Sexual Harassment in Colleges: We Need a Collective Struggle with a Class Perspective!

by Florence Oppen
On November 25th, 2014, the whole world had the chance to stop for a minute and reflect on the daily and multifaceted violence exerted on half of the humanity. I am talking, of course, of the International Day Against Violence to Women. This day was particularly felt in the USA- not only because of the extreme cases of violence revealed in India. We for sure owe a lot to the massive and courageous demonstrations of Indian women that this problem is finally felt as urgent in our agendas. But the daily harassment and violence against women is not something belonging to the “Third World” or the so-called “backward” countries. It’s spread out worldwide because the current economic system that fosters and condones it is worldwide too.
In the US, for example, there was a national debate on sexual violence throughout the 2014 year. In a country where it’s president addresses the nation and the rest of the world as the “leader of the free world”, women are not free. They’re not free of violence and assault, not even in the “public” spaces which are supposed to be a safe haven: college and university campuses.
The Dismaying Facts: an American Culture of Passive Acceptance of Violence Against Women
A 2007 study largely used by government officials, even though it’s conducted on only 2 campuses, reported that  1 in 5 women have been sexually assaulted in one way or another while their time in college. The study further claimed that 42% of sexual assault acts go unreported because the victim does not want other people to know.[1]
The facts are so dire and troubling for a society that considers itself to be “advanced” and “civilized” that in January 2014 President Obama appointed another task force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. This is partially why throughout 2014, and for the first time in decades, this widespread – but silenced – problem of daily oppression gained national attention and has begun to be more seriously discussed. Newspapers began to report more and more of the cases and journalists began to research and read the previously ignored statistic from 2007 and 2008 issued by non-profit orgs like RAINN (Rape Abuse and Incest National Network).[2]
The facts speak also against essentialist theories of the necessary “evilness” of all men by nature. What is at stake is not a supposed “natural deviance” of men, but the existence of a deadly culture of passive tolerance regarding women’s oppression throughout society, a culture that has both a history and material roots. And the fact that this culture prevails in campuses and educational institutions is very telling of what American society judges as “tolerable” or “acceptable” for women to endure, it is part of the DNA of American capitalism. In the school departments, in the dorms, the fraternities and the student groups, and even in labor unions, there is a culture that sanctions some behaviours as “okay”, and that even sometimes encourages sexual harassment. Many students, staff and professors hear about cases of harassment, notice them or are even spectators of them, but they do not do anything. According to RAINN “90% of the rapes in colleges are perpetrated by 3% of college men”, which shows that they are repeat offenders under the complicit silence of authorities and student groups.[3]
The ideological underpinning of the mainstream college “Frat” and football culture entails a tolerance to sexism, rape, homophobia, racism, and chauvinist attitudes. This campus culture which passes often as “popular”, or in some cases as “working class”, is in fact very reactionary, as it isolates many student communities and is not very welcoming of critical thinking and social movements. This is also the campus culture fostered and celebrated by all campus administrations as a form to keep the students pacified, busy and excited with sports and divided along oppression lines. These ideological aspects of mainstream campus student culture should be openly combated not only by Left groups, but also by all the student organizations who claim to defend democratic rights. There is nothing “popular” about being brutal and oppressive, and nothing “classy” about being tolerant and liberated about one’s own sexuality. These dichotomies and stereotypes are a way to oppress that 99%, our class, and to generate a fratricidal antagonism amongst us, students and workers, in our own campuses.
The public debate around sexual harassment on campuses was raised, not by coincidence, at the peak of the women’s movement in the 1970’s. In 1972, the federal government was forced to concede under the Title IX law that sexual harassment on colleges was a form of discrimination and a privation of civil rights (the right to an equal education) and thus should be prohibited. This law put an additional burden on campuses to protect women, establishing the vision that campuses should be non-oppressive social environments. It made the campus administrations that receive any sort of federal funding responsible for combatting that form of oppression and protecting women. And as socialists, we think it is a good thing that these institutions are responsible for combatting this and all the rest of oppression!
