Breadth of wording simply absurd

February 20, 2006

It is illegal to say "oh, boy" in Jonesborough, Ga. It is illegal to take a lion to the cinema in Baltimore. Absurd, right?

But Penn has its own absurd rules.

Take a look at the University’s Sexual Harassment Handbook. It’s easy to see that the number of absurd policies on hand is striking.

The policy begins innocently enough saying people cannot engage in "unwelcome and inappropriate sexually based behavior."

But it continues: "Sexual harassment can be exhibited using three types of behaviors — verbal, non-verbal behaviors and gestures and physical contact." These include behaviors such as:

  • Sexual looks such as leering and ogling with suggestive overtones.
  • Licking lips or teeth, winking or throwing kisses.
  • Holding or eating food provocatively.
  • Staring at an individual or looking a person up and down (so-called "elevator eyes").
  • Giving personal gifts.
  • Displaying sexually suggestive pictures, calendars, posters or statues.
In the words of History professor Alan Kors, "Only a psychopath or a fool would support such a policy."

Kors is a vehement defender of First Amendment rights and chairman and cofounder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and his position on Penn’s sexual harassment policy is clear.

"The policy that the administration is now trying to revive is literally the worst of any serious, let alone major, university in the nation," he said. "It demeans and injures students and faculty, infantilizing them all. Look at the ‘examples.’"

These examples mix jokes, art and holding food provocatively with the grave crimes of violent assault and rape.

Cornell University — where the term sexual harassment was coined in 1974 — has none of these radical offenses on its list of defined terms of sexual harassment.

Eye been bothering you? No twitches allowed at this university. Been eating a hot dog? That’s phallically suggestive, man. And if people are wearing obnoxiously loud pairs of Uggs with neon green fleeces and pink hair, be sure not to give them any second glances.

While the ideas behind these policies are likely meant to protect people, there is very little to stop false allegations from spreading like wildfire while real complaints are pushed to the back burner.

A new study by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation found that nearly two-thirds of male and female college students have been harassed.

While I am sure sexual harassment is prevalent on college campuses, this number seems absurd. We must focus our limited resources on helping the people who actually need the greatest assistance: the victims of serious sex crimes.

And the way in which Penn’s policy is implemented is just as illogical as is its content.

There are not two, not three, but 12 places to report sexual harassment on campus.

While this system’s supporters claim that its arrangement provides many resources for victims, the decentralization of the complaint process results in completely different responses from each complaint site.

For instance, while the Division of Public Safety could file a police report and put a harassment incident on record, because of confidentiality laws Counseling and Psychological Services would be obliged to never say a word about the suspected abuses. So we never know how many cases of sexual harassment are reported to CAPS or the types of perpetrators and victims of these offenses.

Such a system can lead to harm for both the victims and the University. Penn is surely more susceptible to lawsuits for not taking enough action when an incident is reported because though victims might want confidentiality, they could later claim that the University didn’t help them enough.

There is no single repository for all sexual harassment case information. Numbers of formal complaints alone can not provide a complete picture of the issues.

In fact, Penn is so decentralized that Jeanne Arnold, who oversees Penn’s sexual harassment processes, wrote of my queries specifically regarding the wording of Penn’s Sexual Harassment Handbook, "I’m not sure of the source or context of the behavioral examples you provided in your questions. The Sexual Harassment Awareness training provided by my office defines sexually harassing behavior, inappropriate behavior and the differences between each of these types of behavior."

How about that?

Schools: University of Pennsylvania