“I Am Student X”: Sexual Harassment in the Academy

With the highly publicized confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, many of us have spent time reflecting on our own experiences of sexual harassment and assault – reinvigorating the #MeToo movement that went viral one year ago. Perhaps we have also been tasked to support our clients or our students. Psychologists, and Counseling Psychologists, have been positioned as experts on addressing the impact of sexual trauma on the survivor, perpetrator, and larger communities. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford herself described the neurochemical impact of trauma as it relates to memory storage in her testimony.

Counseling Psychologists serve as instructors, supervisors, and providers, thus, I urge us to look inward at ways in which sexual harassment is perpetuated within academia. A recent study found that a third of female graduate students had experienced sexual harassment by a professor or staff member, over half had experienced sexual harassment by other students, and over half of male graduate students reported experiencing some kind of harassment since enrolling in graduate school.

After a 2015 report of sexual assault and sexual misconduct at universities, many universities developed new programs, education, or interventions for groups of students most vulnerable to experiences of sexual assault (e.g., LGBTQ students, graduate students, international students, and students of color).  Perhaps you noticed your own university implementing the Green Dot bystander intervention program.

Beyond the well documented responses to sexual assault (e.g., post-traumatic stress, depression, self-harm, etc.), the impact of sexual harassment by a faculty member or practicum supervisor can cause negative and discriminatory effects on students’ education.  Rosenthal, Smidt, and Freyd (2016) found that incidents of harassment predicted decreased sense of safety on campus and served as a predictor of institutional betrayal – such that participants felt the university exacerbated sexual violence victimization through creating environments where sexual harassment seemed more likely to occur and making it difficult to report the experiences.

Graduate students may fear what their professor might do to prevent them from graduation. Perhaps they receive low marks in their course work, comprehensive exams, or poor references.  It may be that a professor’s constant touch of a student’s shoulders while lecturing creates a sense of vulnerability that impedes their ability to focus on the work at hand.  Or, it may be that a practicum supervisor’s continued use of rape jokes cultivates an environment in which supervisees feel unsafe and uncomfortable discussing cases of sexual assault and ways in which working with clients who’ve experienced sexual assault is bringing back their own experiences with sexual assault.

Graduate students are at greater vulnerability for faculty sexual harassment given the extended period of training, small graduate school communities, high-stakes where one or a handful of faculty members can influence students career prospects, and the substantial power differentials between faculty members and students. When graduate students experience sexual harassment in our programs, we often feel at a loss about how to move forward. And yet, we must.

What you can do as a faculty member:

  • Work to cultivate a culture of respect amongst faculty and staff
  • Listen to and believe your students
  • Connect the student with your campus’ Counseling Services and Title IX office

Reclaiming your power as a graduate student:

Peter Coleman, Ph.D outlined power tactics for individuals who’ve experience sexual harassment:

  • Gather your own power
  • Gather your allies
  • Engage in organized noncoorperation
  • Take their power – seek legal action

See SCP’s sexual assault/violence resources


Sydney K. Morgan, MA

Doctoral Candidate, University of Missouri – Kansas City


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