[OPINION] The university as (un)safe space



The term “sexual harassment” is highly contested. Oftentimes, there are varying interpretations of what acts constitute sexual harassment. Schools and universities, however, can base their understanding and usage of the term on at least two pieces of legislation: Republic Act (RA) 7877 or the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act of 1995, and RA 11313 or the Safe Spaces/Bawal ang Bastos Law of 2019. Both laws acknowledge that sexual harassment involves unwanted sexual favors or advances, done by superiors (RA 7877) or by peers (RA 11313). Both laws are very instructive on how sexual harassment can be determined and how complaints can be surfaced and handled. (READ: Untarnished truth: Pisay students spark a campus movement vs sexual harassment)

The definition of a “zero tolerance policy” on sexual harassment is even more controversial. I am often asked whether there is a “gradation of acts of sexual harassment.” I usually respond by citing a recent Supreme Court decision – an April 2019 decision – on a sexual harassment case against a law professor.  

Three students had filed complaints against this particular professor. The first student had complained that during a recitation in class, she had asked the professor, "Come again, sir?" and the professor had replied “Do you want me to come again? Give me 5 minutes." The second student claimed that the professor would send her text messages that said “I love you” and “I miss you.” The third student, meanwhile, revealed that the same professor had shown her a picture of a naked woman.   

According to the professor-respondent, the “come again” remark was just his way of “using slang language” while the “I love/miss you” messages were just “friendly messages.” He further claimed that his showing a picture of a naked woman was never meant to humiliate the student.   

What did the Supreme Court say? The Supreme Court barred the professor from teaching for 10 years. A 10 year-suspension – for verbal sexual harassment!

The Supreme Court’s message is very clear: harassers must not teach! I don't think that the length of the suspension is the central message of this decision, rather, that students must not be entrusted into the care of harassers. And there should be no space for harassers in classrooms, in departments, in campuses.  

Breaking the silence 

Educational institutions are often viewed as “second homes” and educators as “second parents”.    That students feel and are “safe” in these “second homes” is just assumed and not readily questioned. The notion that “second parents” can abuse their “children” is also often deemed unthinkable. The “home,” after all, is widely considered to be the safest of all spaces. (READ: 'Our school is not safe': Ateneo students demand punishment for sexual predators)

Sexual harassment is always a traumatizing experience. Harassment leaves a negative feeling that doesn’t go away no matter how one tries to rationalize the experience (alam mong harassed ka kapag hindi mo mapagpag ang pakiramdam na na-harass ka).  

Because of the difficulty of speaking out against harassment, victims end up keeping the experience and the pain to themselves. Worse, victims end up doubting, even hurting themselves. Schools and universities thus have to break the stigma – and the silence – that often accompany experiences of sexual harassment. Furthermore, once victims dare to speak out, schools and universities must protect these victims against further stigmatization by the broader community and/or possible retaliatory acts by the accused. 

Due process

To break the silence, victims and their supporters sometimes resort to “calling out” alleged harassers in public especially via social media. With the emergence of global movements against sexual violence like #MeToo and #TimesUp, the naming of alleged perpetrators has been deemed acceptable, even necessary. These movements are now present in my own university and several other universities and have been crucial in exposing cases and assisting victims of sexual harassment.  

The protests and the public outrage obviously do not happen in a vacuum. These are usually the result of a very high level of frustration (by students, especially) over how sexual harassment cases are handled and resolved. I am of the opinion, however, that naming names publicly is not good practice, for at least two reasons. Firstly, in callout culture, the accused (in this case, faculty members) could be falsely and maliciously accused. Secondly, once we start naming the perpetrators, we open up the risk of naming the victims as well. Naming perpetrators could thus be harmful for victims who do not want to be exposed in a very public manner.

The determination of guilt or innocence of anyone accused should lie not on individuals but on institutional processes. All members of the community are free to hold and express personal beliefs on sexual harassment cases but it should not be up to individuals to decide who is guilty or innocent. Due process and due process alone must determine that. The task then is to shape due process. Members of an educational institution will have to agree on what would be fair and just for both accused and accuser, and what would produce a safe environment for everyone. 

