Grand Valley State University Women's Center

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is a real and common issue on college campuses.

More information on Sexual Harassment as it pertains to students and employees can be found at:

Sexual Harassment and Title IX (students)

Sexual Harassment and Title VII (employees)

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The following excerpt is from a report entitled "Drawing the Line: Sexual Harassment on Campus" which was published by the AAUW Educational Foundation:

Sexual harassment is common on college campuses.
Sexual harassment is widespread among college students across the country. A majority of college students experience sexual harassment. More than one-third encounter sexual harassment during their first year. A majority of students experience noncontact forms of harassment—from sexual remarks to electronic messages—and nearly one-third experience some form of physical harassment, such as being touched, grabbed, or forced to do something sexual. Sexual harassment occurs nearly everywhere on campus,including student housing and classrooms. It happens on large and small campuses, at public and private colleges and universities, and at two-year and four-year institutions. It is most common at large universities, four-year institutions, and private colleges.

Men and women are equally likely to be harassed, but in different ways and with different responses.
Male and female students are nearly equally likely to be sexually harassed on campus. Female students are more likely to be the target of sexual jokes, comments, gestures, or looks. Male students are more likely to be called gay or a homophobic name. Female students are more likely to be upset by sexual harassment and to feel embarrassed, angry, less confident, afraid, worried about whether they can have a happy relationship, confused or conflicted about who they are, or disappointed in their college experience. Female students are also more likely to change their behavior in some way as a result of the experience. For example, more than half of female victims avoid the person who harassed them or avoid a particular building or place on campus. Female victims are more likely to find it hard to pay attention in class or have trouble sleeping as a result of sexual harassment.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students are more likely to be harassed.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT)1 students are more likely than heterosexual students to experience sexual harassment; be upset by experiences with harassment; and feel self-conscious, angry, less confident, afraid, or disappointed with their college experience. They are also more likely to worry about graduating from college and having a successful career as a result of sexual harassment. LGBT students are more likely to want their college or university to do more to prevent sexual harassment.

Different racial and ethnic groups experience sexual harassment in similar, but not identical, ways.
For the most part, white, black, and Hispanic students perceive and react to sexual harassment in similar ways.2 Some types of sexual harassment —receiving unwanted sexual comments or jokes, being flashed or mooned, or being called a homophobic name—appear to be more common among white students. Among students who admit to harassing another student, white students are more likely to do so because they think it is funny, while black and Hispanic students are more likely to think the sexual attention is wanted. Black and Hispanic students are also more likely to say they would report sexual harassment to a college employee and to want their schools to take additional measures against sexual harassment.

Men are more likely than women to harass.
Both male and female students are more likely to be harassed by a man than by a woman. Half of male students and almost one-third of female students admit that they sexually harassed someone in college, and about one-fifth of male students admit that they harassed someone often or occasionally. Although equal proportions of male and female students say that they harassed a student of the other gender, male students are more likely to admit to harassing other male students. Almost one-quarter of male harassers admit to harassing male students, compared to one-tenth of female harassers who admit to harassing female students.

More than half of harassers think their actions are funny.
A majority of students who admit to harassing another student say they did so because they thought it was funny. About one-third thought the person wanted the sexual attention, and another third believed that it was just a part of school and a lot of people did it. Less than one-fifth wanted a date with the person. In other words, students who admit to harassing another student generally don’t see themselves as rejected suitors, rather as misunderstood comedians.

Most victims don’t report sexual harassment.
More than one-third of college students do not tell anyone about their experiences with sexual harassment. Those who do confide in someone usually tell a friend. Female students are more likely to talk to someone about their experiences than are male students, but less than 10 percent of all students report incidents of sexual harassment to a college or university employee. Students offer a range of reasons for why they do not report incidents, including fear of embarrassment, guilt about their own behavior, skepticism that anyone can or will help, and not knowing whom to contact at the school. Still, the top reason that students give for not reporting sexual harassment is that their experience was not serious or “not a big deal.”

Other than to say it is unwanted sexual behavior, college students do not appear to have a common standard for defining sexual harassment. Moreover, college students are reluctant to talk about sexual harassment openly and honestly and are more apt to joke or disregard the issue despite their private concerns. This reticence to engage in a serious dialogue about the issue may contribute to the prevalence of sexual harassment on campus, as students interpret one another’s silence as complicity. At the very least it is an indication that college students don’t have a common understanding of where to draw the line. The ramifications of sexual harassment can be serious. Sexual harassment can damage the emotional and academic well-being of students, provoke and exacerbate conflict among students, and contribute to a hostile learning environment. For colleges and universities, sexual harassment can be financially costly and damage their reputations. More broadly, society as a whole is affected as graduating students bring their attitudes about sexual harassment into the workplace and beyond.

1 LGBT students are combined into a single category because we do not have sufficient numbers to analyze the groups separately.
2 Separate analyses for Asian American, Native American, and other racial and ethnic groups are not possible due to insufficient sample size.

 

Page last modified June 27, 2013