South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault & Family Violence

When enough is enough - Sexual harassment in the classroom

For Students, Teachers, Young People

Tags: Sexual Harassment

Author: Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology

This article is written for women and assumes a male offender, however SECASA acknowledges that both men and women can be survivors of sexual abuse and that offenders can be male and female.

By Claire Hennekam
Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT)

Last week, I was working in a Communication Engineering lab with another girl and a few guys. The girl, who was facing the door, suddenly asked rather coldly if someone could close the door. We looked up, only to see a guy mid-bite through his banana, staring blankly at this woman's breasts. He clearly saw no problem with his behaviour, and continued to gawk at her even after it had been brought to everyone's attention. As someone moved to close the door, he casually walked off.

Many people believe that university offers students protection from the real world while they are studying, and is not an environment that would breed such problems as sexual harassment and discrimination. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. If my experiences and the experiences of many other women I know are anything to go by, sexual harassment is very much a part of RMIT, and needs the help of everyone staff, students and others in order to eliminate it.

One of the major hurdles that must be overcome before we can hope to combat sexual harassment is to understand exactly what we mean by sexual harassment. Most people believe that you must have made physical contact with someone in order for it to be considered sexual harassment. This is most certainly not the case. Sexual harassment can be touching, staring or standing so close to someone as to make them uncomfortable. It can also be where a supervisor or teacher offers rewards for sexual involvement, such as promotion or a favourable assessment; or threatens penalties for refusal to comply. Sexual harassment can also be sexual remarks: innuendo, using sexual imagery to illustrate a point, sexual jokes, and personal comments about someone's appearance or sexuality(1). With the Internet being used more and more widely, it can also be sexual harassment to send someone an email about or containing sexual references or innuendoes. The reality of this issue is that almost every woman that you talk to could tell you about a time when she has been sexually harassed.

But the problem is, most women probably wouldn't tell you, as they do not think that it would be considered important, no matter how it may have affected them. And this problem is not only confined to women. Sexual harassment is not about sexual intimacy, it is about power, and can happen to any one, by any one, regardless of gender. The reason that the most common situation is a male harassing a female is due to the unequal status of women in society, and hence the use of intimidation by a man in order to overpower a woman.

This is most apparent in the more male dominated courses. I am currently studying Computer Systems Engineering and Computer Science, and when it comes time to work in a group for a project, I invariably find myself the only female in the group. This more often than not leads to an assumption by some of the guys in the group that they can use this fact in order to get me to do more than my share of the work. Last year, the need arose to meet on the weekend to work on a group assignment that was due that Monday, and the three of us arranged to meet at one of the guy's flats. After about an hour of work, one of them left, saying that he needed to get something from his house. As he left, the other male student closed the door, and deadlocked it. When I asked him why he did that, he responded by putting the key in his pocket and informing me that he didn't like his women running away when he was raping them. The fact that this student had a warped sense of humour, and that this was his idea of a joke was irrelevant, because at that moment all I could think about was that I was deadlocked inside of a flat, with a guy who was making jokes about raping women. All I could do was throw myself into the work we had to do in order to avoid thinking about what he had just said. When the other student returned, I found out why he had gone in the first place. He had brought with him a French porno, suggesting that he and his friend watch it, while 'the woman does the work'. This was the last straw. I told them that if they attempted to watch the video, I would pack up and leave, forcing them to finish the report on their own. They cut their losses and put the tape away.

This is just one example of how sexual harassment can affect the lives of students at RMIT. When I told a male friend about the incident, expecting a little understanding, all he could say was "don't flatter yourself. As if anyone would want to rape you!" This only made it more obvious to me that men see rape only as a sexual thing, when it is so much more than that. Rape, and jokes about rape, along with all other forms of sexual harassment, are used to gain power over people, and have nothing to do with how attracted someone may be to someone else.

I could write about hundreds of other times when I have encountered sexual harassment in my course, but it is more important to discuss what can, and should be done about it. Sexual harassment will only continue at RMIT while we let it, and once we start standing up to students and staff that use sexual harassment to intimidate us, we can stop it from happening to ourselves and to others.

Some suggestions are (2):

  • don't ignore it: contact someone (see below) for confidential advice and information. Advice will be provided for both parties;
  • tell sympathetic colleagues, fellow students, friends;
  • don't feel guilty;
  • inform trusted supervisors;
  • document the behaviour, obtain witnesses if possible (keeping a diary is often useful).

RMIT takes the issue of victimisation very seriously. All enquiries and complaints are dealt with confidentially. If you are experiencing a problem that you think might be sexual harassment, please contact one of the following:

  • The Program Coordinator.
  • The Head of School - City: 9925 4274.
  • Student Sexual Harassment Complaints Officer - 9925 4728.
  • A Student Union Rights Officer -
  • City (TAFE) - Building 57, level 4. Telephone: 9925 4768.
  • Bundoora - Building 202 Level 3. Telephone: 9925 7226
  • Bundoora - Building 254. Telephone: 9925 6151
  • An RMIT Student Services Counsellor - City (TAFE): 9925 4365.

There are a team of many contacts at RMIT, at both the City and Bundoora Campuses, set up to assist any student who has been sexually harassed. There is a lot of information available about what you can do about sexual harassment in the Womyn's Room, and at the Student Union.

Sexual harassment does happen at RMIT. Women are more often than not the targets of this, especially in the male-dominated courses. We can do something about it, and it is vital that we do. Don't let these bastards get away with it.

Most of this information has been taken from the brochure put out by the RMIT Equal Employment Opportunity Branch of the Human Resources Management Group, called "Sexual Harassment: Let's Eliminate it!"

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