When No Means Yes: Professors as Objects of Sexual Harassment

Diana Hume George and Christopher Origer | February 2003

Teaching writing invites intimacies less likely to occur in many other disciplines. Our apprentices, whether they’re writing poetry, fiction, or personal essays, often transmute their life experiences into art, and we mediate that transformation. A student’s personal life is often the legitimate stuff of conversation, especially if what’s happening at home affects the writing-and this is even truer when personal material is the subject of the poem, the essay, the story. When students are new to college, their writing professor may be the single mature adult to whom they confide their dilemmas, and with older students, years of mutual work may encourage even greater confidences. For some, the writing professor functions as the person who listens to them more closely than almost anyone else. We’re usually listening for the bones of the story or the poem so that we can say There’s your material, but a student may feel understood as never before.

The rituals of most creative writing courses encourage a greater degree of personal contact than in, say, a calculus course with 200 students in a lecture hall, or even a small senior seminar in political science. Sometimes the entire milieu of writing programs fosters relationships that touch on the personal as well as the professional-there’s often a deliberately forged sense of community among writers and their mentors. Against all advice from the Human Relations or Counseling and Advising offices of any university these days, students and teachers continue longstanding rituals-they go out to eat together at bars late at night, and casually socialize off-campus. If students read the published works of their mentors, or are guests at gatherings in their teachers’ homes, they may infer as much about their teachers’ personal lives as the reverse. For the most part, this is not accidental. A personal pedagogy is what most professors in writing programs intend, and they often believe in its positive effects.

But such a paradigm includes potential for problems we need to be aware of, and the authors of this article found out we were not aware enough, despite a generation’s and a nation’s near-obsession with the subject of sexual harassment. At least two generations of professors and students know all about it-or think we do. Information on what to do if harassment occurs is part of student orientation programs. Professors, both apprentice and veteran, have been long since educated, so that even the Ur-Old-Boy who once thought that laying paws on his best young writers was a right granted by his tenure is given, well, pause. It’s been the subject of continuous mass media coverage, Supreme Court appointments, conspicuous and celebrated cases like Jane Gallop’s at Wisconsin, and articles in glossy magazines. Creative writers are in the loop with a rash of novels, from Francine Prose’s Blue Angel through James Hynes’ splendid Lecturer’s Tale, as well as recent works by Philip Roth and David Lodge. National debates continue on whether and how sexual harassment legislation has gone too far, or not far enough-sexually harassing someone over whom you have power might not stop you from getting named to the Supreme Court, but it can sure as hell keep you from getting tenure at Podunk U.

For all of this, there’s been a weird silence about a kind of harassment that many professors have been involved in. Everyone knows stories about professors who prey upon students, but we don’t hear much about the reverse, in which teachers can become the downright frightened objects of unwanted attention. Current faculty/student harassment policy on American college campuses is set up almost entirely for the protection of students from teachers. Even when the teacher is the object rather than the perpetrator, he or she is assumed to be the responsible party. One of us has been in the line of informal reporting of sexual harassment for years. When a student reports harassment, a phalanx of people and procedures are solidly in place for that student to take (or decline to take) action to make the harassment stop. Not so when it’s the other way around. Look at the language of your own college’s policy, whether you are a professor or a graduate student. Far and above the legitimate and necessary protections that should be offered to students, many university policies contain, as we have all heard, ludicrous inducements for students to see themselves as victims of sexual harassment by professors when no such thing is occurring, but there are no parallel protections for professors.

Case in point: The Pennsylvania State University’s current harassment policy, modified from the version that told students they might be the objects of harassment if professors made "suggestive facial expressions such as licking lips or wiggling tongue," nowhere mentions professors as possible targets. In addition to the usual and legitimate definitions (unwelcome sexual advances, etc.), PSU’s harassment policy also protects students from "other verbal conduct of a sexual nature" that "has the effect of interfering unreasonably with the individual’s work" or "creates an offensive, hostile, or intimidating… learning environment." By this definition, discussing a work with sexual content in the writing workshop, or any text with sexual themes in a literature course, might constitute harassment.

