Sexual Harassment on California Campuses: Working Towards a Solution


By: Olivia Wiebe

Sexual harassment on college campuses is an issue that is often overlooked, especially when compared to sexual assault, which is perceived to be a much more “serious” concern. However, data from national studies and incidents at several schools in California confirm both the prevalence of campus harassment and its undoubtedly harmful effects.


The two most common types of campus harassment are verbal and physical. Verbal attacks include whistling, leering, and sexually suggestive comments. Physical attacks consist of any form of unwanted touching. Some forms of non-physical contact, including flashing and public masturbation, are also sexual harassment.


A recent study by Hollaback!, an organization which aims to raise awareness and end street harassment, surveyed 282 students and 44 administrators from college campuses throughout the United States. The results were shocking:

  • 67% of students said that they had personally experienced harassment
  • 61% had witnessed another student being harassed
  • 20% said that harassment led to an inability to concentrate in class
  • 23% admitted that campus harassment prevented them from attending class or participating in social activities altogether.


While sexual harassment is often trivialized, a 2014 report by Cornell’s ILR Institute found that many of the emotional effects of sexual assault are also prevalent in sexual harassment cases. Ongoing sexual harassment can lead individuals to feel a sense of self-doubt, low self-esteem, and despair.


There is a strong belief among many college students that not nearly enough is being done to combat the problem of sexual harassment on campuses. This perception was solidified by the recent case of a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was accused by two graduate students of sexual harassment in the form of comments, unwanted physical contact, and forcible kissing. As a result of the accusations, history professor Gabriel Piterberg paid a $3,000 fine, received a one-quarter suspension, and attended sexual harassment training. However, he was allowed to retain his position at the school and did not have to admit fault. Because of this, many people argued that UCLA’s response to the situation was insufficient. Sadly, administrative reactions to harassment accusations against those in positions of power are often inadequate, leading many victims to silently endure repeated attacks instead of empowering them to seek relief through either university disciplinary committees or law enforcement.


For those who are victims of sexual harassment, several new laws in the state of California have been enacted to help ensure protection for victims and accountability for offenders. The “affirmative consent” standard adopted by SB 967 in 2015 requires conscious and voluntary agreement by both parties prior to engagement in sexual activity. Further, after a 2011 letter from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, most universities in the state have shifted from the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard to the current requirement that there be a preponderance of evidence (essentially a 51% chance) that the perpetrator committed the offense.


AB 2654, also passed in 2015, stipulates that each public and private post-secondary educational institution in the state of California have a written policy on sexual harassment, including information about the complaint process, available online. Further, a copy of the policy must be distributed to all students, faculty, and staff members. Many schools also provide victims with confidential advocates, who act as a resource for anyone who has endured sexual harassment or assault. These are trained professionals who will listen, provide options and referrals, and accompany victims to medical exams, university disciplinary hearings, and legal proceedings.


Despite these steps in the right direction, many victims of sexual harassment are still afraid to come forward. The study by Hollaback! found that only 17% of victims reported the harassment they had experienced to their university or local law enforcement. For many victims, there is still a strong perception that the harassment they have experienced will be discounted, and that the perpetrator will not be held accountable for their actions. This belief has only been reinforced by recent cases like that of UCLA professor Gabriel Piterberg. In order for us to effectively handle the problem of sexual harassment at colleges and universities, it is critical that we end the perception that some perpetrators have de facto immunity despite their repeated transgressions and provide justice for all victims of sexual harassment on university campuses.

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