Silence penetrated the room as two UNC Asheville faculty members read anonymous stories of sexual harassment from a stack of notecards.
“A friend of mine had an experience when she was walking downtown with friends. A stranger said to her, ‘If I could rearrange the letters in the alphabet, I’d put ‘U’ next to ‘I.’ If I could arrange our body parts, I’d put my dick in your mouth,’” one read.
“My best friend’s father worked as a surgery nurse for over a decade. For the last three years of his career, he was verbally and physically harassed by his female boss. As a married man, these advances obviously were extremely unwelcome and made his time at work miserable. When he finally reported the harassment his boss and several of her co-workers ganged up on him to make it seem like Richard had been at fault the whole time. He lost his job and couldn’t find work to support his four children. The emotional turmoil was a contributing factor in his suicide,” read another.
The stories continued to be shared for about three minutes while a mix of about 15 UNCA faculty, staff and students listened at a sexual harassment speak-out event held on Thursday, Feb. 28.
Though the event was held last year in a larger lecture hall on campus, UNCA director of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies program Lori Horvitz says this year’s event was toned down but not due to the topic’s lack of importance. (To hear the entirety of these anonymous stories read by UNCA faculty members Lori Horvitz and Amanda Wray, click the SoundCloud player above)
“I think there’s a lot of misconception about what sexual harassment actually is,” Horvitz explains. “When we gave out cards, we found that a lot of people equate sexual harassment with sexual assault.”
The legal definition of sexual harassment is, “unwelcome verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is severe or pervasive and affects working conditions or creates a hostile work environment.”
However, the discussion did not focus solely on semantics on Thursday night. Instead, it explored the uncertain nature of sexual harassment in how men and women assess the situation as harassment and how to then respond accordingly. One attendant defined it as a “gray area.” Another shared a story about receiving a compliment about her appearance, but feeling immediately uncomfortable.
“I’ve often been caught between saying thank you and just walking away and feeling uncomfortable because it was a compliment,” the student says. “But I haven’t found a way to make people understand in that moment.”
Finding a teachable moment in these compliments before it crosses a line is something that Dean of Students Jackie McHargue says she struggles with when she talks to students about sexual harassment. However, she says the real challenge goes beyond education on what constitutes sexual harassment.
“Sometimes I think what’s missing, too, is we get mixed messages on accepting a compliment on what’s rude and what’s not rude, but then there’s the whole bystander thing. Why are we forced to do this whole thing by ourselves if the persons to the left or right of us are equally bothered and they don’t say anything either? It’s not easy,” she shares.
As the discussion progressed, students and faculty members suggested incorporating sexual harassment and sexual assault education into freshmen orientation. Ideas ranged from an hour-long credit as part of freshmen colloquium to including a book about sexual assault and harassment as part of the required reading for the freshmen English class. This year, McHargue noted, will be the first year that incoming freshmen will be required to take an online alcohol and sexual violence class as a component of their freshmen orientation.
“We are working to design something more comprehensive at this point,” she says.
However, education was just one of the concerns raised about sexual harassment. Students asked what they should do when they have been sexually harassed and how to report it.
McHargue said students could file a complaint and choose one of various resolutions that they wanted to pursue. However, she emphasized, that it really is a case-by-case basis that is handled by UNCA’s Title XI Coordinator, Rusty Marts.
But even with filing a complaint, faculty and students alike questioned what could be done to empower students. Staring Monday, a women’s Rape Aggression Defense course will begin. The 12-hour defense class is taught by women for women, and with women’s bodies in mind when it comes to teaching different defense moves. The reason? According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey from 2006-2010, there is an average of 207,754 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year.
However, no course like this exists for men currently even though, according to a 2005 study from the U.S. Department of Justice, men make up 10 percent of all victims of sexual assault.
For the students involved in the on-campus organization, Speak Up, their mission is to share this kind of information, prevent sexual violence and give support those affected by sexual violence through educating and empowering the UNCA community.
Corie McInnis, who acts as the student organization’s co-leader and who also attended the speak-out event, says talking about sexual harassment is important, but she worries that these conversations aren’t happening as often as they should be.
“I think it’s important just to get people aware of these kinds of issues, but I don’t know if the people who need to be here are here. But, it’s still good that we’re discussing it amongst ourselves so that we can portray that back to the community who isn’t able to be here,” she says “It’s never talked about though it happens often.”
And this unheard discussion is what was at the heart of the entire speak-out event, says Horvitz.
“It [sexual harassment] is normalized because we accept it that way, but we don’t’ have to,” Horvitz says.