The silent scourge: When sex pests stalk lecturers

Contrapower sexual harassment can be argued to be another form of gender based violence, as it relies on the assertion of male dominance. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Contrapower sexual harassment can be argued to be another form of gender based violence, as it relies on the assertion of male dominance. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Sexual harassment is ubiquitous in higher education institutions around the world and a large body of research suggests that women are its main victims. They are experiencing sexual harassment from their university superiors, their peers — and, in the case of academics, their students.

This last category is known as contrapower harassment. It occurs when a person with less formal power harasses someone with greater formal power. 

One example would be when a female lecturer is sexually harassed by a student.
This phenomenon is well documented in the Global North, but little research has been done into academics’ experiences of contrapower harassment at South African universities.

Contrapower harassment, as with other forms, can range from being mild and relatively nonthreatening in nature to hostile and extreme. Examples include bullying behaviour, showing disrespect, making sexual comments and obscene telephone calls, writing sexist remarks on course evaluation forms, stalking and harassment through graffiti and social media. In 2008, the department of higher education and training established a committee that explored transformation, social cohesion and eliminating discrimination in public universities. It found that sexual harassment is a pernicious problem.

But very few studies have given a voice to the victims of sexual harassment on campus, let alone contrapower harassment. This is part of a broader trend. Sexual harassment at universities is rarely acknow-ledged or spoken about anywhere in the world. Victims are silenced.  During 2016, there has been a wave of student protests against institutions’ responses to sexual violence, rape and harassment.

Institutional responses to women who speak out against harassment are often woefully inadequate. Universities may deny the allegations, be dismissive of the victim or minimise the significance of her experience. This culture of silence may leave victims feeling isolated and unsupported. Contrapower harassment may cause the victim additional feelings of shame. These are associated with being sexualised by those over whom one is meant to have authority.

But why does it happen in the first place? Many explanations are advanced for contrapower harassment. Some argue that it is the result of, for example, a woman occupying a position of authority, which contradicts dominant assumptions about a society’s appropriate gender roles. So a student may see women, minorities and less experienced academics occupying positions of status and authority as illegitimate. Contrapower sexual harassment, then, is an attempt to assert male dominance.

Sexual harassment has a significant impact on those whose lives it touches. It undermines victims’ confidence — both professionally and personally. Research has proved that it has a negative impact on victims’ promotion prospects and their overall career advancement. Specifically in higher education, it’s been found to play a role in pushing female academics out of academia prematurely.

It also comes with a host of documented psychological effects, including low self-esteem, irritability, isolation, depression, anger, guilt, fear, frustration and helplessness.

These findings are particularly significant in South Africa. There is a national imperative to transform universities into more hospitable and accommodating spaces where black and women academics are able to flourish and reach their full professional potential. Tackling sexual harassment — including that of female academics by students — is an important step to creating such spaces. —

Chipo Munyuki is a doctoral student at Rhodes University and Louise Vincent is a professor of political studies at the institution.

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