Case study: Inappropriate touching / abusive sexual contact

Responding to sexual harassment when some people downplay it

At an annual faculty retreat at a private Christian university in America's heartland, three female faculty members and Mark, a male faculty member, did a lip sync of a Dolly Parton song. The skit was intended to give comic relief to the meeting. To simulate the well-endowed Dolly Parton, a female faculty member, Gretchen, added balloons under her shirt.

During the lip sync skit Mark, who was acting as a guitar player for the three ladies, reached over Gretchen's shoulder and fondled or groped at her breasts. Looking startled, she pushed him away. Mark moved back a step or two and then came forward to reach over her other shoulder to try to fondle her again. Gretchen again pushed his hands away.

Apparently thinking that the contact was in the script, some in the audience openly chuckled. The groping, however, was not part of the skit. Gretchen, who has taught at the university for 15 years, and her husband are furious. However, the answer being given is that since it happened on stage during a skit, the unwanted touching should considered play-acting rather than a form of sexual assault or misconduct.

While the school's Code of Conduct explicitly says that unwanted, inappropriate touching will not be tolerated, the university's provost and some faculty members are saying that because faculty members were playing characters in a skit, they should not be judged by the Code of Conduct. Mark cannot be held responsible for inappropriately touching Gretchen, they say, since it wasn't really Mark but the character he was playing who did the touching. The provost also said that because Mark's fingers were likely touching balloons rather than Gretchen's skin, it could not be considered abusive sexual contact. What Mark did, said the provost, "was not criminal." There is a risk, he acknowledges, that the behavior will be seen as an endorsement of that action in real life.

Faculty opinion is divided on the incident. One faculty member has asked the school to make a public statement distancing itself from the skit and from Mark's actions, noting one in five adult American women say they have been victimized by sexual misconduct involving inappropriate touching. In response to that request, the provost said that while the episode did occur at a university event in front of a crowd of people, it needs to be dealt with quietly and privately by Mark and Gretchen. He does say he'll "make sure it doesn't ever happen again."

A couple of people expressed outrage at the touting of breast size as the central point of the skit, asserting that such behavior ran counter to what the university tries to say to young ladies about their physical appearance. The head of the religion department said that, apart from Mark's behavior, there was nothing wrong with the skit. A local pastor who also teaches in the religion department said the skit and Mark's attempt to grope the faculty woman's breasts should be overlooked as nothing more than junior-high bathroom humor. The female vice-provost dismissed the episode by saying, "Mark just got goofy again."

Other faculty members in his department, all of whom were female, said it was "just Mark being Mark." They argued that it should be overlooked and that the university should just move on.

Larry, a faculty member who had been a student of Mark's, noted that during Mark's thirty years at the university, he had, from time to time, said or done outrageous things just to rile up people. In his opinion, Mark's groping at Gretchen's breast area was a crude attempt to upset the more conservative faculty members and their spouses. Larry argued that the incident should be met with complete silence, thus giving Mark no satisfaction. Any attention brought to the sexual contact incident, he said, would be divisive and thus unhealthy for the campus community.

Sadly, this was a real event (although the names of the participants have been changed). That evening, the president of the university was not there. Assume you are him. What would you do when you hear what happened?

Suggestions on processing a case study

    -- Howard Culbertson,


Inappropriate touching is generally defined as any physical contact that makes someone feel uncomfortable, violated, or threatened in some way. It can include various actions, such as:

It's important to recognize that what may be considered inappropriate touching can vary depending on cultural norms, personal boundaries, and the specific context of the situation. In any case, it's crucial to always respect other people's bodily autonomy and boundaries and to obtain clear consent before engaging in any form of physical contact. If someone feels that they have been subjected to inappropriate touching, it's important for them to speak up and seek support from trusted individuals or authorities.

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