While the possibility of sexual discussion in the classroom being interpreted as inappropriate might seem remote, it happens more than most professors think. You might not hear gossip about it when your class is at issue, but colleagues often do. So let’s say an offended student (or his/her parents) complains about sexual content in your classroom discussion. How can administrators, who must mediate between the student and the professor-and who often feel far more obliged to protect their student and parental "clients" than to protect your academic freedom-tell whether the sexual talk is legitimate, and if not, who instigated it? Questioning other students registering in a class will most often establish the legitimacy of sexual literature and theory. But if you also engage in casual sexual repartee in the classroom, you can’t necessarily count on other students not to be offended-maybe sexual repartee and sexually-based wit and irony is offensive to more students than professors realize. Some teachers might not be known as sexual harassers, but are widely regarded as sexual boors and just don’t know it. (Their colleagues know it, for sure.)

But what if perfectly legitimate sexual discussion takes place when you’re alone with a student, as happens in independent studies and thesis meetings? How are administrators to discern who initiated such sexual talk, and to what end?

Thus did one of us discover the uses of sexual harassment policy to intimidate professors. When she told a student to back off and leave her alone, after the student crossed the line into attentions that constituted sexual harassment, the student threatened suicide, after also threatening to quit college and to cite her as the cause of a ruined academic career. When she said they would no longer discuss any matters from the student’s personal life in their Independent Study, the student wrote a thinly disguised fiction (in the guise of a story) in which the main character sexually conquers the older woman. When this professor was informed, from the student’s aggressive perch on the edge of her desk (the precise locale of the seduction in the "story") that she was "probably guilty of sexual harassment," an option the student was now "considering," the protest that this was untrue was met with a reference to university policy. "You’ve been talking with me about sex all semester." This was indeed true. The student had initiated discussions of Freud’s Three Theories of Sexuality and The Interpretation of Dreams, and of Denis deRougments Death and Sensuality, texts appropriate to the course and to the student’s sexualized writing. Earlier and less guarded discussions were full of frank language, which while never personalized in the least, could have been quoted out of context. (Another colleague was mentioned as a possible litigant, but because of a confidentiality glitch, the colleague never knew he was thus threatened.)

"Fiction" as a harassment strategy was even more dangerous for Melissa Bender, who was also teaching at Penn State at the time, whose rejected student, after threatening the same kind of suicide-homicide scenario, wrote a story about a woman who lived on a certain kind of street, alone with her pet (as did Bender), who was murdered one night in her apartment. The university would not remove the student from her class. The best the institution could offer was an apology to the professor, assigned by the college counselor. "Because professors grade students, universities portray students as powerless, but that’s not true," Bender notes. "Students grade their professors too, in the form of teaching evaluations that carry substantial weight."

The continuum on which sexual harassment of professors occurs is wide. Potential threat is not always the best measure of its affect on a teacher. For Valerie (not her name) at UC Davis, the e-mail from a student suggesting that flowers and candy, and perhaps sex, would make up for his poor test performance, signaled her to remember his personal attentions, the gaze that turned to eroticized staring in class. She didn’t feel threatened, but she was at sea about how to handle it. When she went to her supervising professor, the professor’s response that she’d had several such situations herself was presented as "a mitigating rather than an exacerbating factor." Valerie didn’t want to formally act against the student, but she did find the student’s suggestions offensive. "They don’t tell you anything about this in TA orientations," she said, "and as a new teacher, I need a tool kit. There needs to be mentoring about this."

Similarly, Karma Waltonen never felt threatened when she had to deal with two boys who treated her as a sexual object at Florida State, but she didn’t know what to do. They wolf-whistled and made comments that sexualized her in front of other students. She finally turned the tables, pointing out how juvenile their behavior was in ways that desexualized them-she compared them to her five-year-old. Ultimately other students in the class brought peer pressure to bear while discussing Mamet’s Oleana and censured the boys themselves. But Waltonen was surprised that just two students could compromise her sense of authority in the classroom. "We’re not prepared to deal with discipline problems at the college level because we’re not supposed to have them." She, too, wants graduate programs to help future professors strategize about how to deal with such situations.

