I'm at a community college in the US.

Early on in the semester, one of my professors made a rape joke. I was too stunned, tired, and sick (I have a moderate physical health condition) to get involved at the time. Now we are in finals. I have spoken to other students and at least one person interpreted it the same way.

What should we do? What should I have done immediately?

  • As of recently, my own U.S. university (R1, for whatever that might matter) has chosen to interpret Title IX as obliging anyone who hears any such talk (which is easily interpretable as in violation... even if unintentional...) to report it to the Title IX office, rather than take any individual action of any sort. It is possible to view this as an unreasonable stance, based on a CYA (=cover-your-ass) institutional attitude, ... but, to violate policy-dictated procedures then has indeed allowed the institution to C its A, and they can ... [cont'd] May 4, 2018 at 23:22
  • ... [cont'd] either wash their hands of it or actually blame the people who didn't follow procedures. So it is smart to do a quick study of the specifics of your Uni's policies in these matters. That is, it's not only the "law" that is Title IX, it's your uni's policy implementations of what is implied, etc. May 4, 2018 at 23:23
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    Federal rules do require "responsible employees" (especially including administrators and faculty) to report title IX issues. I don't believe that this puts any burden on students though. May 5, 2018 at 0:16
  • @BrianBorchers, in my Uni, I think that the Uni policy does attempt to make a requirement of students. I may be wrong... Plus, the real problem is that there's no genuine indication of either "enforcement" or "follow-up". It's all "principle"... in vague terms, with no indication of who's responsible for implementing, enforcing, etc. Strikes me as almost entirely CYA. May 5, 2018 at 1:45
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    For that matter, if somebody grabs your wallet, are you obliged to have a conversation with them before calling the cops? I think that is the issue... which, yes, includes the unfortunate idea/fact that for a long time it was "ok" for people of class A to steal from people of class B... with "steal" as metaphor. May 5, 2018 at 1:47

2 Answers 2


Speak with the professor, and give them the benefit of the doubt. Ask for an appointment, and bring another student if you feel uncomfortable doing it one-on-one. Most professors (hopefully) would not intentionally make such jokes -- give them the benefit of the doubt, allow them to explain themselves or apologize, and go from there. Following Hanlon's razor, my guess is that they were trying to make an inoffensive (or at least less-offensive) comment and botched it.

If this doesn't go well, you can escalate. The department chair, a trusted professor, or your university's Title IX office (in the US) are good starting places. In general, they will be looking for a pattern of behavior.

Edit: I'm surprised how much controversy this has generated. If this were a more serious offense (like fondling or extorting favors), then I would advise going directly to administration. But in this case, I think it is altogether appropriate to raise your concern directly with the professor. If he acknowledges the mistake and gives an apology, then the issue is resolved and no further action is needed. (Since this apparently happened months ago and has not been repeated, some might even consider the issue to already be resolved).

  • 7
    This is a good approach in many situations. I actually forgot about the talking-in-person answer, because I can be somewhat conflict avoidant. :) If it is an innocent mistake and OP feels comfortable doing this, this approach is likely to resolve the matter most quickly and satisfactorily for all. May 4, 2018 at 20:55
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    By this point in my life, I'd disagree. This does sound like a "fair" approach, as though there were a misunderstanding, which will be cleared up once it's brought to the offender's attention. However, in my observation, in practice, it plays out this way almost 0% of the time, due to the vagaries of human nature. So it's a sucker's game to play it that way... Sorry. Negligence can be a crime. Ignorance (with power) can be a crime. That kind of thing. May 5, 2018 at 2:00
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    @paulgarrett -- thanks for your comment. I would agree if there were an actual crime or other very serious offense (groping, propositioning, that kind of thing). But for an off-color joke in a public setting? I would give the benefit of the doubt, at least until the prof has a chance to respond.
    – cag51
    May 5, 2018 at 3:07
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    I would not bring this up with the professor. This puts the student in a potentially vulnerable position of being further ridicularized by the professor---which I dont doubt would happen if they make such "jokes" in the first place. Explain the situation to an ombudsperson or directly with the professor's supervisor so that they will bring this issue up with the professor, and give them a chance to respond to someone at their professional level.
    – FBolst
    May 5, 2018 at 4:28
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    @FBolst -- thanks for your comment. Since you propose a totally different approach, you may want to post that as a new answer. FWIW, I disagree - this is a serious accusation over what could be a misunderstanding or one-off lapse in judgment. I suspect that simply asking about it will lead to an explanation and apology. I did suggest that the student could bring an additional student to the meeting to be a witness and prevent further 'ridicularizing' (whatever the latter term may mean).
    – cag51
    May 5, 2018 at 4:32

