I should begin by saying that, when someone is harassed, the only person to blame for it is the person doing the harassing.
There’s usually only going to be one person doing any actual harassment. Most of us aren’t assholes, after all.
That being said, about 90% of the experience of being harassed is watching other people as they witness the harassment while doing nothing to stop it. This is how the bad behavior of assholes is allowed to escalate, and this is also how targets are primed to be victims.
More often than not, the target of harassment is chosen because they’re friendly and polite and don’t push back against the harasser. They know this, but they’re often plagued by a lingering sense of self-doubt, as if they have done something to deserve the treatment. The harasser takes advantage of and exacerbates this insecurity, of course, but the target’s sense of self-worth is also eroded by how the community treats the harassment as normal.
You can avoid one asshole, but you can’t avoid everyone in your office or classroom. This means that the target doesn’t just feel uncomfortable around the harasser, but around everyone. This is how a hostile workplace environment is created.
I’ve said this before, but the purpose of American Title IX laws is to protect the university. Because of systemic injustice, protecting the university almost always means protecting the person accused of harassment. If a professor takes steps to confront or report a harasser, they could very well lose their job. From a legal perspective, professors cannot respond to harassment in any way unless the target reports it directly in clear language. Even then, the professor can only relay the complaint to the appropriate office, as they cannot legally take any sort of action to protect the target of harassment. The same goes for workplace supervisors. We can report harassment, but we can’t do anything to address or prevent it.
I think this is why so many people allow harassment to continue – they believe that a higher authority will intervene and handle the situation. Unfortunately, this is almost certainly not going to happen, at least not in the way that it should.
It’s therefore up to a community of peers to address and prevent harassment. This is not ideal, and it has the potential to backfire by becoming a different sort of harassment in turn, but it’s usually the only way to protect the target. No one needs to be a hero. “Protecting the target” usually takes the form of making sure that the harasser is not invited to events where their target is going to be present or making sure that the target doesn’t have to walk to class alone if the harasser is always waiting outside the classroom. It also involves the act of acknowledging of the harassment by pointing it out and making it visible while it’s occurring.
It feels wrong and weird to have to give this talk to grad students, as if we (collectively, as professors) are abjuring responsibility, but it’s better than saying nothing at all. It’s also an important lesson about academia, I think. The institution will not protect any of us, so we have to protect ourselves.