Opinion: Sexual harassment and Oakland University’s suspended student

By Cara Lynch, HAVEN Therapist

As Valentine’s Day was coming to a close, I followed my regular nighttime routine of getting in bed and watching the 10 o’clock news until I became either too sleepy or too angry to continue to watch. That night my emotions followed the latter as I listened to the story about a student at Oakland University who was suspended after he wrote a sexually explicit story about his professor.

No wait, let me clarify that further: he was suspended after he sexually harassed his professor. The media, of course, did not frame the story as sexual harassment. Instead they jumped at the chance to make an all-too-easy Van Halen reference and chose to frame it as a man whose sexual imagination simply got the better of him. No harm, no foul, right? Wrong, and allow me to break down why.

First of all, let’s define sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is any unwanted sexual attention that causes a person to feel intimidated, threatened, uncomfortable, or unsafe. Most people think of sexual harassment as something that happens between a boss and his/her employee, but work is not the only place that sexual harassment happens. Sexual harassment happens on the street when someone cat-calls you from a car when you are walking to catch the bus. Sexual harassment happens in public places like malls and gas stations and office buildings when someone approaches you to say how sexy your hips are and how enjoyable it is to watch you walk. Sexual harassment happens on the internet when someone sends you online messages or comments on your blog about how hot you are and how much you turn them on. And sexual harassment happens in schools and universities when a student decides to tell his professor all the sexual things he would like to do to her.

Second of all, let’s address the rebuttal that might be circulating in your head right now: But when I tell you how hot you are, it’s a compliment! Why can’t you just smile and appreciate it? Take a second look at that definition of sexual harassment and find the part that speaks to the intention of the “attention-giver.” Oh, wait, you can’t find it? That is because sexual harassment has nothing to do with a person’s intention, but instead has everything to do with how the receiver of the attention feels. All of the examples I listed above are sexual harassment because they often leave the other person feeling uncomfortable and unsafe, regardless of whether that is what someone was trying to accomplish or not. Intention does not matter.

But there’s something else hidden beneath the rebuttal of “But I didn’t mean it like that,” something much more insidious, which brings me to my third point. When someone says, “But that’s not what I meant” or “That wasn’t my intention,” the message that is actually conveyed is something more along the lines of, “You are wrong for feeling the way you do.”

When we insist that our intention of doing no harm is more important that the feelings of harm expressed to us by the other person, we are silencing them and telling them that their feelings do not matter. With regards to the incident at Oakland University, I do not claim to know exactly what this professor felt when she read those stories; I am not in her head and I do not live her life. However, it seems safe to assume that she felt threatened and uncomfortable given the fact that this particular student was found guilty of sexual harassment and intimidation by the student conduct committee.

Though I cannot speak for the professor, I can speak for myself and had I been in her position, uncomfortable is exactly what I would have felt. I will explain why and this will be my final point.

As a woman living in this society, I fear violence all the time, specifically violence from men. I do so because women are the targets of men’s violence all the time from being beaten by partners, to being raped by friends, to being molested by caregivers. It is not the kind of fear that gives me nightmares every night or makes it impossible for me to live my life; it is more of an awareness that is always there, like when the government held our national threat level steady at orange for years. The awareness of that threat level was always with us, but the majority of us were not holed up in bomb shelters somewhere. It was a fear we got used to.

This fear of men’s violence against women is also something that most women are just used to and it is the same kind of fear that people of color might have of violence fueled by racism or someone who identifies as LGBTQI might have of violence fueled by homophobia, transphobia, and/or heterosexism.

As women, that place of fear might get activated, though, when a man pulls alongside us at a gas station and says, “Hey baby, what’s a sexy thing like you doing here,” because in that moment, we have no idea what he is going to do if we reject him. “Is he going to keep bothering me? Is he going to attack me? Will it be safe for me to assert myself right now and tell him to leave me alone?” And my fear definitely would have been activated if I were a professor reading a student’s story about all the sexual things he wants to do to me. There is no way that I would have been able to read that story, go back to class, and feel safe with him around because if he thought it was ok to write this story and turn it in the first place, what is he going to think is ok to do next? Does he even see me as anything other than a sexual object?

Now I am not saying that this student is the devil incarnate or even just a “Bad Guy.” I am no more in his head than I am in the professor’s. But I will say this: It says something about the kind of person he is that instead of taking this opportunity to learn about himself and make different choices in the future, he is refusing to take responsibility for his actions by claiming it was protected free speech and pursuing legal action instead.

And it says something about him that he believes his right to say whatever he wants to say is more important that the feelings of safety, or lack thereof, of those around him. It would say something entirely different about him if he were able to listen to his professor express her feelings without trying to explain to her, or anyone else, why those feelings are wrong and then respond by saying, “I hear what you are saying and though I may not have intended to make you feel this way, I understand now that my actions had that effect all the same. You are entitled to your feelings and I respect them. Thank you for telling me. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help you feel safe around me in the future.” 

The man who could say all that would be a man I would consider trusting again because he would have shown me that he values my feelings and that he is open to learning the most important rule of all: My rights end where yours begin. Or in this case, my right to free speech ends the moment my free speech tramples all over someone else’s right to feel safe.