When the "attention" is far more personal, there’s also a continuum. At one end are the harmless crushes that occasionally affect your life. Most of them come to nothing, but you learn lessons that can last. Such was the case for Mary Donnelly, who now teaches at Ithaca College and SUNY/Broome Community College, when she was at the University of Miami. Over a period of weeks, an anonymous student left poems and flowers outside her open door. These were florid, badly-Byronic love poems with hilarious malapropisms such as "Your hair smells cloying." There were also earnest declarations of all-consuming passion. At first it seemed like just a "kid with a crush" who had "mistaken my classroom persona." But she left a paper trail and reported it to her superiors. Her department moved her office and friends accompanied her to her car. Eventually the poems stopped. While she found the situation comic, it was also unnerving. Someone was saying "I’m watching you." "Situations like mine," she says, in which nothing harmful comes of it, "make us tend to downplay what happened to Chris, and not take it seriously enough." (For what happened to Chris, see below.)

What kind of sexual harassment is serious enough to be actionable? We think unwanted attentions that are personal and sexual, that are repeated, that invade your privacy and/or make you afraid, are actionable. We’re not talking about consensual campus romances, or declaring who is and isn’t capable of consent. One of us was married to her former professor for almost two decades, and later had a lengthy personal relationship with a man who was-incidentally at that point-her former student. So compliance with unreasonable search-and-seizure of anyone’s psyche is not our issue. (The other author here probably wouldn’t have been caught dead in a ditch in such situations.) We’re not alarmists or extremists, and we’re not the thought police. But we do have advice on preventing unwanted personal attention, and when it occurs, how to handle it. First, consider the kind of case where you say no again and again, but what your student hears is yes. Like this. Here’s what happened to Chris:

Your blinds are drawn tightly, allowing no vagrant light from the few street lamps to seep inside your living room, your sanctuary. It’s Friday after dark now, and the hedges and trees across the street provide too much shadow. The back yard is even darker. You wonder each time you take the dog outside who you’ll encounter at the edges of this darkness. This is the way it’s been for almost one year. It’s September. The leaves are rusting, flecked with color. You should be enjoying this vibrant autumn outside, living your life, undistracted by such watchful thoughts.

But the phone rings at all hours. It’s the silent caller. You thought you took appropriate steps months ago to put an end to this, when you went to your chair, your dean, the vice president, campus security, others. You thought simply saying "no" would suffice. The file of "documentation" that people asked for has grown obscenely thick; and yet this is still happening, filling your life and your children’s lives with dread. When you turn the corner and drive up your block you wonder if the house will be a smoldering pile of timbers. Or this: if you leave the dog out for too long, will you come back and find him dead? And this dread, acknowledged publicly for the first time: you wonder whether writing about this will bring retaliation. You wonder whether speaking up means being silenced for good.

This is what it means to be stalked.

Are you to blame? You’re a decent person. You seek ways to empower your students, especially those who’ve been bullied into silence in the past. Students come to you seeking advice. You listen. You’re patient. You give advice, you stay late, set aside time for personal conferences. In some cases, perhaps you’re the first person who has ever listened.

It started off innocently enough. Later it will dawn on you slowly that crossing campus, she is often there. And outside the library, outside your office, intercepting you in a hallway with a request to be involved with a club you advise. Then there is the crafting of her independent study on creative nonfiction in your office. She wants you to be her advisor. All of this seemed normal. She wants to write and eventually teach. Summer goes by. She writes you e-mails, sometimes two or three a week. Slowly you realize you have received numerous unidentified phone calls. You get that first uncomfortable feeling. She is giving me entirely too much attention.

In the fall semester after all those summer e-mails, it begins to take shape. She attempts to touch you, a handshake, a hug. "Can I talk to you?" she often says, outside a campus room before a reading. Always wanting to talk, waiting as you get out of class, waiting until no one else is around, leaving handwritten notes. And the e-mails, the phone messages. Stopping by the office to say hello. Eventually you start inventing appointments when she comes by. Now when she says "Can I talk to you?" you say you’re late for a meeting.

