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Sexualized remarks violate code of conduct

The weather has finally broken, and students, faculty and staff eagerly seek any excuse to be outside and shake off the last remnants of cabin fever. Unfortunately, along with the joy brought by the sun’s warmth, comes the annual barrage of reminders that my freedom and security are limited, simply because I am a woman. 

While people around the world finally begin to engage in discussions about the prevalence of sexual assault and rape culture, we need to remind ourselves that these things are not isolated layers of our culture that can be easily identified and stripped away, or things that only occur at drunken parties amongst undergraduates. The attitudes that allow rape culture to exist are woven into the very fabric of society. When a woman enters the public sphere, her body is no longer her own, and every aspect of who she is, and what she does, becomes subordinate to the male-driven social market. This often sub-conscious belief results in the acceptance of a wide range of unacceptable behaviors.

My first incident of this year occurred April 2, as I headed to the College Avenue Student Center to grab a quick bite in between classes. A student exiting Au Bon Pain looked me in the eye and grunted a guttural, sexualized response. He then proceeded to watch me walk away while saying “mhmm, shake it.” Rutgers University’s policy to prevent discrimination and harassment clearly states that “non-verbal conduct” of a harassing nature includes “suggestive or insulting sounds, gestures or whistles,” while verbal conduct” includes, “in some instances, innuendo or other suggestive, offensive, or derogatory comments or jokes about sex ... ” The behavior this student displayed violated both categories. He made me uncomfortable and, quite frankly, nervous.

These kinds of incidents are not exclusive to university campuses. A recent survey in Paris revealed that 100 percent of the 600 women interviewed have dealt with some form of harassment on the subway. When my students last semester watched a short film in which a number of men eyed up a young woman in public, several of the male students initially responded with disbelief at the “creep factor” and thought it was an exaggeration. I asked the ladies to respond, and the room became quite animated as they all began bringing up instances of similar behavior they had experienced.

When I speak to others about these experiences, I’ve received varied responses, and many of them have not been helpful: “Relax, he was giving you a compliment,” “There’s always gonna be that one guy,” “Just forget about it, he didn’t mean anything by it.” Denial and continued acceptance of a systemic problem will not make the problem go away. That kind of harassing behavior and the attitudes it represents will not enable us as a society to put an end to assault and rape culture, because they are a part of it. Such threads are not easily removed, but perhaps with continued dialogue and the realization that the attitudes that often lead to assault are bred in the public sphere, we can begin to tease them out. I applaud programs like “SPEAKOUT” that engage men in conversation, giving them agency in societal change. I invite the gentlemen of this campus to talk to the women around them and truly listen when they present their experiences. I invite you to stand up for the women around you when you hear another man make inappropriate comments.

There is a policy to address this behavior at Rutgers, but I have yet to stop a stranger, get his information and file a report. Quite frankly, I would have filled out many reports by now, and I’m certain most other women on campus could say the same. It often seems futile to me: after all, I’ve always been told to ignore it. But I’m tired of just ignoring it and continuing on my way. My silence has become deafening. Our silence has become deafening. And I will remain silent no more.

Jenifer Branton-Desris, Ph.D. is a School of Arts and Sciences part time lecturer in the French Department.

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