Public revelations of serial sexual harassment and assault have been leveled at prominent men with power by courageous survivors are not new. Nor is the foment of outrage and public debate. But what might be novel about this moment is that survivors so often in the past spoke alone of their experience (remember for a moment Anita Hill, sitting facing her questioners, armed with nothing but a glass of water, a microphone, and her memory).
In this moment, fueled by the electric #metoo campaign, with near-daily public denunciations of powerful men from the arenas of media, politics, and business we may finally, as a culture, be ready to believe survivors, to hear their chorale of violation, hurt, anger, missed opportunities, and the pain of their denied experience. And at this moment, perhaps, survivors may not have to automatically face the Hobson’s choice of either speaking out alone or joining the invisible network of others who contemplated their constrained options and decided to remain silent. As one colleague recently remarked after the most recent firing of a prominent media figure, “what’s scary is that we’re not even close to being done yet.”
And it’s true. We’re not anywhere near finding the end of this road, where all those who have sexually harassed their colleagues and subordinates are held accountable. But what is also true is that we’ve barely begun to turn around and scrutinize how we got here in the first place, to inquire thoughtfully about how this behavior starts, and to take meaningful action at prevention.
However, in May 2017 the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project released a report, The Talk, that addresses the prevalence of sexual harassment among high school and college students and identifies specific steps that adults (parents, educators, other influential mentors) can take to reduce the incidences of sexual assault. While it didn’t get nearly as much press as, say, Left Shark, The Talk could (I persist in hoping) make even more significant cultural impact. As the report authors, Richard Weissbourd, Trisha Anderson, Alison Cashin and Joe McIntyre note:
“[w]e as a society are failing to prepare young people for perhaps the most important thing they will do in life—learn how to love and develop caring, healthy romantic relationships. Second, most adults appear to be doing shockingly little to prevent or effectively address pervasive misogyny and sexual harassment among teens and young adults.”
The report highlights several distinct findings from their research that have significant implications for campus-based sexual violence prevention practitioners. First, the report notes that 70% of the young people responding to the study desired to have more information from their parents and 65% wished they had more school-based education about aspects of developing, conducting, or ending what the report authors term “mature romantic relationships.” This finding stands in contrast to the “disaster prevention” content that young people are receiving when it comes to sexuality education–if they’re receiving any at all. And, as others have noted in previous research, the actual rate at which young adults are “hooking up”–engaging in casual, no-commitment-expected sex–is far lower than widely believed by their peers, and by those who are over 25. The dissonance between what young people believe is the sexual norm for their peer group, what they’re experiencing, and what they actually desire (more serious commitment and less casual sexual interactions) is, according to this report, causing distress in young people and, as other researchers have hypothesized, may be driving other harmful behavior.
Weissbourd and colleagues also found that the prevalence of verbal sexual harassment that is being perpetrated and experienced by young people is pervasive, harmful, and the accepted norm. And, yet, despite this fact, the overwhelming majority of young people in their study had never had a conversation with their parents about sexual harassment, or how to respond if someone harasses them. Even more significantly, over 75% of young people had never had a conversation with a caring adult in their life about how to avoid sexually harassing others. As the authors identify, “[s]imilarly large numbers of male survey respondents had not had conversations with their parents about not catcalling (69%) or not making degrading comments to girls like calling them “bitches” or “ho’s” (55%). (18) This is an important finding because it spotlights a primary prevention gap that colleges and universities will be called upon to fill–re-framing the norms of respectful language towards others, and especially towards women.
Developing programming and initiatives that targets reducing hostile and degrading language towards others as a primary prevention strategy can also connect to core mission objectives common across institutions of higher education, which is to prepare graduates to be engaged, ethical citizens, ready to successfully enter the workforce and contribute to society; for after all, as Weissbourd and colleagues note, “[a]dults can support young people in becoming ethical in this broader sense by connecting discussions about romantic and sexual relationships and misogyny and harassment to ethical questions about their obligation to treat others with dignity and respect, intervene when others are at risk of being harmed, and advocate for those who are vulnerable.” (5)
How else might colleges and universities work to prevent sexual harassment and promote respectful behavior? Here are some additional actions to consider:
- Gather institution-specific data about students’ sexual behavior–as well as data on what kinds of relationships students actually want to have in order to develop social norm messaging that will close the misperception gap when it comes to casual sex, intimacy, and relationship desires.
- Provide parents with guidance on talking to young people about love and romantic relationships as a part of their ongoing support of their student. Parents can also be powerful partners in reinforcing campus efforts to reduce incidences of verbal harassment and disrespectful speech, but they will need the tools to engage effectively in those conversations.
- Form close partnerships between healthy sexuality education and sexual violence prevention efforts on campus. Develop shared goals, language, and programming efforts that include content related to developing, sustaining, and ending emotionally significant relationships. This can also be a place to partner with religious or spiritual leaders on campus who often see promoting mature relationship development as a part of their campus mission.
By creating a campus environment where individual act to address casually hostile and degrading comments, where respectful behavior among all person is actively promoted, and where the skills for developing emotionally significant relationships are intentionally cultivated, we may finally find our way to the beginning of the road, where prevention matters, and where we have the greatest chance of keeping all our young people from experiencing the emotional, psychological, and career harms of sexual harassment.