Sexual Harrassment

A Facebook friend recently asked me what I thought about Anthony Weiner’s attempted political comeback from sexting scandals as a mayoral candidate in NYC and the San Diego mayor being accused of sexual harassment.  In the last few weeks I have also been sent this article about the University of Southern California being investigated for policies that condoned rape and this one about sexual abuse at a well known prep school. I thought therefore I would make public my thoughts on sexual harassment and abuse particularly in politics and education. I was at different times a member of the board to advise on sexual harassment cases at my former institution, a sexual harassment adviser to students, a dean of students, an associate dean of the faculty and through it all a faculty member. In all of these various roles I have received training in the legal issues and institutional concerns that arise in these situations as well as the human costs, concerns and likely actions of those involved. I also should mention that my wife is a social worker so through discussion, osmosis and inclination I have developed an understanding of the personal issues surrounding harassment and abuse.

At this point we only have allegations about the San Diego mayor and the full story has yet to come out.  I therefore do not feel I can comment on that one.  Weiner is another story.  He has confessed to the allegations and the media has, pardon the expression, exposed the content of his inappropriate sexual texts. He says that they were indiscretions and bad judgments so he should be forgiven.  His wife says she has forgiven him thus implying that the voters should too. If my training and experience have taught me one thing about these complex cases it is that harassment and abuse are more about power than sex. To me Weiner’s sin is not about minor indiscretions but about abuses of power.  He has used his political positions, celebrity and employer status to force his sexual presence upon women who had less power. I will never know the psychological roots of his urges toward exhibitionism but I don’t care. When given political power he abused it and now is asking that he be given it again.  Fool me twice shame on me. I would not vote for him if I were still a voter in NYC.

The same concerns inform my take on sexual harassment and abuse in education. I have known several teachers who met their wives when they were students either taught by them or at least at their institutions.  Some of these have produced committed or long-lasting partnerships that have survived their teacher-student beginnings. Some have cooled to become nostalgic memories of young peoples’ sexual awakening both straight and gay as the partners moved on. Some of the relationships have been consensual while others have been predatory. Most of the abuse and harassment incidents have been student to student rather than faculty to student. Alcohol has been a player in many of the situations as has peer pressure and student culture. While all of these things need to be considered when counselling students and helping students cope with the aftermath of these situations, for me they do not play a role in the ethics of the situation, what is right or wrong. Let me be crystal clear on this. a) Forcing sexual practices or attentions on others beyond their consent or when their ability to consent becomes curtailed, is wrong; b) sexual attentions between people of holding different power positions particularly within the same hierarchy whether that be student/teacher, employer or supervisor/employee, minister/worshiper, older relative/younger relative  or officer/soldier, is wrong because consent is meaningless in these situations.

To take the last situation first in the case of unequal power positions consent cannot be disengaged from the power relations at work here. Is the person of lesser power giving consent because of the attraction to the greater power in the other or because the greater power curtails their ability to object? Either way the power relations have entangled and ensnared any romantic or sexual attraction that may have occurred. In the first situation I believe that no is clearly no and that consent when one’s judgment is impaired e.g. by alcohol or peer pressure is no consent at all. The presence of alcohol should not be used to condone sexual activity but as a warning that any sexual activity in those situations has a high likelihood of being sexual harassment or assault.

All of this gets us back to the two articles that I have linked to above. In the first story University of Southern California is alleged to encourage or at least allow its employees (deans, safety officers and counselors) tell students not to press charges of rape particularly if they had imbibed alcohol at the time of their sexual encounters. I emphasize that these are but allegations at the present and an investigation will I hope determine if they are true. If they are true and even if these are some employees acting on their own, some serious retraining and examination of campus culture are in order. If it takes a judgment that hurts the deep pockets of USC to bring about change then so be it. If I were still a parent of a USC student I would be concerned and think twice about sending my child there. The bad publicity alone should prompt USC to re-examine itself and I hope it leads to an amelioration of the situation rather than a cover-up.

Deerfield is in a similar situation. I think the Catholic Church has provided us with an excellent example of how not to handle sexual abuse in its ranks. Rather than covering it up it must face it head on and institute policies and procedures to prevent its happening again. Most of the time abusers rationalize their abuse as not hurting the people they abuse. This is of course nonsense but it means that the abusers will continue their abuse as long as they can because they see little or nothing wrong with it. The institution has a moral, parental and legal obligation to prevent it happening and to investigate (to fire if necessary) any abusers. This will involve training the students, administrators and faculty to spot the signs of abuse, informing students, staff and faculty of what abuse/harassment is as well as what their rights are, counselling and increased vigilance. All of this need be age appropriate to protect students and faculty alike.

1 Comment

  • Jeffrey Drummond

    Deerfield handled its sexual abuse incidents beautifully: full and fast disclosure of the allegations without naming names, invitations to all persons to contact the school or any authorities with information about other incidents, fast and thorough examination by capable outsiders, and immediate full written disclosure to every member of the “Deerfield community,” including parents of all alumni, a most full disclosure indeed.

    Immediately after the investigation was done, in public statements and in further communications to every single member of the Deerfield community, Deerfield fully accepted institutional responsibility for the culture that allowed the abuse to happen, and wrongfully allowed it not to be reported to criminal authorities including the police, or remedied in any other way; named the two professors who had committed the abuse; rejected every argument that minimized the crimes; stripped the honors and buildings of the teachers’ names and revoked all school associations with the teachers; and confirmed the policies that included encouraging reporting of any incidents not just to school authorities, but also to the police.

    A magnificent, comprehensive, perfect response.

    This month, one of the students made his own name public for the first time, gave interviews, and made it clear how the occasions shattered his life for decades after the abuse, including years of substance abuse and other major difficulties.

    Two things stand out. Even a small number of non-violent incidents, perpetrated on a high school junior/senior, will have devastating consequences throughout the life of the student. And a beautiful job by Deerfield in working to fix the harm it caused, unflinchingly and honorably.

    As a survivor of massive family sexual abuse, but thankfully never at any school, I know far too much about these subjects. I’m administrator of a small, private FaceBook group of adult male survivors. Curing is impossible; healing is slow and painful and difficult.

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