Sexual Assault Can Be Physical and VerbalI have just finished reading the letter by Imrich, Huang, and Bader ["Harassment Guide Limited in Scope," Nov. 16]. I find the third and last paragraphs particularly sticking in my mind. I understand the concerns these gentlemen have expressed. It seem ridiculous that the guide "lumps telling offensive jokes with physical assault or being threatened with one's job," or that a form in the back of the guide "actually lists `verbal' as a form of sexual assault." I say "seems" because I believe there are underlying issues that have not been addressed in the letter by these men. Wisely or foolishly, I am entering this "heated debate."
First, I ask that the reader walk a mile in my shoes. It would be foolish to think that I come to this point without previous experience or bias. My hope is that my experience is a compliment to the readers and that it will add depth and flavor to the discussion. I strongly believe that a person can be sexually assaulted verbally. I say this as a rape survivor and former rape counselor.
When I was eighteen, I was raped by an acquaintance. What started out as a nice dinner between two friends (or so I thought) became rape. It started out innocently enough: he kept making crude jokes. I was embarrassed and uncomfortable but didn't say much of anything because I thought that "it was just a joke." After we had finished eating, he started telling me about his work as a police officer and how they handled people resisting arrest. He offered to show me how they did certain holds. I agreed. He showed me hold after hold and dared me to break out of them, if I could. I could not. Soon after, he started kissing and fondling me and would not stop even though I told him that I wanted him to stop. He used various holds on me while he loosened my clothing and his own. He then proceeded to rape me. While he was raping me, he told me repeatedly that a woman's muscles were strong enough to force a man's penis out of her vagina if she did not want it there. As bad as the physical rape was, the verbal rape made it a thousand times worse.
What started as crude jokes had become verbal, physical, and spiritual rape. Disrespect and even outright hatred of an individual or a group can and is displayed on a continuum of behavior. I will never know if I had told this acquaintance that his jokes were unacceptable that it would have gone no further. I do know drawing the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable behavior with those who live and work together is a necessary part of a healthy social and work life. The importance of the guide is that it encourages communication within the community. Before anything else, the new MIT publication on harassment encourages people to speak up and those around them know what makes them uncomfortable.
In a university community I expect to be challenged, continue learning, and to have heated debates. Learning can be a painful experience, although that does not mean we need to trample on one another's personhood with verbal weapons. It is a mistake to think verbal violence is unimportant and unrelated to physical violence. I was violated. Over eight years later I am still learning from it. The biggest lesson I have learned is that I do not need to be violated to learn.
Anne Ward Assistant Archivist Institute Archives and Special Collections