Taking the battle against sexual harassment in global academia online

Elsevier, The Lancet, Volume 393, Issue 10171, 9–15 February 2019, Pages 512-514.
Becky McCall

Students at Rhodes University, Cape Town, published a list of the names of 11 alleged rapists on social media. The so-called RU Reference List went viral. Students across the country marched topless through the streets brandishing sjamboks (whips, a symbol of fighting back), with the message, “stop objectifying our bodies and sexualising them. We take back control over our bodies.”

“Women in South Africa are very aware of gender-based violence because it is so common”, says Gouws. She explained that her interest in the institutional aspects of sexual harassment began just after the country's democratic transition, around 1994. At the time, the definition of sexual harassment was a fundamental issue.

“We initiated a study to understand more about what was happening. We found that many students didn't realise that sexist or unwanted jokes and fondling were harassment, as well as the more obvious sexual violence and rape”, Gouws says.

One common form of harassment found at universities was a quid pro quo sexual bribery or threat scenario, whereby a professor promises a good grade to a student if they will participate in a sexual act or threaten a fail if they do not.

Gouws, who sat on the university Sexual Harassment Task Force, has overseen several quid pro quo cases. “Students are vulnerable because male lecturers are in a position of power and students might feel flattered when a lecturer shows interest in them”, she says.