Sexual Harassment

Today we held an event on Sexual Harassment in Higher Education at Goldsmiths. I was pleased to offer the following comments, which I have decided to preserve in the form in which they were spoken:

We need to talk about sexual harassment.  We need to talk about sexual harassment here. And by here I mean here: at Goldsmiths, in universities, in the UK. Not there: over there; but here. Too often: sexual harassment is understood as somebody else’s problem. Or if it is recognised as a problem that problem is located in the body of a harasser, a rogue, whose removal is assumed to remove the problem. The problem remains.  And then those who talk about how the problem remains become the problem because they become reminders of that problem. To remind is to show how sexual harassment is enabled by an institution. It is to show how sexual harassment is reproduced by an institution. It is to show how sexual harassment becomes a culture; how it works as a network, a web of influences; a set of practices that  we are supposed to accept as how things are because that is the way they were.

But if we talk in this way, if we speak of sexual harassment as organisational culture, we threaten the organisation’s reputation. Those who are damaged become the ones who cause damage.  And the institutional response can take the form of: damage limitation. There are so many ways those who speak about harassment, whether their own harassment or the harassment of others, are silenced: you don’t even need to sign a confidentiality agreement to be warned of the consequence of your actions. And then, too often, the ones who are harassed end up being removed or removing themselves: if the choices are “get used to it,” or “get out of it” some quite understandably “get out of it.”

The problem goes on as if it is been deal with, when it hasn’t been dealt with.  We need to make sense of how a problem is not dealt with by the appearance of being dealt with; and how the struggle to expose sexual harassment often leads us to a stalling situation. To make sense of this I want to return to some of the data I collected in a study of diversity and equality in universities that I undertook in the early 2000’s. In this study I interviewed diversity practitioners, those appointed by organisation to diversify them, which often means in practice, those appointed to write the documents and policies that would give expression to an organisation’s commitment to equality and diversity. Practitioners become aware of how much commitments are not followed through. One practitioner described her job thus: “a banging your head on the brick wall job.”

A job description becomes a wall description.

I want to give you one example of an encounter with an institutional wall. I am going to read it out, because you can hear in the story what we are up against .

When I was first here there was a policy that you had to have three people on every panel who had been diversity trained. But then there was a decision early on when I was here, that it should be everybody, all panel members, at least internal people. They took that decision at the equality and diversity committee which several members of SMT were present at. But then the director of Human Resources found out about it and decided we didn’t have the resources to support it, and it went to council with that taken out and council were told that they were happy to have just three members, only a person on council who was an external member of the diversity committee went ballistic – and I am not kidding went ballistic – and said the minutes didn’t reflect what  had happened in the meeting because the minutes said the decision was different to what actually happened (and I didn’t take the minutes by the way). And so they had to take it through and reverse it. And the Council decision was that all people should be trained. And despite that I have then sat in meetings where they have just continued saying that it has to be just 3 people on the panel. And I said but no Council changed their view and I can give you the minutes and they just look at me as if I am saying something really stupid, this went on for ages, even though the Council minutes definitely said all panel members should be trained. And to be honest sometimes you just give up (On Being Included, 124-125).

We learn so much from this example. We learn: you can change policy without changing practice; changing policy can even be a way of not changing practice. We learn too: the director of human resources did not need to take the decision out of the minutes for that decision not to bring something into effect. I have called this dynamic “non-performativity,” when naming something does not bring something about or even when something can be named in order not to bring something about.  Taking the decision out of the minutes could have been what stopped something from happening. But because it didn’t stop it, something else did.  

The wall is a finding: what stops movement moves.

This example of the diversity policy that does not do anything is a tantalisingly tangible example of what goes on so much and so often. But that it is tangible, that I can share the story with you here today, is a consequence of diversity work and of the labour of a diversity worker, of her blood, sweat and tears. It is a story of how the diversity worker becomes an institutional killjoy; we can imagine the eyes rolling when she points out the policy. To be a killjoy one does not have to speak in a certain way; she can be quite reasonable; she might even have backing. They hear you as killjoy because they do not want to hear what you have to say.  No wonder this story is a story of her exhaustion, of being worn down by coming up against the same thing; the story of how she gives up is a story of how the wall keeps standing.   

But to those who do not come up against it, the wall does not appear: the institution might seem as happy as its mission statement, as willing as its equality statement.