Educational institutions also have to contend with the fact that while proceedings on sexual harassment cases have to be kept confidential to protect all involved, especially the complainants, the community has the right to know about how cases are progressing and in what specific ways. The university must determine judiciously who the interested parties are and what kind of information can and must be shared with these parties. Transparency is important because it is a prerequisite for accountability. How can the community know that due process is being carried out and how can community members exact accountability from the university – and from each other – if they are kept in the dark? (READ: WATCH: Ateneo admin apologizes, vows action on sexual harassment)

In the words of Senator Risa Hontiveros, the primary author of the Safe Spaces Act, “The Safe Spaces Act protects the identities of the accused if they are minors, not adults accused of being sex offenders. While the law recognizes the right to due process, it does not promote non-transparency, nor does it condone any culture of secrecy regarding cases of sexual harassment, especially if it favors the harassers.”

Policy and cultural change 

What is happening right now in my university and in many other universities is both policy change and cultural change. These should be welcomed despite the difficulty and the pain they may be causing to various stakeholders within and outside these universities.  

Policy change is something that ultimately has to be done by the university administration, and the role of the members of the (university) community is to push for what they think is good policy. At the end of the day, policy must be negotiated. Stakeholders, in this case, students and faculty members and university staff, must sit at the table where decisions are being made – especially those decisions that affect their teaching/learning and their lives. (READ: Ateneo on Safe Spaces Act: Be specific about school responsibilities)

The other kind of change that is going on is cultural change. And here everybody has a role. Because this particular change pertains to how we (educators) view ourselves, how we view and treat each other, how we view and treat our students, and how our students view and treat us.  

Cultural change requires us to ask and reflect: do we view our students as equals or as disciples that have to follow all our bidding? Do we want our students to view us as equals or as superiors that are beyond reproach? 

What happens on campus, especially in our classrooms, is not up to our administrators alone. The classroom is our jurisdiction, our space, and therefore our responsibility.   

More conversations needed

For change to be positive, I think we have to have at least 3 more conversations – other than the conversation on sexual harassment. (READ: Curbing sexual harassment in public spaces 'goes beyond policy')

One is the conversation on truth-telling and truth-seeking. What do we consider as truth? Do we consider only notarized testimonies of sexual harassment as truth? What about the experiences of sexual harassment that are not translated into notarized testimonies? Are those not to be considered as truths? What about testimonies of support for the accused – are those not truths as well? And given conflicting truths, how do we get to “the truth?”

In connection to said question, we also need to talk about how we should deal with the power of the internet, especially social media. While social media is a powerful tool for any advocacy, it can also be weaponized. It has been weaponized. We’ve all heard of Cambridge Analytica. In an era of post-truth and alternative truths, we cannot avoid interrogating social media as the game-changer, even on social issues such as sexual harassment. We (educators), and especially our students who are always online, must realize that social media is not a safe space. 

The second conversation that needs to take place is the conversation on patriarchy, that societal system that privileges men at the expense of those belonging to other genders. We need to talk about patriarchy because sexual harassment is a manifestation of patriarchy. The culture of silence surrounding issues of sex and sexuality and sexual behavior is a manifestation of patriarchy.  

The third conversation is about humanism. How do we view the humanity of victims and how do we view the humanity of harassers? I think this particular conversation is the most difficult one because it is highly polarizing and yet, there are many nuances that need to be made. It is also the most painful conversation because in a university, we are all supposed to be friends and colleagues, and as such, should be able to recognize the human-ness in each of us – sinner or saint.  

But then again, sexual harassment is a crime.  Harassers should be in jails, not in universities. – Rappler.com

Carmel V. Abao teaches political science at the Ateneo de Manila University. She is also currently the President of the Ateneo Loyola Schools Faculty Association (ALSFA).