By Mary Dwyer (EE ’19)
Twice in my life, I have been sexually harassed to the point of debilitation. Twice in my life, a boy sitting next to me in Calculus hid behind the screen of his cell phone and sexualized me until I could not do Calculus without questioning my worth. Twice in my life, I had to speak about respect. Respect for your fellow human, classmate, academic equal.
During my junior year of high school, a couple of boys added me to a group chat in which they vulgarly, demeaningly described a sexual encounter with one of my female classmates. I still don’t know why they did it. I had all of my AP classes with them. I saw them almost every period of every day. I did not even know the girl who was the subject of their depiction all that well. For some reason though, they wanted to hurt me. They wanted me to read what they were writing to incite an emotional reaction from me and to undermine what I came to school to do everyday.
Sexual harassment is ubiquitous—a problem grander than the scope of my academic career—but my most upsetting interactions with harassment have dealt with boys in my higher education classes. When I go to school everyday, I expect a certain sense of professionalism: I am very conscientious about my behavior, work ethic, and academic success. When a classmate reduces me to anything less than what I contribute to the classroom, humiliation and self-doubt consume my everyday academic life. It’s not something that I can simply shake off; it upsets my perception of my school and my peers.
The night of the incident, I was silenced. I felt embarrassed, shocked, unimportant. I could not believe that I could be eating dinner at home with my family, and unwarrantedly be attacked by people whom I called friends. When I finally told my parents what happened I was hysterical, but I gathered myself and my emotions—and I wrote a speech.
Without exposing the boys, I told our story to the 250 members of National Honor Society and reminded our school of what it means to have good character. If I had reported them, the boys would have been suspended from school for their behavior. Their futures at elite institutions would have been ruined. But they were just boys. We were growing up, and learning together what it means to be adults. Though they had the insensitivity to jeopardize my academic future, I refused to do the same to them.
Since coming to Cooper, I became the subject of a more severe case of sexual harassment. It is important to note that this harassment goes beyond joking amongst friends, insensitive comments that can be discussed until mutual respect is reached, or unweighted words that are followed by apologies. Sexual harassment is blatant disregard for the emotional, academic, and personal dimensions of a classmate through unwarranted sexualization, and the internal refusal to admit that said classmate deserves respect.
“Sexual harassment is blatant disregard for the emotional, academic, and personal dimensions of a classmate through unwarranted sexualization, and the internal refusal to admit that said classmate deserves respect. “
The stories I am sharing are incidents in which someone used specific sexual language to exert power over or to humiliate me. The boy who harassed me at Cooper disturbingly used the fact that he thought I was pretty as a “consolation” and only apologized to me “out of respect for [my boyfriend].” Through his supposed apology, my harasser exposed that I simply did not matter to him: me and all those like me were worthless. We should use these examples as a lens to examine harassment behavior that does not use sexualization, but uses bias over what one perceives as a weaker class.
Yet I spent weeks contemplating how to react to his harassment appropriately. Because he harassed me, I ended up allotting him more respect than he ever had me. The nature of a victim is to analyze: to question what warranted disrespect and to try to define the severity of the situation. I did not want to hurt the boy who harassed me. I did not want him punished. I wanted to end the systemic abuse that had become commonplace in my education and work.
Once again, after the incident took place I reached out to my parents. My mom is a practicing engineer, who has undergone much of what I am going through. While advising and consoling me, she shared stories of harassment that she experiences at work. Through her stories I realized that if I did not do anything, harassment would follow me through my higher education and to my career.
This is why schools, corporations, and governments establish rules that address harassment—to educate the people whose environments did not teach and cultivate respect. We must hold harassers accountable for their actions so that they may learn, and we as a culture and community may grow together.
I reported my harassment case to Chris Chamberlin, Dean of Students. At first I shared my story hypothetically, still unsure if I wanted to legitimately report my harasser. After learning what the protocol was, I felt comfortable enough to share my harasser’s name. It was the right thing to do—it was a step I took as an individual toward shifting the classroom at Cooper to one of comfort, respect, and equality. After naming my harasser, I had a meeting with Dean Chamberlin and Dean Mitchell Lipton, who is the Title IX Coordinator on campus. Throughout the entire process, they ensured I was heard—they ensured that the response would not be a punishment, but an opportunity to educate.
We are a new generation. We have a greater understanding of what is right and wrong. We have the voice to protect ourselves. Whether male or female, if you feel that your classmates do not respect your academic equality, and you question whether their character belongs at an elite institution, have the confidence to report them; the future of you and all of those around you will be grateful.
“We are a new generation. We have a greater understanding of what is right and wrong. We have the voice to protect ourselves. “