“Sexual harassment”–we have heard it whispered around campus a lot lately, particularly after the Harold Bloom/ Naomi Wolf fiasco. The two words illicit a big response and fuel a heated debate: how far is too far is too far in regards to sexual harassment? In a post-Clinton/Paula Jones scandal era, we as a society know what the obvious, dramatic examples of “sexual harassment” are, but where is the line drawn on the little incidents? People have become too sensitive in their perceptions of what constitutes sexual harassment. A teacher who refers to a student as “Sweetie” or “Honey” may degrade her, but the teacher is not necessarily guilty of sexual harassment. The grey line between disrespect and sexual harassment should be clarified in University policy.
Sexual harassment is defined in the Undergraduate Regulations Appendix B: Disciplinary Procedures. Article XI D states, “Sexual harassment is understood to mean an attempt to coerce an unwilling person into a sexual relationship, or to subject a person to unwanted sexual attention, or to punish a refusal to comply.” What does it really mean to subject a person to “unwanted sexual attention?” This is one of the punishable offenses given in the sexual harassment disciplinary procedures. One girl may take a pat on the shoulder from her male professor as a sign of a job well done, whereas the next girl might perceive such physical contact as a sexual advance.
Also, there is the question of whether the attention truly is unwanted. Naomi Wolf has been accused by many of her contemporaries, including Camille Paglia and Betty Friedan, of using her sex appeal to further her own goals. The smug, beauty contestant-style head shots on her book jackets prove she is a beautiful woman, not above flaunting her sexuality to sell. She writes about the importance of using feminine body image to climb ladders in her first book, The Beauty Myth. Presumably, as a college student, these thoughts were in her head as well. Could she have used her wiles on Professor Bloom, in order to get farther in class? This is actually a very common situation; a student may flirt with her professor or TA in order to get a good grade. Such a student is undoubtedly at fault, but if a professor or TA responds in like manner, he is punished. Sexual harassment lies all in perception. How can something so subjective be punished to as great an extreme as to terminate a professor’s career?
Contrary to Wolf’s claims, bringing forth sexual harassment complaints is relatively easy. One needs only to approach the Yale College Grievance Board for Student Complaints of Sexual Harassment. This nine-member board, composed of two faculty members, two administrators, four undergraduates, and one counselor, is responsible for any punishment given in a sexual harassment case. The Undergraduate Regulations do not state how the board arrives at its verdicts, but state that comments or questions regarding the process can be addressed to the Yale College Dean’s Office. Although the Grievance Board should come up with and publish more clear standards of sexual harassment, Wolf’s claim that a reasonable means of filing complaints is unavailable to students is not relevant today. In fact, Wolf did not avail herself of the system available during her time at Yale. Her only complaint can be that she did not abide by the two-year statute of limitations for bringing claims of sexual harassment to the Grievance Board, not that the Grievance Board did not operate adequately.
In an overly-litigious society, any slight offense taken by a person can immediately – or years later— be termed “harassment” of some sort. Guidelines for objectively weeding out overreactions from genuine instances of sexual harassment are necessary, if we are to be fair and just in punishment. The overly-zealous whistleblower is to be thwarted, but we should not become so cautious as to ignore legitimate cases of sexual harassment. There must be some balance, clearly defined by Yale regulations. Specific examples of sexual harassment should be given, rather than the subjective hints given in the Undergraduate Regulations.
The current system is plagued by two faults: students who are too timid to come forth are discouraged when they cannot tell if what they have experienced is harassment; others are encouraged by the lack of definition to overreact. Substituting concrete guidelines concerning sexual harassment for vague abstractions could save women the stress of wondering if they have been harassed and could save men from suffering the pain and disgrace caused by erroneous allegations. If the term “sexual harassment” has any meaning at all, the articulation of such guidelines is possible. If the meaning of the term “sexual harassment” is to be maintained, the articulation of such guidelines is essential.
Kerri Price is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College, Zachary Craig is a sophomore in Davenport College. (Special thanks to Nicole Aaronson for her contributions to this article.)