must cease, even if consent was given earlier.” Sexual interaction includes a wide variety of activities including “brushing,” “patting,” “kissing,” and — gasp! — “hugging.”

When is the last time you asked permission before hugging a friend? I’d certainly be guilty of violating such a strict code. Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE, accurately points out that this policy “can turn almost any student at Gettysburg into a criminal.” In doing so, it ceases to be a useful policy and becomes a joke.

Imagine potential dialogue around campus: “May I hug you?” “Yes.” “May I kiss you?” “Sure.” It can only get more awkward from there.

While Gettysburg’s policy might be the most comical, it is certainly not the only bad policy. Sadly, this over-broad interpretation of sexual harassment permeates higher education.

This week the American Association of University Women is meeting in Washington, D.C., to discuss how to combat sexual harassment on campus effectively. Earlier this year, the AAUW Educational Foundation released a study claiming that nearly two-thirds of undergraduates (both men and women) have been sexually harassed. That’s a bold claim, and if it were true I’d be worried. But the AAUW’s study uses a similar overly broad and inaccurate definition of harassment, leading to inflated and shocking statistics.

According to the AAUW, sexual harassment includes unwanted “sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks.” More specific examples included in the report including “being flashed or mooned” and guys calling each other “gay.” This behavior may deserve rebuke, but it’s a far cry from the jeering cat-calls or torment I imagine when I think of sexual harassment.

In fact, just more than half of the harassed students “were upset by their experience.” The report admits that “the top reason that students gave for not reporting sexual harassment is that their experience was not serious or ‘not a big deal.’” Fifty-nine percent of the harassers thought their actions were funny.

In other words, half of students who were “harassed” weren’t upset by the experience and more than half of the “harassers” didn’t have ill intent. Of course, legitimate harassment is horrible and must be dealt with, but much of the findings in the AAUW report are simply not harassment. The AAUW would have you believe otherwise. They are pushing to create “harassment-free zones” on campus and for schools to adopt nonsensical sexual harassment policies like Gettysburg’s.

These efforts aren’t merely a waste of time, they invite gross injustices. Gettysburg does not literally have a Hug Police, scanning campus for innocent acts to pounce on, so the policies are enforced arbitrarily. Someone gets to decide what jokes are offensive, or what acts are done with ill will to constitute harassment.

But how do you decide what is or is not offensive, what is or is not harassment? Usually these matters are dealt with in campus courts, nicknamed “kangaroo courts” for the lack of due process they provide accused students. All too often, students get expelled based on little evidence.

It’s time to get back to basics with sexual harassment on campus. Scare tactics do nothing to protect students; they simply lead to misinformation and bad policies. Students deserve a legal definition of harassment enforced with due process of the law, not the Hug Police.

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Schools: Gettysburg College Cases: Gettysburg College: Unjust Sexual Misconduct Policy