"Don't tell anyone": what to do with harassment at universities
Stories of sexual harassment in universities regularly explode in the Ukrainian media. However, these problems don't stop outside the media reality.
Rubryka explains what makes harassment in educational institutions a special problem, how to act to protect yourself from it, and what to do if you become a witness.
"And now the hunt begins…"
February 2021. Almost twelve o'clock at night. The messenger comes to life and lights up the phone screen. Notifications interrupt each other because of the number of messages:
"Maria, I'm sorry it's so late…"
"There are already four female students and these are the only ones who told me…"
"If you have contacts of good lawyers…"
I open the messages and read them in full. All of them are from a professor at one of the journalism schools, whom we met a few years ago. She writes: a student came to her, all trembling and clearly trying not to break down and run away. The girl said that one of the teachers made a pass at her. While he was saying something about a private meeting, his hand slipped under her skirt. Now she's scared and doesn't know how to go to his classes. However, she doesn't want to openly claim the harassment; she's worried about her studies.
The professor started talking to other students. And learned that it wasn't the first time. And that none of the hurt girls is ready to write a statement. Not ready to delve into the sticky story even deeper.
"If you have contacts of good lawyers, please share. I don't know how to help them. The university management didn't believe me. The teacher who was accused by the students already knows what I know. And now the hunt begins. I don't think he'll pretend nothing happened."
I'm trying to ask for some more details. I share contacts of lawyers. And then everything calms down for about a month until I receive new notifications:
"That teacher has good connections…"
"Thank you for your support. Don't tell anyone what I said…"
Criminal sex education
Harassment is a set of actions or statements that humiliate a person and make them feel in danger. Most often, harassment is sexual in nature and manifests itself in molestation, unwanted touches, hints, suggestions.
Harassment also has its place in education. Several scandals regularly erupt over teachers' harassment of female students. It's difficult to choose the biggest stories. As well as objectively imagine how many such cases remain silent.
Journalists become aware of the sexual harassment that Volodymyr Hodovskyi, a professor and head of the department at Rivne State University for the Humanities, has been practicing against students for years.
During the introductory auditions, the teacher was left alone with the entrants (often minors) and examined them as a doctor to "examine the groin ligaments," touched the intimate areas. And the professor demanded bribes from female students and offered protection for sex. The latter also applied to female teachers.
A few weeks after the journalistic investigation was launched, Hodovskyi resigned of his own free will.
A student of Kyiv National University publicly states the sexual harassment of Petro Romanenko, associate professor, Ph.D., head of Kaniv practice.
According to the woman and other students who confirmed what she said, Romanenko allowed himself to touch the girls' buttocks, came to their rooms drunk during a field trip, and talked to them about oral sex. He also made vulgar compliments and hints.
Within a month and a half, Petro Romanenko was fired.
Screenwriter Bohdan Pankrukhin publishes a post on his Facebook, where he tells the stories of two former students of a teacher at the Kyiv University of Theater, Film, and Television named after Karpenko-Karyi, Volodymyr Talashko.
Later, the stories of other students of the actor appeared on the Internet. According to the victims, Talashko first pressured the entrants and students morally, then under the pretext of rehearsals brought them home, where he gave alcohol to the girls, photographed them half-naked, and in some cases tried to drag them to bed. In classes, the teacher could force the students to play sketches in underwear and allow themselves unwanted touches.
The Ministry of Culture of Ukraine initiated an official investigation and suspended Talashko from work at the university. The inspection is ongoing.
"The one who gets handsy and doesn't understand the word 'no' is to blame," the psychologist says
When I ask a psychologist why the harassment victims in universities are mostly silent about it or talk only after many years, she says that there are several reasons. It's either fear or illusory hopes that everything will pass, anyway.
"The silence is because of the fear that no one will believe. Public disclosure of the situation and condemnation. Lack of support. 'Magical thinking' is also worth mentioning when the victim thinks that he'll soon lose interest and everything will be fine again," says psychologist Yanina Tantsiura.