This example has stayed with me as I have been involved in an effort to challenge the problem of sexual harassment in universities. That has been an experience of coming up against wall after wall. A wall can come up to prevent students from making complaints in the first place. Students are actively discouraged from making complaints: if you complain you will damage your career (this can work as threat, you will lose the very connections that enable you to progress); or if you complain you will damage the professor; or if you complain you will ruin a centre or collective (often aligned with something critical and progressive). Another wall comes up once complaints have been made. Complaints are heard as an injury to the professor’s reputation as what stops him from receiving the benefits to which he is assumed to be entitled. Complaints about sexual harassment are not made public as a way of protecting the organisation from damage.  We are back to this: damage limitation.

Notice here: so many complex things are going on at the same time, which combine to stop sexual harassment from, as it were, coming out. It is not that this activity is coordinated by one person or even necessarily a group of people who are meeting in secret, although secret meetings probably do happen. All of these activities, however complex, sustain a direction; they have a point. A direction does not require something to originate from a single point: in fact a direction is achieved through the alignment between points that do not have to meet. Different elements combine to achieve something that is solid and tangible. If one element does not hold, or become binding, another element holds or binds. The process is rather like the cement used to make walls: something is set before it hardens. Perhaps when people notice the complexity, the movement, the inefficiency, the disorganisation, they do not notice the cement; how things hold together; that things hold together. Then when you say there is a pattern you are heard as paranoid as if you are imagining that all this complexity derives from a singular point.

 To try and bring someone to account is to come up against not just an individual but histories, histories that have hardened, that stop those who are trying to stop what is happening from happening. The weight of that history can be thrown at you; you can be hit by it. The word harass remember derives from the French harasser “tire out, vex”.  When you speak of harassment you can end up being harassed all over again. Harassment is a network that stops information from getting out by making it harder to get through. It is how someone is stopped by being worn down.  A policy disappears despite there being a paper trail, despite the evidence. A complaint disappears because it is evidence. And: people disappear too, because of what they make evident, of what they try to bring into view.

So: when we talk about sexual harassment we are talking about those who do not appear. We are talking about missing women. And we are talking about missing critiques, missing conversations; you are not even allowed to talk about it. We are having a conversation now about what and who is missing.

Of course when we talk about sexual harassment as a wall it is assumed as a problem of perception: “you were willing”; “he didn’t anything by it”; “don’t be so upright”; “we’re all adults here”.  A wall comes up in this reframing of walls as immaterial, as if there is nothing getting in your way other than you, as if it is you just getting in the way of your own progression.

A wall comes up when you talk about walls.

Sexual harassment works – as does bullying more generally – by increasing the costs of fighting against something, making it easier to accept something than to struggle against something, even if that acceptance is itself how you end up being diminished; how you end up taking up less and less space.

And: it is because we perceive this wall that you might end up having to modify your perception (this is what it means to get “used to it”). You might feel you cannot afford to become alienated from those around you; you might lose access not only to material resources (references, scholarships, courses to teach), but you might lose friends; connections that matter. You risk losing warmth. And as you feel colder, maybe you begin to feel that the wall is inside your own head.  It is happening all around you; and yet people seem to be getting on with it; you can end up doubting yourself; estranged from yourself. Maybe then you try not to have a problem. But you are left with a sickening feeling. A feminist gut knows something is amiss.

Because all around you there is a partial sighting of walls, a partial sighting that is at once a justification; “oh he’s a bit of a womanizer”; “oh yeh I was warned about him”; “oh yeh that was the booze talking”; there might even be a smiling, a joking, there might even be a certain kind of affection. This affection is structured as an appeal to students whose concern is bordering on disclosure: let it go; let him off. A culture is built around this affection which is to say: harassers are enabled by being forgiven, as if their vice is our virtue. And those who know it is wrong even when they try to persuade themselves otherwise, even when they try to minimize a mountain of abuse, can feel all the more wrong, can feel the full force of it, when the wall finally does come into view: she is not ok, I am not ok, this is not ok: “how could I let this happen?” Guilt; shame; they can leak out, getting everywhere. We have to go through these difficult painful feelings Heidi Mirza describes so well. Perhaps sometimes we just can’t do this; it means being prepared to be undone, and we just don’t know if we are ready to put ourselves back together again.

Or sometimes we don’t confront sexual harassment because of our interests. Maybe someone else is being harassed; and you can see it: you might turn away; look away, because you are benefiting from an alliance with someone; you want to keep that alliance.  You might then be angry with those who are harassed because they threaten your alliances by revealing the harassment. You cannot be angry with the harasser because he is who you wish to be in alliance with. Alliances are crucial to the mechanics of sexual harassment; sexual harassment is an alliance. In addition the organization too might try not to see things; maybe they think we have to retain him because of his reputation; maybe we need him for the REF. There is a collective or institutional will not to notice what is assumed to get in the way of our interests.

