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One student recounts college experiences of sexual harassment

Before I graduate and leave MIT, I wish to recount the incidences of sexual harassment and violence that have affected me during my undergraduate years. These incidences were so powerful and frequent that they played a larger role in defining my education than my desires or talents did. My impression is that many people do not understand the devastating consequences that chronic exposure to sexual harassment has on many women.

Before I transferred to MIT, I attended another technical school. The male-female ratio there at the time was 7 to 1. During my first week, a man raped and beat a female student behind the gymnasium. Her skull was cracked and she remained in a coma for several days before her death. The campus police officer who witnessed the crime thought it a lovers' quarrel and did not want to interfere. In the following months two women were raped in an all-male freshman dormitory. The university T-shirt for this dorm for the past 20 years portrays two large men wearing executioner's masks dragging a passive half naked woman by her wrists. A fraternity bashed a group of blacks from a neighboring college. A male student walked down Main Street during the day and began to hit and punch women joggers.

During my last months there, the harassment worked its way into my life. While watching a late night movie with some friends, I heard screams outside. When we checked outside, a student was beating another student he later identified as his girlfriend. Some of us went to restrain him while others called for help. I received anonymous rape threats over the computer net that the deans thought were "just the man's way of expressing interest in me." I was told to think his attention flattering. Three weeks before graduation a friend was found at the bottom of the river. He had committed suicide due to sexual harassment from the university president. After the incident, other male students came forward and the president was forced to resign. It became obvious to me that it would be in my best interest to leave. I asked an English instructor to write me a recommendation. After agreeing, he asked when we could start taking our clothes off. I stopped laughing when I noticed that he was not. I left. Needless to say I was not accepted at any of the schools for which I had given him forms, which left me with MIT and a couple of other schools.

Once at MIT, I enjoyed the relatively less blatant sexist environment for a while. I declared a new major and approached school with more enthusiasm. Then, the teaching assistant for a class came up to me after class to ask me if something was on my mind. He then grabbed me and kissed me, after which he reminded me to do my homework in a voice used to speak to three-year-olds. I could no longer stand spending 6+ hours a week with this person and developed an aversion for the subject, so I changed my major.

Back in the dormitory, men on the floor seemed to be friendly at first. Then they became intrusive. They would walk into my room without knocking or knock and walk in without my approval. Even after I objected and several embarrassing incidents, they still assumed this access to my room. I did not lock my door while I was around because I felt I should not have to lock myself in my room in a place I considered "home," nor should it be my responsibility to prevent others from invading space that was clearly mine. One night, one of them tried to force me into sex while I was sleeping. Awake and upset by this, I was crying in my room when another walked in and began kissing me and trying to initiate sex. I was extremely disgusted by this especially since I had told him why I was upset in the first place. Then another guy on the floor started inviting himself into my room. When I refused to answer the door, he began to call. I refused to answer the phone and he resorted to slipping notes under the door. Living there became unbearable so I talked to the Dean's Office and moved to the other side of campus.

I was in such a hurry to move, I moved into the room as the person leaving was packing to go. He sat and spoke to me a while. He then said something was wrong, shut the door, turned off the lights and started masturbating. I sat on the other side of the room totally shocked and paralyzed and later angry.

These were the major incidences of sexual harassment. I have made most of the decisions on my education by taking the path of least threat rather than greatest promise, although at times I confuse the two definitions. Academic freedom became an oxymoron.

During times when I decide to speak out against sexual harassment I encounter verbal and intellectual harassment, provoked not by any mention of personal experiences but by my involvement in activities that focus on women's issues. I take women's studies classes and participate in groups that support women at MIT. I do not hide my view or my activities. I am proud of them. Others around me harass me in a variety of ways about my focus on women's issues. One person, whenever I was present, would raise his hands and exclaim, "Don't worry, I'm not harassing anyone!" usually followed by a round of laughter.

An ex-friend of mine suggested I be sterilized because my ideas and experiences may be genetic! He thought that I would instill unnecessary fears about masculinity into my children and God forbid, they may grow up thinking women should be treated equally! His comments imply that the sexual harassment was brought on by my genes and aggravated by my feminist views, both of which may be unjustly passed on to my children. No one suggests to people with sexist or racist ideas that they be sterilized. What makes equal rights and opportunities for women so hideous an idea that it needs "genetic" elimination?

Most of the time, the harassment occurs in the form of continual questions about the purposes of my activities. Implicit in all this doubt is that my experiences were imaginary and that sexual harassment does not exist or should be tolerated. My views are not considered legitimate because of assumptions like "Well, you've never been raped" or "You haven't been sexually harassed here, have you?" If I answer with examples of harassment that I have seen or experienced, this response then reduces my credibility rather than validating my stance. Obviously these "freak accidents" have made me "oversensitive and thin-skinned" about the issue and have warped my perceptions of reality. My activities are then merely overreactions due to past traumatic experiences with men who in no way represent the average man. Sometimes people make recommendations for psychiatric help with the idea that if only my point of view were altered, then I would feel no need to raise fuss over the issue. After all, sexual harassment is only a problem if one looks at it as such. Any way I argue, my ideas are wrong and sexual harassment should be tolerated. This no-win argument is often an effective method for silencing women.

Lastly, I am often accused of acting out of pure personal anger. This becomes another tactic to reduce the legitimacy of fighting sexual harassment. Confusing my motivation for justice with motivation by personal anger, others turn my attempts to correct situations involving unfair treatment, or my participation in demonstrations against harassment into merely selfish and violent acts rather than a struggle for equality. My favorite attack is "Why, that's like blacks being angry at whites for racism! If you're going to be angry about sexual harassment then don't expect any sympathy from the rest of us!" This statement clearly defines those who have power. The harassed, if they ask nicely, may get some sympathy (but not justice) if "the rest of us" happen to be merciful that day.

Sexual harassment is an abuse of power by those in power. Enforcing an explicit and well-publicized policy on sexual harassment would serve to defend those with less power and enable them to escape situations of harassment with minimal loss of time, energy, academic work, and self esteem. Those harassed need the support of the community, the law and the Institute. MIT women today reap benefits from the efforts of women before them who refused to accept conditions of inequality. Everyone must work to create a future environment at MIT where both women and men can develop their skills and function productively. Many barriers still exist which must be town down. Women today must also refuse these conditions of inequality and work for a better environment for future MIT women.

(Editor's note: the author of this letter wished to remain anonymous.)