At university, and not only at MU, students are treated as adults. This brings with it new opportunities, challenges, but also dangers, which can complicate situations in the academic sphere. One example of this is when a relationship between a student and a member of academic staff crosses the boundary of a professional relationship. This does not necessarily have to be negative. Sometimes it is rather nice to see a member of staff who behaves like an older friend with students. Nonetheless, there are certain boundaries which should be kept, especially when considering unpleasant behaviour or harassment, in particular sexual.
What is and is not sexual harassment
Sexual harassment is generally understood to be uninvited, inappropriate and offensive behaviour with a sexual subtext, which the person does not want. It does not have to include physical contact and certainly not sexual relations. There are various forms of psychological coercion, such as behaving in a different way to someone because of their gender, materials which show women or men as sexual objects, inappropriate comments about someone’s body or what they look like, suggestive jokes, degrading or humiliating comments, attention paid to someone in the form of persistent emails or unwanted sexual suggestions. All of these things can result in an unpleasant study atmosphere between the student and the member of staff, or between students themselves. They may happen during teaching time, as well as out of class or during a consultation, on work experience or during various excursions which are not on the university premises. Although the sexual harassment is related especially to abuse by power unequal status (e.g. teacher - student), the opposite situation may also occur.
Behaviour which is unwanted and where one of the parties does not give their consent or expresses their unwillingness may be considered to be sexual harassment. It is not forbidden for a member of teaching staff and a student to be in a relationship, although this may bring about some tension in the academic environment to a greater or lesser extent. For this reason it is recommended in such cases to wait before starting up a relationship until such time when the relationship of teacher-student is over or to arrange to be taught in another course or by another member of staff if possible.
How to behave and where to look for help
The most important thing in such a situation is not to be afraid to speak about your problem. There is no need to let bitterness grow inside you, or to allow your self-confidence to dwindle because of the feeling that you have failed yourself by not being able to deal with the situation. It is even worse to stop attending the course or to cut short your studies, as you will take this unpleasant experience with you into your professional and personal life. Do not give in to the behaviour of the person concerned (if there are problems later on you could be judged as two adult people who both gave their consent in a particular situation). Say no to the person in question – ask him/her to stop their inappropriate behaviour. Do not provoke him/her by smiling, joking, flirting etc. If an act of rape should occur, you should report it immediately to the police.
What can you do yourself? Write a letter in which you let the person concerned know that you consider his/her behaviour to be inappropriate and intolerable. You should keep a copy of it or the message that the letter has been received, in the case of an email. It should contain a description of the behaviour which you do not like, a description of your feelings and a suggestion of what the next step could be.
It is also possible to arrange a personal meeting with the person in question. A personal meeting is more difficult and you should be well prepared for it in advance. But sometimes such a meeting is more effective and more clear-cut. It should take place in a public place, preferably somewhere on the premises of the university. It is good to take someone with you for your own feeling of safety and as a witness. On the basis of this meeting you can then write up a report about it.
If your letter or the meeting with the person does not lead to any change or result, you can ask to have a different member of staff teach you or ask to speak to the head of the department. You can also ask to make a formal complaint, which is a general means of pointing to unwanted approaches, behaviour or reality. You can find out how to go about making a formal complaint in the section Student rights - requests, appeals and complaints.
Generally, whenever you find yourself in a situation at university which doesn’t seem right to you and which is unpleasant, you can contact the University Advisory Service, one of whose services is to provide free, anonymous counselling and to help you to resolve a sensitive situation. In serious cases you can also seek the services of a clinical psychologist.
- Brochure on the theme of sexual harassment - KOLÁŘOVÁ, Kateřina, PAVLÍK, Petr a SMETÁČKOVÁ, Irena. Co je sexuální obtěžování a jak se mu bránit: příručka pro studující vysokých škol. 1. vyd. Praha: Fakulta humanitních studií Univerzity Karlovy v Praze, 2009. 31 s. ISBN 978-80-87398-10-4. Also available at: http://www.fhs.cuni.cz/gender/pdf/metodika_pro_studenty_FINAL.pdf(Czech only).