Nonetheless, this never meant that campus leaders automatically turned anti-sexist and pro-women’s rights. In 1977, the known liberal feminist and lawyer Catherine McKinnon sued Yale University for failing to protect seven women who suffered various forms of harassment. Even though McKinnon lost the particular case, she won on principle and it established some favorable jurisprudence for women.
Unfortunately, it is not by court rulings or government laws that women’s rights have been won and applied. It requires daily struggle and collective education (sometimes through punitive measures) so these rights can be enforced. The proof of that is that despite the passing of title IX, most colleges and universities are extremely dismissive when cases of rape and harassment are brought to them, as they are worried mainly on the reputation of the school, investors, the donations of alumni and the fears of the parents. For most of the cases, they downplay what happened, they encourage the victim not to report to the criminal justice system, they doubted their testimony and sometimes blame them for the events. And this is of course horrible and unacceptable. The case reported by New York Times in July 2014 that generated a nationwide debate about how Hobart and William Smith College in the State of New York handled a rape report (where three football players accused of raping a student were acquitted by the internal investigation panel) is not an isolated one.[4] It is just an example of the current state of things and the existing hypocrisy and continued trauma, rape and harassment survivors must go through to get “justice” done.
Now that the debate is hot again, and some schools, under public and internal pressure, are finally beginning to seriously treat those cases of rape and harassment, an internal and public resistance has emerged against the new sanctions. Some conservative voices are arguing that school administrations are going “too far”. And a fraction of the faculty, journalists and commentators have reacted very badly to the shy attempts of colleges and universities to tackle these issues and are talking of “soviet style trials”.[5] We socialists think this is an expression of the internalized sexism of the American society and more particularly, American academia, where, for example, many female professors are openly discouraged, bullied and sometimes fired if they get pregnant!
Another layer of liberals, the one that is not arguing about the accuracy of the number, or complaining about the “trials”, is proposing to stop holding the universities accountable on those issues, given how inefficient they have been to address the problem. They are arguing  basically to revoke Title IX and to “let the courts do their job”  – that is to say, to rely on the regular justice system. Unfortunately, this system does not have a better record, as the Chicago Tribune signaled: of the 171 cases of campus sexual assault reported between 2005 and 2011 to the Chicago criminal courts, only 12 lead to an arrest.[6]
As socialists, we think this “pro vs against title IX” debate is a deviation of the real issue at stake, which is combatting our sexist culture and the real roots of women’s oppression. There is no doubt in our ranks about the need to defend Title IX and any other law provisions that protects women’s rights. That said, we go further and say we support fair and public “trials” in the universities to students and professors who harass, assault or rape women, as we are against the “polite” secrecy on these issues and all the political ”correctness” that silences women’s voices. Yet, contrary to the existing corporate and paternalistic style of college administration, we differ about who should be administering justice. We think these matters should be democratically discussed and handled by students and workers (staff + faculty) themselves and not be the exclusive matter of corporate administrators. As adult workers and students, we must learn and prove to ourselves that we can protect each other from these behaviours and agree that the campus community must be educated with a zero tolerance policy regarding oppression. We need to start enforcing real solidarity in our campuses and not just appeal to administrators- however,  this is a challenge that remains!
The Neoliberal Offensive, the Crisis and the Democratic Party’s Irrelevance for Protecting and Expanding Women’s Rights
Nonetheless, it would be short-sided for us to confine the problem to the campus level, where it has been enclosed to ease out the discussion and avoid talking about the real issues. Sexual harassment happens daily outside of the school walls, and it is equally oppressive and unacceptable, but the Obama administration wants us to forget this big elephant in the room: in the last decade women’s rights have been trimmed, squashed, & erased, and he is doing nothing to stop it.
