Sexual Harassment: How Political Is the Personal?

By Kauffman, L. A. | The Nation, March 26, 1988 | Go to article overview

Sexual Harassment: How Political Is the Personal?


Kauffman, L. A., The Nation


How Political Is the Personal?

The feminist movement on college campuses typifies the uneasy state of student politics in the 1980s. Like other social movements born of the New Left's disintegration in the years following 1968, the feminist movement has adopted a politics of identity, a conception of political change as a goal to be pursued at both the personal and the societal level. On the private side of the personal-is-political equation, feminist have explored women's culture and organized consciousness-raising and discussion groups through campus women's centers. Like many forms of the politics of identity, these activities fall short of being directly political--that is, they do not aim to transform the institutionalized structures of power. Campus feminists have of course periodically addressed national issues, such as the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion rights and pay equity. They have also pushed for the creation of women's studies programs and the hiring of female faculty. But between the distant world of national issues and the immediate project of self-transformation, there has too often been a vacuum, one that might properly be filled by feminist organizing projects. The result has been a substantial depoliticization of feminism and a tendency to allow, if not entreat, the university to control matters of feminist concern.

The most visible feminist organizing on college campuses in recent years has centered on the issue of sexual harassment. As a 1982-85 investigation by Ms. and other studies have shown, about 15 percent of women at American colleges and universities have been raped. More than half experience some form of sexual harassment during their academic career, ranging from verbal abuse to unwanted sexual contact, assault or rape. Between 20 and 25 percent are sexually propositioned or harassed by their professors.

When sexual harassment first surfaced as a campus issue, in the mid-1970s, feminist students defined it primarily as an abuse of institutionally conferred authority. In the classic case, a faculty member demanded sexual favors from a student in exchange for grades--a kind of quid pro quo harassment. Unwanted advances by faculty members and other offensive behavior that emphasized a woman's sexuality were also signled out. This conception of sexual harassment provided a solid basis for fighting institutionalized sexism. Five Yale University women who reported having been harassed by faculty member filed a lawsuit against the school in 1977, charging that by failing to adopt procedures to deal with sexual harassment the university had condoned it. Making a similar argument, feminists at the University of California, Berkeley, organized in 1979 to protest the administration's refusal to act on thirteen complaints of sexual harassment brought against a single professor.

That kind of opposition, as well as the threat of legal liability implicit in the Supreme Court's 1986 ruling, in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, that institutions are responsible for sexual harassment by employees, has prompted hundreds of schools to condemn this type of sexual harassment and to declare faculty-student sexual relations to be unethical. But in formulating actual policies on the issue, universities have predictably resisted student involvement. Diane Goldsmith, assistant director of the University of Connecticut Women's Center, says, "At most places I know, the leadership on [faculty-to-student] sexual harassment in recent years has been taken by the universities' professional staff rather than student." For example, once feminists compelled Berkeley to act on sexual harassment, the university appointed a Title IX facilitator to address the problem and never even consulted the women's group.

As official policies against faculty-to-student harassment have become more common, some activists have focused on another, previously hidden though prevalent form of violence against college women: peer-to-peer harassment. …

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Sexual Harassment: How Political Is the Personal?
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