An Intro to Sexual Harassment

13 Sep

In early October I arrived in Benin on a nine month Fulbright research grant.  Although this is not my first stint in West Africa (I spent five months in Senegal in 2009), I have experienced more culture shock here than I ever did in Dakar.  This may be because my language skills have improved, or because I’m better integrated into the community this time around, but the more I understand the more intrigued I become. 

What I find most striking are the perspectives I’ve encountered on gender relations and sexuality.  During my first week in-country I began hearing tales of sexual harassment in schools.  I was appalled by stories of male teachers coercing their female students into sexual relationships. The phenomenon is so widespread that it is practically institutionalized, beginning in middle school and pervading all types of workplaces. It is not uncommon for teenage girls to be impregnated by their teachers, or to repeatedly fail classes for refusing professors’ advances.

Every day I discover new layers of complexity to the problem. My Beninese friends insist that girls often make the advances towards their teachers, or retort with, “you should see what those girls are wearing.” I found myself feeling very frustrated by this “blame the victim” justification. There is a ubiquitous assumption here that men are incapable of controlling their sexual impulses, and the burden is placed on women to keep men in check. In fact, the Beninese Ministry of Education issued a circular to protect female studentsin 1988 that amounted to a ban on nail polish, long hair, and make-up in schools.  

As I began exploring the power dynamics of these teacher-student relationships, my initial inclination was to view the girls as victims. Teachers inherently wield power over their students, and gender and age differentials add to the asymmetry. Yet for many of these young women, sexuality is a source of power.  In contexts of poverty, where girls are also told that their sexuality is their most valuable asset, some girls are leveraging those assets for material gain. 

The distinction is thus blurred between sexual harassment, or the abuse of power by a person in a position of authority to obtain sexual favors (according to the French and therefore the Beninese legal definition), and transactional sex. Transactional sex between young women and older men (sex in exchange for good grades, money, and/or gifts) has been documented as an emerging trend not just in Benin, but across Africa.

According to culturally constructed definitions of masculinity in Beninese society, a man is incapable of resisting the sexual temptations of a woman. Male teachers at a middle school where I participated in awareness activities complained that they were compelled to sleep with their female students because the students were making sexual advances towards them, and when they attempted to resist, students would mock their impotence. The provocative behaviors they cited included short skirts, unbuttoned blouses, seductive glances and suggestive gestures. These teachers had weighed their options, and decided that sexual relations with underage students were preferable to accusations of impotence. Clearly a dialogue on gender roles and socially acceptable male behavior must be incorporated into any attempt to address harassment.

The question that follows is whether the majority of teacher-student relationships are instigated by the teacher or by the student. While girls may be initiating some of these relationships, I suspect that this explanation is an attempt by women to distance themselves from their own potential vulnerability. In the way that American women often reassure themselves that rape and domestic abuse happen to “other kinds of women,” the women of Benin may prefer to place the onus of responsibility on their own gender rather than acknowledging the possibility that they too could be victimized. For example, all students in Benin wear school uniforms, and I have never noticed a skirt above the knee or a cleavage-baring blouse. Yet the “provocatively dressed school girl” has been a constant theme throughout my interviews. The notion that the majority of these illicit relationships are sought after by young women may very well by a myth constructed to permit other women an illusion of security.

As I proceed with my research, I intend to explore the line between consensual and coerced relationships, and the ways in which gender norms inform power dynamics. The findings thus far are mixed; the male university professors I have interviewed note that they are frequently “harassed” by female students, but also commented that they prefer the more traditionally masculine role of pursuer to that of the pursued.

Regardless of the causes or explanations, sexual harassment contributes to the high drop-out rates among female students in Benin, and undermines female achievement when women’s successes are perceived to be products of their sexuality rather than their intellect or hard work. I hope that my research can contribute to more informed approaches to addressing the issue, and pave the way for meaningful dialogue on both sexual harassment and transactional sex.


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