On the opposite, the tremendous media operation against an issue framed as “localized” and ”manageable” is an attempt to make us believe that his government is going to do something to address the situation.  Of course, another “Task Force” was created in January 2014, which is expected to issue a “report” by April with “recommendations” and even “legislative action “ was taken!  Up to date, the government has issued one single reform, the Campus SaVE Act in March 2014, which basically  forces colleges “to compile statistics for incidents of dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking, in addition to the currently compiled statistics for sexual assaults and certain other crimes. These data will provide a better picture of the extent to which these forms of abuse occur on our campuses and will better equip colleges, advocates, and policymakers to address these issues.”[7] That is to say, the government is merely requesting from campuses to conduct more “campus climate surveys” and giving the schools money to complete “sexual awareness programs” and “trainings” for students.
In concrete terms for women, this reforms equals nothing. This is because  students and faculty who harass and abuse do not do it because of lack of “awareness” regarding women’s rights… this reforms does not enforce any kind of campus safety measures protection for women. It  only helps to deflate the public opinion’s concern, and to help improve the reputation of schools to prove that they are doing “something”, even though everybody knows this something is completely “useless”.
Another piece of legislation spearheaded by Democratic Party senators is attempting to go “a step forward”: it is the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, which is still under negotiation & aspiring to get bipartisan support (!) that aims at providing the ABCs of support to victims that do not exist  today (like confidential advisers), setting standard criteria for disciplinary proceedings, and fine schools (up to 1% of their budgets) who would not obey by certains basics rules. Even though this hypothetical law is a bit better, and we of course support it, it is completely insufficient.
As socialists, we argue that violence against women on campus has to be framed as the result of a pervasive sexist culture in American capitalist society- a culture and social climate that began to worsen this decade. With the new concerted wave of attacks against women’s reproductive rights since 2010, and the increased precarization of women with the economic crisis, it is clear that  the Obama administration has not brought any significant change (quite the opposite), nor does the American political life obey a fictional rule of constant “progress”. The increase of rights is directly linked to the struggles to defend those rights, and Obama not only lied when he promised to improve things, his party, the Democratic Party, did everything to repress, co-opt and demobilize both the Wisconsin uprising and the Occupy movement- two clear agents of change that allowed working class people to step in and fight for their rights.
How hypocritical is a government that makes an irrelevant law against campus harassment but is not willing to step up and defend abortion rights through the country and does not defend universal access to contraception?[8] How can a government pretend to increase women safety and access to education at college institutions while at the same time cutting the basic social safety network which allows women parents to have access to Planned Parenthood plans, maternity leave, childcare, etc.? How can Obama pretend to care about college women when the economic crisis is rolling over women’s rights and material independence?
It is unfortunate, but necessary, to have to remind ourselves that today  35% of women today lack an abortion provider in their county and that, as the Guttmacher Institute argues, “in just the last four years, states have enacted 231 abortions restrictions”!!![9] And in 2014 alone, the same year the government was “campaigning” in the media against sexual harassment, 15 states enacted 26 new abortions restrictions.[10] And why the government “does not see” the connection between these obvious attempts to fragilize women, to deny them the right to choose, to assert their inferiority by valuing a fetus over their civil and political rights & with the increase of harassment on campuses?
All the studies have shown that the impact of the economic crisis has been harsher on women, since they were a vulnerable chunk of the workforce first hit by layoffs.  One example of that is the effect of unemployment on women. The waves of layoffs and replacement of full-time by part-time jobs did not only translate to an economic hardship on working class families- it also implied an increase of the time working class women spend doing the reproductive labor, that is to say unpaid house/care work. A 2013 study shows that 45% of the market hours “lost” in the workplace for women have been reallocated to non-market work (meal preparation, cleaning, and unpaid care of children and elders); while men’s former paid work hours have been largely reallocated in education and leisure activities.[11]
Combatting the Harassment/Rape Culture: It Cannot Be a Matter of the “Survivor’s Choice”: We Are All Responsible!
