Sisterhood Blog

At August Ivies, a 'Hostile Sexual Environment'?

By Sarah Seltzer

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A federal complaint against Yale by a group of students, accusing the university of creating a “hostile sexual environment,” is making big news this week. The substance of the accusation is that by failing to take instances of public and private harassment and assault seriously, the university is violating Title IX.

The press coverage has been fairer than I expected, more willing to hear the women’s side of the story. But maybe that’s because of this sort of thing: When a “Good Morning America” reporter went to campus to investigate the charges, she was interrupted by a loud sexist slur, as Jezebel noted. In the face of that type of incident, it’s hard to say the young complainants are overreacting.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. When I was an undergrad at Harvard, reporting for our campus paper that students had recently filed a federal complaint against the university alleging that its sexual assault policy, which required third-party evidence to press charges internally, violated — you guessed it — Title IX. Eventually, the university had to respond to a number of different kinds of internal and external pressure about this awful policy with some fairly sweeping changes, although I’m sure not all is perfect now.

This complaint does bring up memories of sitting on campus with my friends feeling like “things were messed up” gender-wise on campus — and that no one was listening. I don’t claim to understand the nitty-gritty disparities in policy and atmosphere between the two august universities, or how these types of Ivied environments may differ from a large state school. But I do know that it’s common sense that in a limited community, if the leadership tolerates gross public displays of misogyny and subtly discourages the reporting of sexual assault, it’s probably not an easy place to be a woman. This article by Claire Gordon of Yale lists the many, many incidents over the past decade or so that prompted the recent suit, and they are shockingly many and extreme. One of the most egregious stories circulating was that of male students stealing the testimonial t-shirt projects women had made for “Take Back the Night,” art projects describing their own assaults.

Gordon points out that this sorts of misbehavior would be unthinkable in many of the high profile workplaces Yalies aspire to enter, even the most macho trading floor or office:

If any of these incidents had happened in an office — men shouting “no means yes, yes means anal!” at a woman’s desk, or debating over their work email how liquored up they’d need to be to sleep with various female colleagues — those men would be fired.

This is absolutely correct. And if universities are to fulfill their supposed purpose, particularly at the undergraduate level of preparing young people to enter the workforce and the “real world,” that means taking a strong stand against behavior that’s unacceptable and degrading. The safety and well-being of students, even those undergrads who come in and out in four years and leave their tuition money behind, should be as important to universities as the size of their endowments and their college board ranking.


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