“She was asking for it” in Swarthmore’s own handbook

22Mar09

My friend alerted me to a section in the study abroad guide given out at our school where under culture shock is this anecdote:

“A few years ago, a female student attending a home stay program in Italy complained to her program staff that she had been sexually harassed by her host brother. She subsequently described the matter to me, and the host brother’s behavior toward her certainly went far beyond the normal friendly hugging and bussing that is commonplace in Italian households. But, if her manner of dress and comportment with her host family resembled her dress and comportment while with me, and I was assured by the program staff that it did so closely, then by the accepted standards of her host culture, she was asking for it. She had been specifically and repeatedly advised about this by her program staff, but chose to ignore the advice.”‘

This is so offensive.  The fact that in our own guide to study abroad we are espousing that women who dress as a certain way are “asking for it” is really a problem.  To disregard her experience with sexual misconduct as something she deserved for her behavior is beyond inappropriate.  To continue this type of shaming of survivors of sexual misconduct and/or assault is unacceptable, especially come from our institution.  It is even more inappropriate when the writer shares that he and the host school had both discussed the way this woman dressed and had collectively (without her voice) decided that she deserved it and it was no longer an issue.

I’m really deeply offended by this and think anyone in the Swarthmore community who is equally annoyed/offended/frustrated should e-mail Karen Henry at khenry1@swarthmore.edu or a dean you feel comfortable with to report this part of the guide.

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4 Responses to ““She was asking for it” in Swarthmore’s own handbook”

  1. I’ve also heard about this but didn’t know that it was written in such explicit terms. if you study abroad next year, the comment won’t come as much of a surprise to you one you meet professor piker. i had the same uncomfortable feeling as this girl probably did when she met with him. i would say more but the keys on my computer right now are messed up (specifically the a, d, and c letters and i’m using an onscreen keyboard so it takes a while to type)…

  2. 2 Eliza H.

    Honestly, I feel like context is the issue here. The point of the anecdote is clearly to encourage women to realize and respect that different countries have different standards and codes to which they adhere. This means understanding cultural regard for certain aspects of personality – dress, comportment, etc. A woman may then make her own decisions about these issues, but this anecdote seems to me to be simply highlighting the existence of cultural differences. An educated reader wouldn’t take from this story that the moral was that rape and sexual assault were non-existant or irrelevant parts of our society. You have to read between the lines for that.

    Obviously, a woman is never “asking for it.” As a “survivor” myself (I hate the word, and the concept), I’ve not run into any sort of “shaming” at Swarthmore. In fact, I’ve received just the opposite – unbelievable support, impressive changes of attitude toward rape once I came through with my story, and, above all, the repeated reassurance that “it wasn’t my fault.” I think that you’re making a mountain out of a molehill, and thereby cheapening the credibility of deeper, more intense problems (especially of sexuality) that survivors, rape victims and women in general face.

    • 3 cmarque1

      “An educated reader wouldn’t take from this story …” Wow, harsh? While I think we can disagree I don’t think that my opinion is so ridiculous. And again in the handbook it states: “But, if her manner of dress and comportment with her host family resembled her dress and comportment while with me, and I was assured by the program staff that it did so closely, then by the accepted standards of her host culture, she was asking for it. She had been specifically and repeatedly advised about this by her program staff, but chose to ignore the advice”

      The way I read that (and perhaps my view is not as educated as yours so you will have to enlighten me as to what it really means) is that this woman complained that she was being sexually harassed, the program-in conjunction with Professor Piker and her host family-decided that because she dressed in a way that did not fit their own “cultural standards” that she somehow was “asking for it.”

      Speaking of culture… I don’t think that in any culture it is appropriate to say that a woman’s outfit can be suggestive of whether or not she should be submitted to sexual harassment. Culture is not static and is open to being challenged.

      I would agree that, as a survivor as well, the people I have encountered at Swarthmore have been absolutely amazing. My issue is the fact that this is part of the handbook for students abroad, it is an institutional publication and therefore I think it is reasonable to hold Swarthmore responsible for taking it down.

      I also don’t really see how bringing to light this issue, that I find very important, somehow cheapens the credibility of other problems.

  3. 4 Eliza H.

    I’m with you that the phrasing of “she was asking for it” is unfortunate, but I really think that it’s obvious that, from the context of the situation, the guidebook is advising that some things (clothing, etc) are read in different ways in different cultures. In other words, wearing certain clothes or looking at someone a certain way in this region of wherever is practically guaranteeing yourself harassment or catcalls. That’s not to say that the local culture is correct, but the way to change that is not through simply ignoring these mores.

    The challenging of mores that allow women to be constantly open to sexual harassment is an issue that I deal with in my daily life. As a rape victim who gets hit on literally four times a day, this can be incredibly trying and at times brings me to tears. But if that’s the issue – a willingness to challenge, truly CHALLENGE, social mores that allow women to be objectified – then let’s talk about that, not the unfortunate wording of a Swarthmore article.

    I can’t believe that anyone is going to read that, on the Swarthmore campus, and take from it – “yeah, ok, if a bitch is wearing a slutty dress, then I can say or do whatever I want.”


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