The first challenge to combat this campus culture is to overcome the personalization and individualization of these cases. The current debate is set up in a way where fighting the prevalent culture of harassment is set to lie upon the shoulder of individual women, as they are the ones, as victims or survivors, who have to choose to report or not to report the attacks, to choose between campus “justice” and criminal “justice” system, etc. The idea that combating oppression is an individual endeavor, and above all one of the survivor (and sometimes of her or his allies, but always on a personal basis- because they are friends or know them) and not a matter of collective struggle and organization, is relatively new: it is a set back from the mass movement and strong political organizing that US women and LGBTI communities pulled off throughout the decades of the 1960s and 1970’s – two decades of collective struggle that seem to have been quickly swept away by the neo-liberal offensive (an economic and ideological one) that has centered everything again on the individual, making him or her responsible for everything, and leaving him or her alone to deal with its social existence.
As Socialists, we believe that if we keep the currently imposed framework of treating women’s oppression on an  individualized, case by case basis, the combat against women’s oppression has no credible future. When you are dealing with a prevalent culture of oppression, you need to mobilize the force of a collective group, a real social force, to change things, and not just individual women who are asked to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. This struggle concerns all of us, and we must overcome the divide and conquer tactic which keeps women atomized and is an obstacle to mobilize the only force that can eliminate the material force of oppression: the joint struggle of the working class, or the 99%. It is not more liberating to have all the weight of the decisions to fall on your own shoulders alone when you have been attacked. Liberation comes from trust and struggle, a collective and political trust that something can and will be done. Liberation comes from the determinate and strong reaction from your “allies”, from your class brothers and sisters that feel equally, or even more outraged than you do, and are ready to take action. Part of women’s oppression comes precisely from the prevalent individualizing American culture, from their complete isolation and intimidation, which is an ideological disposition created to make the “individual responsible” for deciding or not to have an abortion, press charges, feed the family etc.
When we Socialists defend ”the right to choose”, we do not defend it as an “individual right”- as if we were passive consumers- the right to choose is not the “right to be left alone with your shit to fix”. Instead, it is the right to choose a better life- an emancipated one, collectively- by showing our solidarity and our forceful resistance to the State’s attempts to limit women’s rights. The same goes when we defend survivors’ right to prosecute their aggressors. It is of course about confronting the wrong being done to an individual person, respecting his or her privacy and intimacy, but it is about enabling a political fight that exceeds each individual, as the culture of pervasive assault on women has nothing to do with the particular women being assaulted (with their individual personalities, actions or behaviors), but with the fact that they are constructed as “women” in the social and political relations, that is to say, as vulnerable, as “assaultable”, “rapable”, “harassable”, and as “over-exploitable” and with a lower political voice.
To end this culture of sexual harassment, we call on all campus student and labor organizations, as well as Left groups or parties present in those spaces, to act now and united, to educate men and women in our spaces of work and study, demanding the enforcement of the existing provisions, the introduction of new ones, and the application of more severe penalties to perpetrators of abuse, rape or any other act of oppression.

[1] The Campus Sexual Assault Study conducted by the Justice Department of the USA, 2007.
[2] You can find more information here:
Some conservative faculty and commentators have chosen to pick the wrong battle in this case: to criticize the “numbers” given by  the government officials and to claim the studies are limited, the facts are exaggerated and denying, ultimately, that there is a generalized violence and harassment against women in our society. The problem is not in the facts, we have enough proof of the violence women endure in our colleges and campuses. The problem is the hypocritical attitudes of campus administration and government officials!
[9] See our Worker’s Voice article of 2013 for the historic setback in reproductive rights: And also visit the website of the Guttmacher Institute:
[11] Aguilar, M., E. Hurst, and L. Karabarbounis. 2013. ‘Time Use During the Great Recession’. American Economic Review 103(5): 1664–1696.

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