There comes a point, eventually, when this no longer works. So one day you state, emphatically, that her attention has become inappropriate. But then she comes into your office one afternoon and proclaims, "I want you to know I don’t want to have sex with you." You feel creepy. She says, "I just want to be friends."

"I’m a teacher. You’re a student. Period," you say. But when you ask her to leave she asks for a hug. By then you have the good sense to keep a chair between you.

Arriving home one day when you are ill, you find a curious package stuck between the doors. Chicken soup. No note, no idea who put it there. Two days later you find another lengthy e-mail, written around midnight, explaining the gift. She’s walked all the way to your house to deliver it. Perhaps this is when you first begin to feel the weight of the intrusion. On the phone with a friend much later, he will say, "She didn’t bring you chicken soup, did she?" He says it usually starts like that, with chicken soup or some other gift.

No longer do you answer her persistent e-mails. You try to avoid more meetings with her, yet she’s determined to see you. She follows you across campus. She waits by the building entrance while you’re at your car. You begin looking over your shoulder. At your office, she again tries to talk, and that’s when you draw the line, making the boundaries completely clear again. You say the thing you probably should have said weeks before: I have nothing further to say to you. You need to meet with the chair of my department. I have nothing further to say.

But it takes ten more minutes of her attempting to talk to you before you can get her to leave your office. You tell the chair of your department about it. The next morning you find a four-page single-spaced e-mail to you and the chair. You and the chair go to the Dean of your division, who takes the next step. She’s registered for your creative writing class the following semester. He removes her from the class and, in an official letter, instructs her to have no further contact with you. Yet even after this drastic step, the phone keeps ringing. On New Year’s Eve your daughter picks up the phone and no one speaks. You sign up for Caller ID. Soon after the Dean’s letter, your house is egged.

The Friday before the spring semester begins, she rearranges her class schedule. Now she’s right across the hall from the class she was removed from. You think having the Dean and Chair behind you will be enough. Yet mere weeks later, another call, and this time Caller ID identifies her. Confronted, she does not deny she called; she merely says, depending on which version you hear a) it was an accident, or b) it was my medication. After that, numerous identified calls come from pay phones in the area.

You move your class to another building. You find her walking past the new building around the time your class is ending. She’s tracked you, she knows where you are on campus. But you find you can’t prove this. One day you see her near your car. Another, looking up in your window at you as you’re teaching. You continue "documenting." The college will not ban her from events you’re sponsoring. You tell administrators you won’t direct the guest writing program any longer until this is resolved. Apparently they’re not convinced this is stalking. They have no clear evidence. Perhaps the fear of lawsuits prevents them from taking stronger measures.

And nearly a year later it’s still going on.

Frustrated and angry that these calls keep coming, at 9:30 one night in late September, nearly a year after this began, a call comes from a pay phone that seems to be from a supermarket near her house. You’re angry. No one else has been able to stop this. You need proof. In moments you’ve slipped on your shoes and are in your car, driving toward the supermarket, wanting to find out: Is it the pay phone at this store? And is she in the store right now? You want answers. Within five minutes of the call you’re inside the store by the pay phone. You slide a quarter in the slot and call yourself-this should register on your phone at home. There you are, no socks on, calling yourself, the perfect picture of someone coming unraveled. Then, who wheels around the corner by the cashiers? She’s approaching you. Your anger rising, you ask her, "Did you just call me from this phone?" She shakes her head no. "Have you ever called me from this phone?" She denies it.

She blocks your way out of the store. She will not let you leave. Repeatedly, before store manager and cashiers and other witnesses, you tell her, "Stop following me. Leave me alone. Stop following me." She becomes hostile, abusive, volatile. You begin watching for a knife to come out, any weapon. She will not let you leave. You try to go a different way, and she wheels around and blocks your way. You don’t raise your voice. You say, before these witnesses, "If you don’t leave me alone, I’ll have to call the police." Ten minutes later a squad car shows up at the store.

You charge her formally at the police station. You are granted an Order of Protection.

