by Zarya Shaikh, March 31, 2021
I turn on my camera and answer questions in the chat during office hours and lectures. I welcome private messages (PMs) when someone misses a key point our professor made. After all, as a pre-med student, it is my job to have color-coded notes on everything. I sometimes joke and socialize in breakout rooms to get to know who I am working with. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for someone to perceive my well-intentioned, friendly but professional, actions as flirty or feisty. In Spring 2020, one professor compared me to his ex-girlfriend when I asked about the status of a pending grade. I laughed it off as a joke and rephrased my original question.
On the last day of classes in the Fall 2020 semester, I was attending classes via Zoom while grocery shopping. A classmate I had not spoken with before PM’d me during our final lecture, wishing me luck on my finals. I wished him well, too. He sent another PM, but I lost wi-fi. I finished grocery shopping and re-joined the lecture once my internet connection returned. I continued the conversation:
I had received a wink from three other individuals without any prompting by that point in the semester, and I was not sure what to make of it. It reminded me of my classmate *Peter who would PM me at the start of the semester. He would comment on the content we were currently reviewing in the ongoing lecture and then ask for my social media in the same conversation. After answering his lecture-based questions, I would politely try ending the conversation by noting I do not use social media, and it was time for me to focus on the lecture (see screenshot below). He persisted in the following three Zoom lectures, and I was exhausted. I caved and gave him my Snapchat username. I never added Peter back, and he stopped asking.
I was stunned by how committed Peter was considering I had expressed I was not interested in different ways on several occasions. He could see from my video feed how uncomfortable I was whenever he messaged me. It felt like Peter was in my room with me. He would know I chose not to respond to his message the next time I sent a general chat during lecture. So, I responded out of obligation and did not know if I was overreacting. I was used to second-guessing myself and questioned why I did not simply turn off my camera.
In person during Fall 2019, I had developed a habit equivalent to turning off my camera. My two male classmates, *Imran and *Rahul, heckled me from the back of our Frey lecture hall. “Zarya beti!” (daughter in Urdu). I could hear it from the front of the large classroom. My professor heard it. My classmates heard it. I would turn around and tell them to stop distracting me and others around me. They persisted, and I could not focus. We had several conversations in which they agreed to stop. They did not.
Imran had the audacity to not only mock me during class but also ask, “Can you ask your friend to go out with me?” at the end of every lecture. In one case early on, I asked my friend (who I sat with every lecture) if she wanted to go out with him. She declined. Imran looked at me as though I had told him he missed an exam. He had been referring not to my friend but to another female classmate *Asma I randomly sat next to once. Following our conversation, Imran figured out where *Asma sat in our lecture hall and insisted that I ask her to go out with him – even though I had never spoken with her. Imran made it his life’s mission to make Asma and her friends uncomfortable by frequently turning around in class to look at them. In the meantime, Imran and Rahul built the courage to start sitting next to me in class. I used to arrive 10 minutes early to Frey, so I could get the seat I wanted. I eventually developed a habit of coming in after the class started, so they couldn’t easily change seats to where I was sitting.
To make the situation more complex, Imran and Rahul were both in my workshop section. I asked my graduate teaching assistant to change my group since Imran was in mine, too. Little did I know that Imran and Rahul would both appear at my desk at random times of the workshop and ask to go out with my group member. I became uncomfortable to the point where midway through the semester, I started watching lectures from my dorm room and finishing workshop exercises in 15 minutes just so I could leave before they arrived.
Zoom classes are simply another space where I have felt the need to hide.
A 2015 study found that among 385 female college students, 90.4% experienced verbal harassment and 80.0% experienced nonverbal sexual harassment.1 Individuals who were nonverbally harassed were “12 times more likely to experience psychological distress.”1 It is alarming that my experience of nonverbal sexual harassment is not a unique one; we are looking at a common issue that does not stop at the collegiate level. These statistics are only one preview of the sexual harassment that “38% of women and 13% of men across the US” endure in the workplace.2 “About 72% of sexual harassment charges” are met with retaliation from employers.3 It is disheartening that I was hesitant to reach out to my professor or the Title IX office. My fear stemmed from the notion that there would be retaliation if I reported Imran, Rahul, or Peter as there was in the cases of those surveyed. I look forward to replacing that fear with a network of support on campus for those who experience sexual misconduct.
*Names have been changed to protect students’ identities.
 Mamaru, A., Getachew, K., & Mohammed, Y. (2015, January). Prevalence of physical, verbal and nonverbal sexual harassments and their association with psychological distress among Jimma University female students: a cross-sectional study. Ethiopian journal of health sciences, 25(1), 29–38. https://doi.org/10.4314/ejhs.v25i1.5
 Chatterjee, R. (2018, February 22). A new survey finds 81 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/02/21/587671849/a-new-survey-finds-eighty-percent-of-women-have-experienced-sexual-harassment
 Frye, J. (2017, November 20). Not just the rich and famous. Retrieved from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/news/2017/11/20/443139/not-just-rich-famous/