Sexual harassment commonplace on college campuses, study says

February 9, 2006

The Stony Brook University sophomore doesn’t remember the content of the e-mail she said was a form of sexual harassment. But it upset her enough that she considered reporting the ex-boyfriend who sent it to college authorities.

But Tori, who did not want her full name used, decided not to file a complaint. "I figured it was way too much trouble for something not that big of a deal." She said she solved the problem by blocking e-mail from her ex and telling him to "cut it out."

Based on a national survey of 2,036 college students aged 18-24 conducted by Harris Interactive last May, Tori fell in line with others when she decided not to involve the college.

The online survey found that sexual harassment is commonplace on college campuses — nearly two-thirds, or 62 percent of students, said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment.

But it’s even more common for students to not report the harassment, according to "Drawing the Line: Sexual Harassment on Campus," a report by the survey’s sponsor, the American Association of University Women. The association found that 7 percent of students said they reported sexual harassment.

Fifty-four percent said they didn’t make a report because the offense wasn’t serious. However, a "common theme among women," the report said, was their "nervousness or discomfort" in reporting an incident "that’s not a big enough deal."

The survey also found that 53 percent of students reported receiving unwanted sexual comments, jokes, gestures or looks, and 25 percent reported being touched, grabbed or pinched in a sexual way.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit group that is based in Philadelphia and often engages in campus free-speech and academic issues, criticized the report for a definition of sexual harassment — "unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior that interferes with your life" — that was "so broad that the report’s conclusions are highly misleading and dangerous to free expression on campus."

Elena Silva, report co-author and the association of university women’s director of research, said the organization stands by its definition. "Students wisely see and understand that sexual harassment includes a range of behaviors that are not necessarily illegal or criminal," yet may still shape their college experience, she said.

Seeking to promote dialogue on the issue, the association also awarded grants to 11 institutions, including Stony Brook, to develop programs that foster a "harassment-free" campus environment.

Ashley Carr, an association spokeswoman, said Stony Brook had a "very strong proposal" and a track record on sexual-harassment prevention. That record includes a long-standing mandatory training program for faculty and staff in sexual harassment, discrimination and diversity issues, student-orientation programs that cover similar terrain and an annual gender equity conference, said Mary Kenny-Corron, the university’s affirmative action, equal employment opportunity data specialist.

Kenny-Corron said the $5,000 grant from the association will let the university stage two campus "dialogue projects" in the next two months. One will bring high school and middle school students to campus to learn "what students are thinking and feeling about this before they become college students." The other will convene the campus community to discuss its perceptions of harassment, and brainstorm solutions.

Schools: Stony Brook University