17 Comments

Filed under Call to action

17 responses to “Opinion: Sexual harassment and Oakland University’s suspended student

  1. Mar Sclawy

    I just heard the student’s side: that the prof had said no limits on what you write. If true, I’m thinking the prof (the one in the position of power in this case) should have told him. Well, having read your first entry, I’m putting limits on what you write. If that didn’t bring the student in line, then I’d think harassment could be the issue. But not yet. I think the prof made herself the victim by letting the student continue on his theme.

  2. kcoj

    I watched this as well on the news, and was flabbergasted that this man had the view point that he did nothing wrong. Plus, if I recall, the news mentioned he is married as well. So, he not only victimized his professor, but his wife as well. Great post Cara, and SO true on your points!

  3. Megan

    Well said!!! Thank you for posting about this subject!

  4. Cara

    The news reported something similar to that as well, that he’d asked if there were any limits on what he could write and the professor said no. So I understand your point that had more direction been given upfront then perhaps the whole situation could have been avoided. However, what that point fails to recognize is this: I shouldn’t have to tell someone not to sexually harass me. That is a rule I EXPECT people, men included, to follow, because I expect more. Not to mention, sexual harassment is against the student code of conduct and no professor should have to tell her/his students not to break the code of conduct when completing their assignments. We would never blame a professor for a student’s decision to cheat on a test because that professor failed to tell the student not to cheat; cheating is against the code of conduct and it is EXPECTED that students adhere to those rules. The same logic applies to this situation as well, but I have to wonder why people fail to make that connection sometimes.

  5. Rebekah

    This sounds a lot like thought crime. This guy is guilty because of another persons feelings? I have no idea if this is a good or bad guy, harmless or some sort of predator, but he didn’t DO anything. I can understand the professor not liking what he wrote, but that is her issue, not a legal issue. I don’t see anything in the constitution about the “right to not be offended”. I wonder if this issue would have come up if this was an 18 year old freshman guy and not a 50 something construction worker, or for that matter a 50 something woman- I doubt it.

  6. Miriam

    I can not believe this guy. He has the nerve to claim his innocence. He should not be allowed to speak unless it is to admit his guilt. Having him out in public claiming to be innocent is a slap in the face to the professor, it is like calling her a liar, making her a victom again. This man had his chance to act human, instead he acted like a farm animal.

  7. Cara

    No, he did do something – he sexually harassed his professor by writing a sexually explicit story about her. That is doing something. If he’d just thought about it, then it wouldn’t be an issue. But he actually did it and didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. As best I can tell, it perhaps never even crossed his mind that his professor might feel uncomfortable reading a sexual story about herself – that is male privilege, make no mistakes about it. And while I understand your point that I am not responsible for other people’s feelings, as a human who exists in this world among other humans and wants to do my part to make this world a little better, it behooves me to make sure that as I live my life, I am not inadvertently causing other people to feel threatened or intimidated or otherwise unsafe.
    Like I said in my original post, it is completely possible that he never intended to cause his professor to feel unsafe, but his intention does not matter. And in fact, I have been in the position of unintentionally causing another person to feel unsafe and it took me about a week to fully process what had happened, but in the end I apologized to the person (and the entire class, for it happened in a university setting) and expressed how sorry I was that my actions caused her to feel that way. I took the opportunity to examine my own privilege in the situation. It seems to me that he is not and that there are plently of people in this world who are quick to let him get away with it, and that’s a real shame.

  8. Rebekah

    If this guy had apologized and acted sincerely contrite to the professor would that have “fixed” this situation? It seemed to work out in the example you gave. Is the problem that he refuses to acknowledge doing wrong? And thereby refusing to acknowledge the prof’s “feelings”?
    Perhaps there is a pattern, of this guy being creepy, or stalking or something, but if this was a isolated incident the professor should have explained in writing this was inappropriate and should not happen again. “Tall, blonde, stacked, skirt, heels, fingernails, smart, articulate, smile.” This seems to be what he wrote, I guess my grandma might be offended by the term “stacked”, but the rest just seems to be observations that I would be pretty pleased if anyone noticed about me.
    I also think intent is the most important factor for any transgression that doesn’t cause any physical harm. If someone is offended by something I say, the best they will get out of me is a Im sorry you were offended by what I wrote/said” or simply “Im sorry that you feel that way”

  9. Cara

    Yes, I do believe that it is a problem that he does not appear to be holding himself accountable or acknowledging that what he did was wrong. In all honesty, though, I think the biggest problem is that he thought turning in that assignment was an ok thing to do in the first place. In regards to your suggestion that the professor should have addressed the concerns privately before going to the student conduct committee, I don’t actually know if that happened or not. However, it sounds like you are still putting the onus on her and not him. This is not an instance of it takes two to tango. He alone is responsible for his wrong choices. Plus, by suggesting that she should have handled the matter privately to begin with, you are also asking that someone who feels intimidated and unsafe around someone confront the person about what he is doing that makes her feel unsafe. If I already feel unsafe around someone, then I am also most likely going to feel that it is too unsafe for me to confront that person. I will also note that sexual harassment is not a compliment, though many people like to suggest it is. Perhaps you personally would have felt flattered by his story, but that doesn’t mean that someone else is wrong for having a different reaction. How you would have felt in this situation matters just as much as his intentions do, which is to say it doesn’t matter at all. You are emotionally auditing the professor and it is not ok.

