Fighting Sexual Harassment in Higher Education

As we begin Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we thought it would be important to reshare information we've previously provided on the prevalence of sexual harassment in higher education (Linder et al., 2020) and the important role that we all play in preventing sexual harassment, violence, and assault on our campus (and beyond). There are numerous trainings/offices/organizations across IU that we encourage you look at for more information and support in this important aspect of allyship.

Reflect: How do we participate in a culture of silence?

In what ways are academic networks set up to reward silence and punish speaking out against harassment? Why are we trained to believe people who have been accused over people who report harassment? Sexual harassment is a manifestation of power relations around gender and sexuality (Burn, 2018), relying on a culture of silence to continue (Wilson & Thompson, 2002). This silence is particularly prevalent in higher education because those who are considered to be successful are given a pass for problematic behavior (Griffith & Mederios, 2020; Scheiber & Crewswell, 2017). For example, following sexual harassment allegations against a Harvard anthropologist, 38 prominent Harvard professors signed an open letter defending his character and status as a scholar (Levenson & Hartocollis, 2022). While many later retracted their signature for not knowing the “impact” it would have on their students, this case shows how prevalent the culture of silence – or silencing – is in higher education.

Learn: The Ubiquity of Sexual Harassment in Higher Education

Sexual harassment is a rampant problem in higher education (Bondestam & Lundqvist, 2020), including STEM fields (NASEM, 2018). Sexual harassment appears multiple ways: gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention, and sexual coercion (Burn, 2018). Harassment against women faculty has a long history (Dey et al., 2016; McKinney, 1990) complicated by the fact that harassment comes from senior colleagues as well as students (Lampman et al., 2016). While graduate students of all genders experience harassment, female students are 1.64 times more likely to experience harassment than their male peers – with over half of female graduate students reporting peer harassment (Rosenthal et al., 2016). Women of color and LGBTQ+ people also experience even higher rates of harassment (Clancy et al., 2017; Konik & Cortina, 2008). Sexual harassment can occur outside of institutions too, such as at conferences (Custer, 2019) or field work (Clancy et al., 2014). The consequence of harassment can be far-reaching. Faculty and staff who experience harassment often avoid specific career opportunities (Lindquist & McKay, 2018), frequently feeling such significant stress that many eventually leave the field (McLaughlin et al., 2017). Students who experience harassment are less likely to go to class and do worse academically (NASEM, 2018). However, trying to report one’s experience of harassment can be difficult, as potential retaliation and the complicated process of reporting can be retraumatizing (Ahmed, 2016; Chakravartty, 2022). Reporting, itself, can have negative personal and professional consequences, including barriers to promotion (Hart, 2019); this backlash perpetuates a culture of silence that allows harassment to continue and higher education to remain rife with sexual harassment.


  • Bystander Intervention: Traditional bystander intervention models look to tackle more overt, violent sexual harms; however, you can adapt these models (e.g., the 5 Ds) to fit the context of the department, office, and classroom. If you are directly intervening, name the problematic behavior in the moment or question the motivation behind what someone says/does. You can delegate in response to an issue by bringing in peers to support you. It’s a good idea to follow up with someone who has experienced harassment to make sure that they’re okay and what they need from you as a colleague and/or peer. While you consider how to respond to harassment, remember to center the desires and safety of the person who is being harmed. If we overreact, we can actually do harm to the person we are hoping to help.
  • Challenge Pro-Harasser Bias: When people learn that someone they know has harassed others, a knee jerk reaction is to disbelieve the news. While part of this may stem from a desire to make sense of how someone we thought we knew could do such harm, the misogyny embedded in our culture often means that men who are accused get instant concern and empathy (Manne, 2017). In particular, men show higher empathy toward perpetrators who are men than women do (Bongiorno et al., 2019). Despite what we think we know about people, we can never be sure about their behavior. Knowing someone who perpetrated harassment does not inherently make us bad people; however, if we choose to side with that person unequivocally, without re-examining their behaviors, we fall into the trap of supporting abuse.
  • Deconstruct Victim-Blaming: We hear victim-blaming narratives in many places, like asking someone why they didn’t report sooner or why they chose to stay in a department/office where they were being harassed. Relatedly, a common trend after the onset of #MeToo was men being reluctant to engage with women out of fear, especially in the workplace (Bower, 2019). Why would more women speaking about the proliferation of harassment be a dangerous development? For whom is that dangerous? The problem with these statements, as a part of the DARVO process, is that they put blame on the person who was harmed, not on the person who was doing the harm. Our culture of victim-blaming and the concurrent stereotype of the “perfect victim” are significant barriers to reporting (Kirkner et al., 2020; Mansour et al., 2021).