‘When Sexual Harassment Is a Joke’

By on January 31, 2006

Check the important column by Debra Saunders on the recent survey by the American Association of University Women:
By the year 2020, every American will be a victim. Give it another 15 years, and there will be a study that puts every man, woman and child into one aggrieved group or another.
 
In that spirit, a new study by the American Association of University Women found that “nearly two-thirds of college students experience sexual harassment at some point during college.” When you consider what the AAUW’s definition of sexual harassment is—“unwanted or unwelcome sexual behavior that interferes with your life’’—it is surprising that the percentage is so low. The study even lists “sexual comments, jokes, gestures or looks” as “examples of different types of sexual harassment.”
Saunders quotes FIRE’s own Samantha Harris, who makes a crucial point: “If I were someone who experienced real harassment, I wouldn’t want to be lumped in with people who heard a bad joke.”
 
Good job, Sam! And thanks to Debra for bringing attention to this troubling issue.
 
As I emphasized in a Daily Journal column from last year, this is such a important issue because “harassment” is too often misunderstood to mean “any speech that may offend.” In order to stave off harassment lawsuits and placate students and administrators, universities are often willing to sacrifice free speech in the name of preventing offense. Studies like that of the AAUW, which conflates sexual jokes with sexual battery and flirtatious looks with a violation of federal law, only confuse the issue—and freedom of expression is often what suffers.