Balkinization  

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

My Sexual Harassment Training

Mark Graber


I am not a hugger.  And I do not particularly like to be hugged.  But I have friends and colleagues who are huggers.  And so, I have experienced my fair share of unwanted hugs.  Apparently, I learned after going through mandated sexual harassment training, I have been the victim of sexual harassment, perhaps even sexual violence.  My school is clear that any “unwanted touching” is sexual harassment.  There is no discussion of intention or of the preexisting relationship between the hugger and the huggee, or a great many other factors that might occur to a person with some common sense. 

I just had a haircut.  I would have to look the policy over again, but I think unwanted comments on my haircut are also sexual harassment.  Since I could live without any comments on my haircut, I think our policy is being violated.  Administrative assistants have been prone to point out that my tie is not on straight, which is unwanted comments on my clothing (my mother and spouse will attest that, alas, I really do not care to know how badly I am dressed).  There is no mention in our unwanted comments policy of the power relationships between people or again, of a wide variety of factors that might occur to a person of some common sense (I am unsure whether I have been guilty of harassment when I tease them about harassing me).

As part of my sexual harassment training, I was given the following question.  A and B are going to a professional conference together.  They share a cab.  While in the cab, A makes an effort to hold B’s hand.  B is offended and A immediately desists.  True or false, this is not sexual harassment because the behavior occurred off-campus.  The right answer is obviously false, but I confess that nowhere in our policies did I find any indication that being involved in a profession conference was at all relevant (would this be sexual harassment at the movies if A immediately desisted), or for that matter any evidence that the preexisting relationship between A and B mattered (suppose A and B had typically held hands in the cab while going to a professional conference), or A’s motivation (suppose A perceived, perhaps falsely, that B was very nervous about a presentation and was mistakenly trying to provide reassurance).

Perhaps I should be grateful.  When I was at the University of Texas, some genius developed a sexual harassment policy that forbade all romantic relationships between faculty and graduate students, defined as anyone taking a graduate course.  The policy was emphatic that no exceptions were to be made.  This came as a surprise to some of us, given that among the faculty benefits at Texas at the time was that our spouses could take graduate courses for free.

Contrary to first appearances, this is not a polemic against the concern with sexual harassment at universities all across the country.  For the most part, people have sufficient common sense not to regard all the above parade of horribles as sexual harassment.  And when violations of common sense occur, the best explanation is usually that the people involved lack common sense rather than anything intrinsic to sexual harassment.

This is a polemic against the increased tendency for universities to solve problems by hiring more administrators, who function more to create work for faculty than to actually solve the problems.  Several years ago, someone pointed out to me that university administrators were increasing ten times faster than faculty.  The rate seems to be accelerating.  Too often, these administrators have little interest in the intellectual mission of the university, so rather than think seriously about the circumstances in which people might spontaneously touch each other (high fives for the school softball team), we get a non-serious policy that bans all unwanted touching (which means people trying to figure out whether sexual harassment has occurred will have no guidance from the rules at all).  And rather than thinking seriously about how faculty can contribute to a safer environment on campus, we get twenty minutes of computer training whose impact on the job prospects of an academic bureaucrat is likely to be far greater than the impact on the actual victims of sexual harassment.

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