by Jessica Slights
While there is an increased awareness about the prevalence of physical violence against women these days, psychological violence is seldom acknowledged or discussed in our society. Despite the new interest in sexual harassment generated by the high profile Hill-Thomas hearings in the U.S., there is little information available about what constitutes harassment, how it affects the women who are its victims, and what our institutions--our schools and universities in particular--are doing to prevent it. This lack of information is due in part, I suspect, to the difficulty in defining sexual harassment.
Obviously sexual harassment involves unwanted attention of a sexual nature, a broad category covering everything from bum patting to sexual assault. People often try to complicate matters by suggesting that what is considered harassment by some people may be flirtation to others. My response is that the interpretation of an action must lie with its recipient--only she can know if it is unwelcome or unwanted.
My experiences at two well-known Canadian universities suggest to me that psychological harassment is a prevalent form of sexual violence against women and that its invisibility makes it a particularly insidious form. Like many other crimes against women, usually sexual harassment goes unreported.
During my undergraduate years, I was involved with women' s issues at the student government level, and while employment equity and date rape were hot topics, sexual harassment of the psychological variety was seldom mentioned. Again I emphasize that this is not because it wasn't happening.
It is a complex problem, but I would argue that much of the responsibility for this inattention fails on university administrators. Too many schools refuse to acknowledge the prevalence of violence on their campuses as they fear a decline in the financial generosity of alumni, adverse publicity, or a decrease in enrolment. Obviously this head-in-the-sand attitude creates more problems than it solves.