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Writing a letter to a harasser

Another way of dealing with the problem

Bernice R. Sandler, Senior Scholar in Residence
National Association for Women in Education
1350 Connecticut Avenue NW
Suite 850
Washington DC, 20036

The Conflict Management and Human Rights Office would like to express their sincere thanks to Dr. B.R. Sandler for allowing us to include her work within our website.

This paper is based in large measure upon a paper written by Mary P. Rowe, a lab economist who is special assistant to the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her article, entitled, "Dealing With Sexual Harassment," appeared in the May-June 1981 issue of the Harvard Business Review, and dealt with harassment of employees. However, the principles and techniques Rowe developed can be used by others as well. Among other things, her article explains the ways in which a letter written by the victim to the harasser can be of benefit to both, and often brings an end to the harassment. Many of the examples and conceptualizations are from Rowe's article, as well as the idea of the letter itself. Rowe reviewed this paper and provided invaluable assistance to the writer.

Sexual harassment has become an issue of increasing concern on the nation's campuses during the last few years, especially as it became clear that both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972 prohibited sexual harassment of employees and students.

1) Some professors have been fired, other censured or "encouraged" to resign.

2) Staff and administration officers have not been immune -- at least two presidents left their position because they were charged with sexual harassment. Institutions as well as individuals have been sued - sometimes for several million dollars.

3) Institutions have been responding by developing policies prohibiting sexual harassment and procedures to deal with complaints. Much has been written about questions of due process, confidentiality, evaluation of evidence, etc. -- questions which arise when formal charges are being considered. Little has been written about how to deal with the issue when complaints first come to light whether prior to the filing of a charge. The latter category includes the vast majority of victims -- possibly 99 percent, according to Rowe. This paper examines one method of dealing with student complaints of sexual harassment -- writing a specific kind of letter to the harasser.

4) One of the most striking aspects of sexual harassment is that the victim feels quite powerless in the situation. Students rely on professors not only for grades, but for future recommendations as well as academic and career opportunities. In a very real sense, a female student's life's chances are at stake.

5) If she complains openly, she might face retaliation which could indeed affect her future. Moreover, she is often fearful of being branded a "trouble maker" if she files formal charges, knowing (in the usual case) that she has no conclusive proof. She usually will worry that she won't be believed, or that she may be blamed by her parents and others for what has occurred. Additionally, she usually has tried stoically to handle the incident(s) by ignoring it,

6) by mentioning that she has a "boy friend," or by other ways that generally prove ineffectual. In short, she feels helpless in the face of behaviours which make her uncomfortable or deeply upset.

However, when the victim comes to another member of the academic community for help and advice, she can be encouraged to write the alleged harasser a specific kind of letter especially if a plain request to stop has been ignored. Writing a letter about the harassment helps the victim handle it herself -- by taking an active role, she gains a sense of being in charge of what is "happening" to her -- she is in control of her own destiny.

The letter itself is best described as polite, low-key and detailed. Several drafts may be necessary because victims are rightly angry and often understandably upset. The letter should consist of three parts:

Part I: tells the facts of what has happened, without evaluation, as seen by the writer. It should be as detailed and as precise as possible, with dates (or approximate dates), places, and a description of the incidents the writer has experienced with that person:

"On December 15, 1982 when I met you for a conference about my work, you asked me to come to your house that evening and said it would 'help' my grades."

"Several times this semester when I have talked to you after class you put your arm around me and rubbed my back. Once you also tried to fondle my breast."

"Last week at the department party you asked me to go to bed with you."

Part II: describes how the writer feels about the events described in Part I, such as dismay, misery, distrust or revulsion, and includes the writer's opinions or thoughts about what happened:

"I am embarrassed when I see you."
"My stomach turns to knots when I come to class."
"I cannot believe that you are able to grade my work fairly."
"It's hard for me to sleep at night; I've lost ten pounds."
"This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me."
"You have made me think about transferring from the field of my choice."
"It has become very difficult for me to concentrate on my work."

Part III: consists of what the writer wants to happen next. This part may be very short, since most writers usually just want the behavior to stop:

"I want our relationship to be purely professional from now on."
"I don't ever want you to touch me again or to make remarks about my sexuality."

If the writer believes a remedy is necessary, it would be included in Part III:

"Please withdraw my last evaluation until we can work out a fair one."
"I will need a written answer as to the reference you will provide from now on."

Rowe suggests that if the writer had contributed to a possible misunderstanding she might acknowledge it:

"Although we once were happy dating, it is important to me that we now re-establish a professional relationship, and I ask you to do so."

The letter should be delivered either in person or by registered or certified mail. Rowe suggests that where necessary, a plainclothes police officer, security guard or other protector and/or witness could accompany the writer or arrange to be present when the letter is delivered. (The person accompanying or arranging for delivery does not need to know what is being delivered.)

The writer should keep at least one copy of the letter for herself but, in the usual case, not send copies to other people. Should the letter fail to achieve its purpose -- a rarity, according to Rowe -- the letter can later be used in support of a formal complaint or lawsuit. However, in most instances, the recipient usually says nothing but does change his behavior. Sometimes he may apologize or offer to discuss the matter, or occasionally, deny the allegations. Rowe states that the recipient rarely writes back; the cessation of sexual harassment is the more usual result.

