Sexual harassment needs be cleared up

If you’ve spent time on campus this term, you’ll have noticed the results of a sexual harassment survey conducted by YUSU as part of the National Union of Students’ Women’s Campaign displayed on posters. They found that 75 per cent of female and 65 per cent of male respondents have experienced some form of sexual harassment. Pretty serious deal, right?

The campaign isn’t without its strengths. It’s thought-provoking, but undermined by a rather poor definition. The study did not use the legal definition of sexual harassment, which means that many of the reported forms of such activity would probably be dismissed by the courts. These posters should have acknowledged this definition. Wolf whistling, for example, formed part of the definition used for the study, and I envisage that most people reading this ­­will have done just that, without a second thought.

There’s also the low response rate of the survey that calls into question the legitimacy of the findings. Incidentally, such suggestive language may well meet the criteria for sexual harassment, and given the 15,000-strong student population at the University of York, 200 respondents just isn’t enough. I imagine the ‘ordinary student’ the NUS apparatchicks are always banging on about would define sexual harassment in a very different way.

But none of this is to belittle sexual harassment. Part of the problem with regards to the legal definition of sexual harassment (which itself is perhaps out of kilter with ordinary folk) is a cultural one borne out of a lack of education on the topic. More physical forms of sexual harassment often occur because people are unaware of what limits ought to be applied to their actions. Verbal ones even more so. But even then, it’s a contentious issue. Sexual harassment is often context based: is someone guilty of sexual harassment should they attempt to kiss their partner? I can’t imagine many agreeing with this.

I would also question whether those responsible for the graffiti would actually commit sexual harassment in the wrong situation. How can acts like these be stomped out if some students are actively seeking to normalise it? Part of the problem is the perceived differences between men and women. Perhaps it is from these social constructs -­ the very ones feminists have been telling us about for years – that sexual harassment is fast becoming normalised. Men and women think it’s okay, and pass it off as ‘just part of a night out’.

Until these problems are ironed out, we can’t hope to see the end of harassment. Whatever the solution, we need more than a short survey and a few easily defaced posters. If you’re well versed in leading a cultural revolution, you may want to consider putting yourself forward for YUSU elections, as you’re just what we need.

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