Shaken up and angry, you suspend classes the next day. Your students, puzzled over this break in routine, wonder what’s happened to you. You’ve changed. You hope life will return to normal, if you can remember what that felt like. You start to write about it, you talk to other people it’s happened to. But some male colleagues don’t understand. "I’m not getting enough sexual harassment these days," one says. And another, in the hall, "How’s your girlfriend?" You explode. There is nothing funny about this. Though female colleagues are more sympathetic, you dread coming to work. You look over your shoulder. Time passes.

You wait, hoping this has ended. In the living room, with the blinds still drawn at night, you continue to wait.

Whether you’re at the beginning of your career or a seasoned professional, you won’t need the advice below unless something like this happens to you-and then you’ll find that there’s little institutional precedent to protect your rights. Here’s how to recognize the potential for a bad situation developing, and what to do if one occurs. Obviously, this applies only if you want to be careful about these matters. Comic late-night readings of this list among professors who are old friends with their students is of course inevitable-but don’t be too surprised if this list doesn’t sound ridiculous a few years down the road.

Things to be careful about in your behavior and your students’:

  • It bears repeating: don’t close your office door except when you absolutely must.
  • Check your own language and tone for false leads that let students think you’re their friend when you’re not.
  • Notice when a student begins to use language that suggests intimacy or friendship, except when it’s really mutual.
  • Don’t indicate too much personal concern about your students’ personal lives.
  • If a student always stays late, hangs around, or waits until others leave, ask yourself if that’s okay with you.
  • Notice excuses and pretexts for contact that seems too frequent.
  • Don’t accept personal gifts that suggest a special relationship when there isn’t one in your opinion.
  • Be careful of requests for hugs-you need to know when your response can lead students to think they’re very close to you.
  • Don’t act (or think) like you’re their counselor; when personal stories turn toward deep confession, send them to the college counseling service.
  • If you engage in quasi-sexual repartee with students, don’t be surprised if one of them misreads you.
  • If you meet off-campus, meet openly in public places. Better yet, don’t.
  • If you’ve got a family but you often go out socially with students, don’t blame them for figuring you prefer their company to your partner’s or your kids’.

What to do if you think it’s starting to happen:

  • Raise your personal boundaries.
  • Say no to further requests for intimacy-no night conferences after colleagues have left, no off-campus meetings.
  • Maintain or instigate formality in tone and rhetoric.
  • Don’t close the door.
  • Be direct with the student, and clarify that she or he is crossing lines. Be absolutely clear in what you are trying to signal. Say no.
  • If the student doesn’t take the hint, say no again, and be aware that your first no was not heard as no, but as yes.
  • Start to keep records of conversations, e-mails, calls. Leave a paper trail.
  • Consult your department chair and/or dean.
  • Talk to colleagues who have the student in other classes, to determine if anyone else is having difficulties with him or her, and to inform colleagues of what’s going on-especially if a student might illegitimately turn the tables.
  • Suggest that the student seek counseling if he or she has personal problems.
  • Report all incidents to the counseling office as well as to administrators. Counselors can sometimes be better allies than administrators.
  • Ask to confer with an administrator about your college’s harassment policy. If it does not apply to professors, ask why not, and insist that some language in the policy be adapted to fit your rights to civilized employment conditions.

Both of us learned the hard way what can happen when an apprentice writer might be a terribly troubled person who unconsciously uses an interest in writing, and the writing mentor, to work through severe emotional states. We don’t want to encourage paranoia on anyone’s part-just thoughtful, responsible, well-informed behavior, and necessary awareness. We both love to teach writing. But we got caught in situations with troubled students who mistook our roles in their lives. In both cases, the student harassers did not keep their obsessions on campus-both of us were, quite literally, followed home. While we might once have been among those who would regard such incidents as rare or exaggerated, we now know that all it takes is one person to make your life hellish.

As for the rest of our students, we still enjoy every minute with them.


Diana Hume George founded the creative writing program at Penn State at Erie, Behrend College. She is a mentor in the MFA creative nonfiction program at Goucher College. Her recent book is Phantom Breast, a series of poems.

Christopher Origer teaches writing at State University of New York, Broome Community College, where he also runs the reading series. He writes about nature and environmental issues.

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