  10. Mark

    Cara, that was great! Totally agree, well said all around! (original blog post and comments)

  11. Rebekah

    Fair enough. I guess I just think people worry way too much what other people think of them. That said, I would never want to be stuck in a class, workplace or anywhere I had continued contact with someone who made me uncomfortable or afraid. I just couldn’t care less if a random person says something to me at the grocery store, or a guy stares a little too long at a stop light. Thanks for the replies Cara, have a nice day.

  12. Cara

    Thank you for being open to talking with me about it! I hope you have a good day, too.

  13. Albanius Severus Seneca

    I certainly appreciate your perspective on this, although I must disagree with your conclusion. This sexual harrassment is as you describe unwanted sexual behavior etc. etc. What I strongly disagree about is your conclusion that “women are the targets of men’s violence all the time from being beaten by partners, to being raped by friends, to being molested by caregivers.”

    You go onto say that this individual is “refusing to take responsibility for his actions by claiming it was protected free speech.”

    That IS taking responsiblity. He is not denying anything. He’s admitting to being offensive and rude and inappropriate.

    “Grow up!” Too women like you are saying you live in awareness and fear … So do I. I carry a firearm, take different routes home, always use the buddy system, pay attention to my instincts etc. and yet, I do not live in “fear” of men, or of blacks, or whites, or of transexuals, gays, lesbians you pick. I live in awareness that their are PEOPLE who do BAD things and that those PEOPLE are CRIMINALS, not MEN, or GAYs or WOMEN or whomever you dislike.

    Your article is perhaps one of the most sexist things I have ever read. It is similar to saying that a person should be afraid of Black people because created and listen to violent rap music that degrades women. Pretty Racist? Yep, and its a load of tosh. Men commit violence so do women. Blacks and whites alike commit crimes. You have never worked in violence shelter nor have ever seen “broken bone” abuse.

    Equal rights? Whether man or women you cannot tell a bigot or a racist or a sexist to stop being themselves. I am aphaled because I see things equally insulting spoken about women by hordes of male students at Oakland or MSU of Michigan and yes, equally insulting things spoken by females. Its an unfortunate part of life and if we expelled all the students who said or did dumb things we would have empty universities. You and I would certainly not be there either, because yes, I have been distasteful and at times too. So have you.

    Let me use a similar analogy “children are the targets of women’s violence all the time from being beaten by mothers, to being raped by caregivers to being molested by family members…. so children should be terrified of women… right? WRONG!

    Women should have equal rights, equal ability to serve in our military in combat to do all the things that men can do, I can proudly say they often do a better job- but its not because they are women but because they are better soldiers better businesspeople, better leaders, because they refuse to victimize themselves when they have never been victims. I got called fat all the time as kid. I was teased and made fun of and did not want to take my shirt off in the lockeroom. Should I let some idiot “force” me not to go to the gym because I am embarassed?” No.

    This student was an idiot, a sexist and yes extremely immature. So are women who become pregnant at 16. Its a choice. Its a choice to respond, Its a choice to not live in fear because we are confident in who we are not “what” we are.

    If the teacher was offended, she should have spoken up and told the student if he ever did anything like this again, she would have him suspended. Thats what she should have done, and guess what? it likely would have given him a wake up call. If it did not, then by all means have the police throw his ass off campus, but do not be so cowardly to let a persons ignorance and right to say insulting things dictate life. Its going to happen. Buck up and deal with it and show people like him what it means to be a woman- what it means to be a person.

    Let me use a similar analogy “children are the targets of women’s violence all the time from being beaten by mothers, to being raped by caregivers to being molested by family members.”

    • Albanius Severus Seneca

      My apologies, I see you do work in a violence shelter. I am sorry for missing that detail. Its really eyeopening and I can see why many women DO have a natural distrust for men. It is painful to see such abuse. Those individuals are victims, but its also realizing that not all men are abusers or batters or bastards. Just as all women are not prostitutes. Abusers are not quite so obvious as this student. They are our “tolerant” non-profit leaders, and successful businessmen too. They are some of the people reading this forum.

  14. Cara

    I am not going to piece apart everything from your first comment because frankly, I don’t even know where to start and some of it left me a bit confused. So instead I am going to suggest that you read this blog post: http://shakespearessister.blogspot.com/2009/08/terrible-bargain-we-have-regretfully.html. I think it will help clarify the fact that I do not hate men, nor do I think they are all abusive, horrible people. (In fact, I know some pretty awesome men – some even work for HAVEN!) I do, however, mistrust men, and anyone who wants to be an ally to this movement needs to understand why so that they can start to work everyday to prove themselves trustworthy to the women in their lives.

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