November 7, 2017

What #metoo Compels Us to Do

There is no end to disturbing revelations about sexual assault and harassment at the hands of influential men. What has simmered unchecked as a too-often hidden or trivialized societal malady for generations has finally exceeded the boiling point. It feels like a volcano has erupted with red-hot lava flowing everywhere as so many individuals come forward to share their profoundly painful stories. To these brave people, I say, “We see you. We understand you. You are real.”

The time to expose and address the all-too pervasive reality of sexual assault and harassment is long overdue. This is our national wake-up call after years of ignoring or failing to recognize the breadth and severity of the problem. Sadly enough, many women my age try to assert, “We just didn’t experience it back then.” 

Unfortunately, that’s simply not true. We just didn't know what to do when our selves were ripped from us, so we kept incidents of sexual violation to ourselves, trying to put them far out of our minds. But we have only served to deceive ourselves in a vain attempt to escape the enduring pain from such events that has haunted so many of us. We are grateful that many people at last are summoning the courage to speak out so that together we might all begin to find comfort, healing and justice.

Most every woman I know has encountered some form of sexual harassment or assault. When I was a college student, men sexually harassed women in overt and covert ways. Female students were sexually harassed by male professors. Male students would emulate what they saw male professors doing.

Women at that time had not been empowered to take control of their own bodies or taught how to stop inappropriate behavior, and often they were genuinely flattered by their professors' and other men’s attentions. We never had a sense that administrative leaders knew or cared about these behaviors that were remarkably all too common.

Such offensive and demeaning experiences have been the wholly uncomfortable reality for many of us throughout our professional lives. None of our stories should be ignored or minimized. It's very difficult to live with the unresolved pain of sexual harassment and assault. And while it is extremely hard to share our stories, I believe it is often more helpful to be open about how we have been treated than not. We will live emotionally and physically healthier lives, and men who have harassed or assaulted women will have to be honest with themselves and be held accountable for their behavior.

Indeed, there must be far greater accountability overall in addressing the epidemic of sexual harassment and abuse. Higher education must play a vital role in shaping more respectful and responsible behavior. College presidents and administrators must have clear standards of conduct for all faculty, staff and students. Those standards must be consistently and frequently communicated to all involved.  

At Guilford College, we continue to take this nationwide challenge very seriously with ongoing educational efforts. Much of our focus is on stressing the non-negotiable imperative of mutual consent at each step of a sexual relationship and how to be sure there is absolute clarity about that consent. And our student conduct policies make it abundantly clear that sexual harassment and assault will not be tolerated.

Ultimately, our goal is to be part of a social transformation that yields greater respect and safety for all women. Inroads are being made, but the molten ashes from far too many #metoo stories compel us to act with greater resolve and urgency.