And Natalia Semchuk, a Ph.D. in Law, activist, and lecturer at the National Aviation University, says that it's not really worth keeping silent because there are several options for resolving such situations at the legal level because of recent changes.
"About a year ago, the legislator introduced Article 153 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine, which provides for liability for sexual acts not related to penetration. That is, harassment is included here.
The Code of Ukraine on Administrative Offenses also provides for liability for petty hooliganism, which includes abusive harassment of citizens. These are obscene remarks and catcalling (a type of harassment that manifests itself in whistling, vulgar comments, and the like – ed.). Because of this, you can call the police and draw up an administrative report," Natalia Semchuk explains.
Offenses should be reported, but experience has shown that harassment victims find it morally difficult to dare to do so because of societal pressures and the idea that they may have provoked the unwanted behavior themselves.
"The first thing to realize is that The one who gets handsy and doesn't understand the word 'no' is to blame. If it's really scary to tell about what happened, one should find women who've experienced this, because, according to statistics, such teachers or employees don't stop at one student. You need to tell someone who can help. More often it is the parents, but it should be a person who can provide psychological professional help," the psychologist advises.
What to do if you've suffered harassment at an educational institution
Violation of personal boundaries is usually traumatic. Nevertheless, it's important to protect one's right to security in two fields at once, psychological and legal.
For those who've suffered from harassment, psychologist Yanina Tantsiura recommends:
- to admit to oneself that the one who commits illegal actions is guilty, and not the one who suffers from them;
- to communicate with other people who may also have suffered from harassment, it will help to dare to write a statement to the police, complain to the management of the educational institution, or announce harassment in public;
- to share what happened with your parents, any other close people you trust, or a psychologist;
- to turn to organizations that provide support and counseling to victims of harassment. According to the expert, it will reduce mental trauma if the woman is not believed at home, or is assured that she imagined it or she "had it coming."
But to really protect yourself, you should resist harassment at the legal level. This will help other students avoid similar stories. If you face harassment, lawyer Natalia Semchuk advises:
- if possible, document the fact of harassment in a photo or video;
- if you've been harassed near witnesses, ask them to testify in your favor (important: according to the law, everyone who has seen certain offenses has no right to refuse to testify);
- if the two previous options cannot be implemented, it's necessary to record in detail in writing everything that happened. It will be an advantage if the accused is confused in his own testimony;
- contact the university management, it will help to achieve disciplinary action or resignation/expulsion of the offender;
- file a complaint with the police on the fact of petty hooliganism or under Article 153 of the Criminal Code.
What to do if you've witnessed harassment
Silencing such stories fosters increased tolerance for them, which only helps offenders feel impunity and confidence in their actions. But at the same time, if you've witnessed harassment, you should respect the victims' right to remain silent.
Yanina Tantsiura advises how to support victims of sexual harassment:
- try to show empathy, show that you understand the feelings of someone who suffers from harassment;
- if possible, sit next to each other, avoiding eye contact. It's better to look in the same direction as the one who shares the experience with you;
- say words of support like "you're safe now," "you're strong because you could say it," "you're not alone," "your experience can help others who also suffer from similar actions of this teacher";
- control your own curiosity and don't ask about unnecessary details; it can only hurt a person more.
Seeing the fact of harassment with your own eyes, you automatically get some responsibility. As mentioned above, you cannot refuse to testify to what you've seen. Lawyer Natalia Semchuk also instructs how to act properly by witnessing harassment:
- approach the victim and offer all possible help;
- say that you can call the police or testify in favor of the victim;
- offer to take her to a safe place;
- if the victim refuses any help, don't put pressure on her, but let her know that you're ready to witness.
Unfortunately, if a student isn't ready to talk about her experience with the police, the university administration, or in public, it's impossible to resolve the situation solely through the efforts of others (for example, witnesses or teachers who have complained about unacceptable actions). So try to give the best possible support so that the victim speaks out and is not afraid to stand up for the truth.