Responding to Sexual Harassment

I tutor eighth graders at Shaw Middle School in West Philadelphia, and my experiences have shown me how pervasive sexual harassment is in our culture. Last Friday, I was sitting at a table with several Penn tutors and their tutees (all of whom are male). One of the tutees said to the other boys, “hey, have you seen that girl’s ass,” and pointed at a tutor who was at another table. The boys began to laugh, and two of the Penn tutors gave each other a look of amusement and told the tutees to get back to their work. The other tutors didn’t call out the boys but neither did I. I can try to excuse my behavior by saying that I wasn’t involved in the conversation or by saying that my tutee did not participate in the exchange. However, I should have said something, and there isn’t an excuse for my behavior. The boys’ actions constitute sexual harassment, and as someone who has experienced this, I know how objectifying and reductive it is. However, I struggle with how to respond to harassment when I hear it. What is the best way to get people to consider what you have to say? Does saying something to the perpetrator even do anything?

My experience reminded me of how much of the permissibility surrounding sexual harassment is related to gender norms. I thought of the Hill-Collins article that we read that demonstrated how African-American men are represented in the media as perpetrators of sexual violence; these messages have clearly reached the middle schoolers, who already show disregard for women. Fighting sexual harassment necessitates fighting these gender norms.

Hill-Collins, Patricia. Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. New York: Rutledge, 2005.

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