I’m “lucky.” I’ve been sexually harassed only two or three times in my life. The first time happened while walking to class during the spring of my freshman year of college. A guy leaning out of the window of an expensive-looking SUV made a lewd suggestion regarding a particular part of his anatomy.
I wish I could say that I yelled something back or at least brushed it off, but I felt dirty and humiliated for the rest of the day. I didn’t realize I was in good company; sexual harassment prevents 20 percent of college women from focusing on schoolwork and 23 percent from attending class or social events altogether.
I was angry. I had naïvely believed those glossy admissions brochures filled with smiling students studying on impossibly-green lawns; I thought I would feel safe at my school. I have discovered that no place is safe from the potential for sexual harassment — no matter how elite, academic, or professional the setting.
67 percent of women students have experienced sexual harassment on college campuses. This means that 11,319 students between the ages of 19 and 22 get sexually harassed on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus alone — and that in 2012, young women had a higher likelihood of getting sexually harassed on college campuses than of remembering to vote in the presidential election.
Stop Violence Against Women, an international human rights project, defines sexual harassment as any “unwanted verbal, non-verbal, physical, or visual conduct based on sex or of a sexual nature with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person.” Examples include:
- Vulgar gestures
- Whistling, barking, or kissing noises
- Sexually explicit comments like, “Hey baby, I’d like a piece of that”
- Blocking someone’s path
- Following someone
- Flashing someone
- Sexual touching or grabbing
- Public masturbation
A lot of people—both men and women alike—will ignore and excuse sexual harassment. They say it’s harmless or it’s a cultural thing. I say that’s crap. This is the 21st century in the United States of America. No one should ever be made to feel uncomfortable because of her or his physical appearance, gender, or sexual orientation. I will not apologize for my body.
Research from Hollaback!, a movement to end street harassment, shows that responding to sexual harassment can reduce its emotional impact on you. If you choose to call out your tormentor, look him in the eye and speak in a strong, clear voice.
I fantasized about what I could have said to that college guy who yelled at me from his car. Many people recommend naming the offensive behavior: “Do not comment on my body. That is harassment.”
Naming it is the first step.
A free selection of downloadable sexual harassment resources can be accessed here.