I'm sorry this happened. Here are the immediate responses I would suggest:

  1. Focus on your finals right now. They are your most important duty to yourself as a student.
  2. After finals are over, evaluate this in context. (And wait to act until your grade is submitted--nothing you've talked about has connected this to your grade. You could refer back to this SE post if, at some point, someone says you're only bringing this up because you're mad about your grade.) Now that you've had a whole semester, you know the following:
    • One other student interpreted the statement that way. (Did others think there was a plausible other meaning, or did it just not occur to them?)
    • This was a big enough thing that it made you feel uncomfortable in the class and it is still bothering you now.
    • Has the professor done anything else similar since then?

My answer is along the same lines as cag51's, but with more cases.

If this "joke" was part of a larger pattern, then it is very appropriate to address it, possibly with a Title IX Coordinator (if you're in the U.S.) or ombudsperson or other student advocate.

If this was more of a one-off, think about how to address it. A general conflict-resolution principle is to address a problem directly to the person who caused the problem, unless you feel unsafe doing so.

  • You could shrug it off. If confrontation is going to be painful for you, and/or you judge it is not worthwhile, you could decide not to pursue anything. (If you're asking about this months later, then it seems like this answer is not the right one for you. Further, if the problem were more serious or pervasive, it might be ethically harder to justify this option.)

  • You could email the professor with your concern, stated factually much like you have above:

    [Thank you for your class this semester.] I remain troubled by something that occurred in class early this semester. On [date], you made a joke about rape [in the context of...]. I was too stunned and tired [and sick, if you want to disclose this] to immediately bring this up. Luckily, this did not match the tenor of the rest of your class, but I hope that in future classes you will pick your examples more carefully.

    • If you want to hit it home, you could also say, "I felt ... when I heard this." or "More than one in every ten U.S. college students experiences 'rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation' and it is not respectful, especially to survivors of this, to joke about it." But hopefully the professor should understand why you are objecting to a rape joke even without the explicit reasoning.

    • An email is nice because it is an official record. If the professor ever harrasses someone, even years after you graduate, this record may still be found in the system. If the professor has any sort of reprisal for your bringing this up, the email will also be a helpful record for that.

    • At the same time, an email is not generally public. It is there if needed if escalation is necessary, but otherwise this doesn't need to involve anyone else.
  • If you do not feel comfortable directly approaching the professor, figure out if there is a way to make sure the message is delivered.

    • Is the other student willing to email the professor?
    • If you discuss the case with someone in charge of the department (e.g. the Director of Undergraduate Studies (DUS) or chair or student advisor), hypothetically/without naming the professor, could they send a message to the faculty reminding them to be considerate of the examples and jokes they bring up?
    • When discussing with any third parties, you may want to start asking as a hypothetical or without naming names. You could even explicitly say, "I am not sure that I want this to turn into any official investigation. How can I approach this without you being mandated to report it?"
  • All that said, you could also whole-heartedly report it. An isolated incident of this nature will not get anyone fired, though it might force the professor to go though some meetings and paperwork. If you get the sense this professor would not listen to you, this might be the way to go.
  • If you or your friend tries an email and that is dismissed, you can then escalate it to reporting to a Title IX coordinator, student advocate, DUS/department chair, dean, etc.

The best case scenario, in my mind, is that the professor said something that they did not fully think through, but they did not intend to make anyone feel unwelcome or trigger anyone's PTSD or anything else. If such a professor got an email that a student was still bothered by it months later, they would actually be grateful you were addressing them directly, realize what a stupid thing it was to do, and assure you that they takes this seriously and will avoid that in the future. I strongly hope that this is, actually, your situation, and that by addressing the matter once, directly, you can make a difference for the professor's future students.

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