In many instances, the recipient of the letter is often astonished that his behavior is viewed in the way the writer sees it. He may also be fearful of a formal charge, and worry about who else has seen the letter. The letter also seems to be extraordinarily more powerful than a verbal exchange -- even harassers who may have ignored verbal requests to stop, respond differently when the same request is put into writing. In any event, and for whatever reason, the letter often works.

Advantages of letter-writing

In addition to helping the victim regain a sense of being in control of the situation, the use of a letter in this situation has numerous other advantages:

At this stage, it is not necessary to address questions such as legality, confidentiality, evidence and due process. Indeed, when the letter is successful in stopping the harassment, these questions may not need to be addressed at all.

It keeps the incident(s) quiet. The victim's fear of exposure is minimized; she doesn't have to worry about her reputation -- as a "trouble maker," as someone who "couldn't handle it," or as someone who "caused it." (The exposure issue is raised by virtually all victims.)

It often avoids formal charges and public confrontation. By keeping the incident between the victim and the harasser, the institution does not need to be formally involved (although hopefully agents of the institution have been involved informally by helping the victim to write the letter). Rowe points out that third party intervention is not as useful in sexual harassment as in other kinds of disputes, and in fact, may often make things worse for the victim.

It provides the harasser with a new perspective on his behavior. Sometimes such people have no idea how their behavior may be affecting others.

It may minimize or prevent retaliation against the writer.

The chief reasons to use the letter, according to Rowe, is "that it is the only method that usually works and at little 'cost.'" She also explains the following advantages to individual action supported by the institution as contrasted with overt institutional intervention:

The aims of individual action are:

To give the offended and offender a chance, usually for the first time, to see things the same way. Since neither person may have any understanding of how the other sees the problem, discussion may help. Entry of a third party at this stage usually further polarizes the views of the opposing persons.

To give those who are wrongly accused the chance to defend themselves.

To give those who are correctly, or to some extent correctly accused, the chance to make amends. (This may not be possible in serious cases.)

To provide some evidence of the offense, since usually there is no substantive evidence at all. This step is vital if management or the courts must later take action.

To give aggressors who do not understand what they were doing a fair warning, if this is appropriate.

To provide the offended employees a chance to get the harassment stopped without provoking public counterattack, experiencing public embarrassment, harming third parties, damaging the company's reputation, or causing the aggressor to lose face...these points are almost always considered important by the aggrieved person.

To provide offended persons a way to demonstrate that they tried all reasonable means to get the offender to stop. This step may be convincing later to supervisors, spouses, and others who become involved.

To encourage ambivalent complaints, as well as those who have inadvertently given misunderstood signals, to present a consistent and clear message.

To encourage those who exaggerate to be more responsible.

Most importantly, the letter can be an important tool for actually ending sexual harassment, and in fact, any kind of harassment.

The letter ought not be used as a substitute for effective policies and grievance procedures which are critical in forming a supportive framework within which the victim can help herself. Many feel that having a tough policy enormously supports the effectiveness of the letter method. It has, however, been effectively used in situations where there was no policy or procedures.

The letter must be voluntary; it must not be used when the victim is unable or unwilling to write it. Institutions can encourage victims to do so, but some may be too upset or frightened.

These individuals as well as others will need a sympathetic person to talk with who can also provide them with various options. Several institutions have publicized the names of campus personnel who will talk to persons who believe that they have been sexually harassed. These designated persons -- usually deans, certain members of the faculty, counselors and others -- might want to consider advising that the victim communicate a very firm "no" to the harasser and/or use a letter as first stage approach to handling the problem, as well as providing some advice about the form of the letter, where appropriate. Individuals should be advised to keep a log of events and their feelings prior to writing the letter. Taking action, whether keeping a log, talking about he incident, writing a letter, using grievance procedures or filing other formal charges helps the victims regain a sense of dignity about themselves.

1. Title VII prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race colour, religion, national origin and sex, and covers virtually all educational institutions. Title IX prohibits sex discrimination against students and employees in educational institutions receiving federal assistance. Information about coverage of sexual harassment by these laws, along with other information is contained in a packet of 5 articles published by the Project on the Status and Education of Women. The packet is available for $2.00 from the Project, 1818 R St. NW, Washington, DC 20009.

2. See Selected Articles on Sexual Harassment from On-Campus with Women, included in the packet mentioned above.

3. Ibid.

4. The method is also appropriate for faculty and staff who have been sexually harassed by colleagues or supervisors and also works for other kinds of interpersonal difficulties with all kinds of harassment.

5. Because most victims of sexual harassment are female, and most harassers are male, this paper uses the female pronouns for victims and male pronouns for harassers. However, the laws prohibiting sexual harassment protect both sexes equally, and the paper is equally applicable to cases of males being harassed.

6. Several studies note that ignoring sexual harassment is usually ineffective, in fact, it may inadvertently act to increase the behaviour.

7. Mary Rowe. "Dealing with Sexual Harassment." Harvard Business Review. May-June 1981. Pg. 43 (also P.2 of Reprint 81339).


Copyright National Association for Women in Education.

Dr. Sandler consults with educational institutions about educational equity for women and also acts as an expert witness in discrimination and harassment cases. She and Robert J. Shoop are editors of "Sexual Harassment on Campus: A Guide for Administrators, Faculty and Students," Allyn and Bacon: 1997.