Sexual Harassment and the Internet

Internet Filters, Policies

By: Jamie LaRue

Today I received an email from a self-described library “watchdog.” He wrote in response to a recent, thoughtful presentation called “It’s Not ‘Just Part of the Job‘: Breaking the Silence on Sexual Harassment in the Library.” It was created by Amanda Civitello (Marketing and Communications Manager) and Katie McLain (Reference Assistant) of the Waukegan Public Library. (Waukegan happens to be where I got my very first library card.)

My correspondent made various misleading claims I won’t repeat here. But I did want to address one issue. He wrote that “harassment is caused by people having viewed the unfiltered Internet while in the library.” But that’s speculation, not fact. It’s dubious, too. People read mysteries in libraries and don’t feel compelled to commit murders. People are responsible for unwanted or criminal action, not the internet. And not library policy.

It is certainly true that sexual harassment occurs, in libraries as elsewhere. But as the published results of Civitello and McLain’s survey make clear, sexual harassment in the library long predates the internet. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of survey incidents doesn’t involve the internet at all. As a new generation of librarians enters the field, it is confronting one of the downsides of public service: in addition to many wonderful souls, the public includes some people who are pushy, sexist bullies. In libraries the majority of staff are women. That may mean harassment happens more frequently.

Most libraries have policies about “inappropriate behavior.” Sexual harassment falls into that category, and can certainly be the reason for the ejection, or in some cases the prosecution, of people exhibiting that behavior.

However, public internet access, even unfiltered access, does not in itself constitute harassment, any more than reading does. Nor is there evidence that harassment is any more frequent since the internet became widely available, whether in the library, or anywhere else.

Saying No

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “From 1995 to 2010, the estimated annual rate of female rape or sexual assault victimizations declined 58%, from 5.0 victimizations per 1,000 females age 12 or older to 2.1 per 1,000.” But over the same period, internet access was on the rise. On the basis of this evidence, it looks like the more internet access there is, the less we see of sexual assault.

What’s the problem with that observation? The data demonstrates correlation, not cause.

The same thing can be said about those declaring pornography a “public health crisis.” Sometimes, people claim way more than the data support.

Meanwhile, administrators should fully support their staff; the attempt to harass staff is not acceptable in any organization. The public needs to know that.

They also need to know that, as always, libraries try to follow the law, preserving the right of individuals to have access to constitutionally protected material. People have honest disagreements about just what that entails — including Supreme Court Justices. But librarians don’t have to apologize for standing up for the First Amendment. That’s our job.


Jamie LaRueJamie LaRue is the Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom, and the Executive Director of the Freedom to Read Foundation. Author of The New Inquisition: Understanding and Managing Intellectual Freedom Challenges, he has given countless keynotes, webinars, and workshops on intellectual freedom, advocacy, building community engagement, and other topics. Prior to his work for OIF, Jamie was a public library director for many years in Douglas County, Colorado. Find him on Twitter @jaslar.

4 comments

  • I am very proud of Amanda and Katie for bringing this topic to light. It was apparent at the presentation that many librarians who crowded into that room also thought that it was high time we start a conversation regarding this sometimes daily occurrence in public libraries. Staff needs to know that administration has their back. Thank you Jamie for your support and speaking out for library staff everywhere.

  • “However, public internet access, even unfiltered access, does not in itself constitute harassment, any more than reading does. Nor is there evidence that harassment is any more frequent since the internet became widely available, whether in the library, or anywhere else.”
    I must disagree here Jamie. When someone is reading a book in a library the contents of the book are not flashed before your eyes and those of minors. I can’t tell you how many times I have walked by pictures of naked women (mostly) while trying to do my job as a librarian. I am as comfortable with these graphic images as I am if someone from the public made an inappropriate statement to me. To equate reading a book with internet images is a spurious comparison.

  • Thanks for your comments. Richard, it’s a good boss who steps up to ensure a respectful and professional working environment. And kudos to your staff for raising the issue. Shelly, I agree that some patrons’ use of the internet might constitute harassment. But public access does not *in itself* mean that. The issue is not the internet, it’s patron behavior. And there’s such a broad range of public imagery – Sports Illustrated, Cosmo, fashion, advertising generally – that I think we have to be careful not to lump it all into broad, undefined categories like “pornography,” then enforce heavy-handed measures to suppress it all.

  • My only problem was with the statistic from the U.S. Department of Justice. A decline (in crimes like this) often just means a decline in the reporting of the crime instead of a decline in the actual crime itself. Sexual assault and harassment are particularly difficult to track since the victims tend to be reluctant to come forward. Otherwise…bravo!

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