I need to say a little more. I began by saying that we need to talk about sexual harassment here and that by here I meant at educational institutions especially those that identify as progressive and critical.  I have used the terms “critical sexism” and “critical racism” to describe this: the sexism and racism reproduced by those who think of themselves as too critical to be sexist or racist. There is more to it. Many academics who identify as progressive or radicals, position themselves as working against the institution, against the requirements, say, of audit culture, and managerialism.  Then how quickly: equality as such becomes identified as the requirements of a managerial system, that is, as a way of managing unruly bodies and desires. Noncompliance with equality even becomes articulated as political rebellion.  For example one academic describes the “strictures on sexual harassment” as an “old Victorian moral panic.” Feminism becomes translated as moralism; those who challenge sexual harassment are understood as imposing moral norms and social restrictions on otherwise “free radicals.” So much harassment is reproduced by the framing of the language of harassment as what is imposed on a situation (as if to use this word is to be mean, to deprive a body of its pleasures).

I think moralism is useful as a charge because it carries another implication: that feminism masks its own will to power. Whenever we challenge what is being assembled, who is being assembled, we are assumed as wanting power: as wanting their courses, their centres; even their students, for ourselves.  This can circulate as rumour and innuendo, implying that the feminists only object because they want what they object to. Sexual harassment is fundamentally dependent on anti-feminism especially when sexual harassment begins to be challenged, when a “no,” is repeated, when a “no” acquires more force.

There is more to say here. Think of all those rules, those procedures we have for safeguarding the interests of parties including students, a population that is precarious by virtue of its position (dependent on passing through the gates of academy; you have to pass examinations to pass through). I am referring of course to record keeping: record keeping can be suspended by being identified as yet more bureaucracy: as if to say, “fuck you.”  The suspension of regulations: methods for ensuring there is no record, no public memory, ways of stopping us from knowing what is going on; how things keep going on.

We are up against history; walls. This tendency to suspend the regulations actually informs so much academic culture. It is business as usual.   I would say that in describing how sexual harassment becomes part of a culture we are remarkably close to describing academic culture. So we might have advertised the job but we know who are going to employ, his mate, his friend, his contacts. Academic networks, boy’s clubs; men’s rooms: they exist at this moment of suspension, those informalities that allow the same bodies to keep getting through. Equal opportunities becomes a loop, a hoop, something you almost do, or you appear to do; but really when you hire someone you are looking for “kind of person you can take to the pub,” to quote from someone on an interview panel, someone who is relatable, like me, who can participate in this, with me. Sexual harassment as a system cannot be separated from the ongoing problem of how a privileged few reproduce a world around their bodies. The sexism in academic citation – the removal of any texts or traces of female authors from books, from courses, from histories – is part of the same system. I still remember a white male professor give a lecture on power, something a lot of feminists have written about, when the only time he referred to any women was when he mentioned fancying Kate Winslet. Sexism in citation and sexual harassment – how women are made objects not subjects– is part of the same system. The trouble with this system: it works.

We need to recognise sexual harassment as an institutional problem as well as a means through which the academy itself becomes available only to some. Sexual harassment is an access issue; it is a social justice issue. We also need to survive this system because of how it is working. And as we know: testifying to a traumatic experience is a traumatic experience. Sexual harassment is traumatic, for those who are on the receiving end, for those who testify, for those who listen; who bear witness. We need to give the pain somewhere to go.   Which means: we need to create support systems so that we can share the costs of bringing the problem to attention. Feminism is itself such a support system, and I would include here feminist knowledge; coming to an understanding of how a system works is one way we survive that system. And: we need to share accounts of what we come up against so we don’t feel like we are doing this work on our own. Which also means: we need to create shelters, refuges, pockets in institutions in which we can breathe.  

My comments today are dedicated to all the students who, at considerable risk, have testified to sexual harassment here.  You have helped to create these pockets. Our task is now to expand them. Thank you.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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23 Responses to Sexual Harassment

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  15. tschussle says:

    I just wanted to say how much I “enjoyed” this post (to the extent one can derive pleasure from such an awful subject). Your phenomenological reading of the situation resonates with me. Congratulations–that word seems too strong, but I think social convention requires me to use it–on refusing to feed a broken institution your time, energy, and reputation. This is a labor as well as a feminist issue, and I appreciate your thinking and following through.

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