Illustration by Shenuka Corea

Why Are We Nice to Sexual Harassers?

We do not owe sexual harassers the requisite politeness of social norms, no matter how many fake apologies and how much fake small talk they have to offer.

Apr 28, 2018

Arriving as a freshman at NYU Abu Dhabi last August, I felt a mixture of excitement and anxiety. I was eager to make new friends and as a result, I was willing to accept any sort of invitation to get to know my fellow “global leaders.” I could not wait to hear their stories and form lifelong friendships.
My eagerness to meet new people led me to befriend a fellow student early in the semester. One day, we agreed to play pool as a way to get to know each other. I was excited to talk to him — I had seen him around campus several times and he had always radiated a positive attitude. After playing a dull game of pool, he offered to walk me back to my room and I accepted. I did not particularly want his company, but I did not see any harm in continuing our conversation as we walked.
As we arrived at my door and I stepped into my suite, he asked if I was planning on inviting him in. His expression made it seem as though he would be offended if I did not invite him. Though I was tired and wanted to go to sleep, I did not want my new acquaintance to think I was rude. Reluctantly, I invited him in and offered some food. After all, the last thing I needed in the first weeks of university was to be known as a party pooper.
I quickly realized that he wanted more than conversation, and I started to feel extremely uncomfortable. He overstepped his boundaries and took advantage of my invitation to talk in my room. He misinterpreted my eagerness and outgoing attitude as flirting. He blamed me for giving him the “wrong signs.” In that moment, I felt extremely guilty and even began to wonder why I came to a university where my outgoing personality might be considered a sexual invitation.
A few weeks later, my “new friend” wrote a deep apology. Hesitantly, I let the situation go.
Day after day, I cross his path and feel compelled to be nice to him. Afterall, he did apologize. Everyone deserves a second chance, right? He always makes an effort to ask me about my day, even though we barely have any friends in common and only got together the one time. My stomach churns every time I have to put on a fake smile and pretend I believe he truly cares in the slightest about my life. I slowly count down the seconds until our conversation is finally over.
A couple of months ago another friend of mine mentioned how he felt very uncomfortable around my “new friend.” It turned out that some of his closest female friends had had encounters similar to the one I had. It was then that I realized this student’s “heartfelt apology” truly meant nothing since his behavior was not an isolated incident but a part of a recurring pattern. In the following weeks I discovered that many people on campus had had similar experiences with the same student. Almost everyone was aware of his reputation. Yet, everyone was nice to him. Whenever he would say hi, everyone would be friendly, even though some of their closest friends had been affected by his inappropriate behavior.
The entire situation has forced me to question why we feel the need to be nice to a sexual harasser. Why should we fulfill the social norms of saying hello and making small talk when he clearly has not fulfilled the social norms of respecting other human beings? Why do I feel guilty when the little voice inside my head begs me — just for once — to not be nice when he approaches me?
Perhaps it all comes down to power. He misused the power he had over me once, and I guess my mind is hardwired to somehow feel defeated when I stand in front of him. As the number of silenced victims increases, his power over us increases as well. Since some people who know about his actions are still friendly with him, I feel the social pressure of forgiving him as well and putting on a fake smile.
Perhaps this instinct comes from the fear that since we live on such a small campus I cannot afford to make an enemy, and I am thereby protecting myself by pretending to be his friend. We live on a campus where the pressure to follow social norms of common courtesy is so great that I feel an unspoken pressure to be nice to someone who caused me immense pain. I think that bystanders feel a similar pressure to be non-judgemental. People argue that there is no point in ostracizing him, that whatever he did is none of their business. Yet this forgiving attitude is what is allowing him to continue his unacceptable behavior without facing any sort of consequences.
People have asked me why I have not reported him. I believe the university’s system has many flaws, and reporting a sexual harasser can oftentimes be counterproductive. First, it is hard to have evidence that the events actually transpired, and sadly, we live in a society where even if proof could be obtained, the victims can be blamed. If I am lucky, he will get suspended and will tell people he is leaving due mental health reasons or some other excuse. By the time he gets back, I will still be on campus, and I will have to see his face every day. This time, he will not pretend to be nice, and his new attitude toward me could cause even more pain and open up old wounds. He might tell his friends I faked the whole thing, and then false rumors could spread.
It hurts me to see my friends be nice to him, but I realize that I am nice to him too. I hope that someday we stop feeling the need to be nice to sexual harassers. We do not owe them the requisite politeness of social norms, no matter how many fake apologies and how much small talk they have to offer. We may not be able to change the way the formal system works, but we can use our attitudes and our voices, as a community, to call him out. Even a small change in behavior will let him know that we know what he is doing, and that it is completely unacceptable. He will not change his behavior until we make sure he knows that what he was doing was not a secret, it and will not be condoned anymore.
Anonymous is a contributing writer. Email them at feedback@thegazelle.org.
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