Speaking Out

Colleagues and killjoys,

I have received such overwhelming support and solidarity since I posted about my decision to resign from my post. I just want to thank all of you who have commented and sent me messages.

Resigning was a difficult decision. Sharing the reasons for the decision was important to me: to indicate that my resignation is both an act of feminist protest and an act of feminist self-care.

I am aware that my account was vague and short. I have been asked about the details (as have colleagues of mine): I have been asked to give the story; to tell people about what has happened. I need to say a few words in response to this request. I need to say a few words about why speaking out matters even when there are things we cannot say, even when there is much that we have to leave unsaid.

It was three years ago that I first heard from a colleague of mine about the problem of sexual harassment at the college at which I work. I remember the conversation like it was yesterday. I was shocked by the account she gave. At that time it was in relation to one individual who has since left the college after two enquiries. But that conversation led me to other conversations: with management as well as, most importantly, with students. It was the students who alerted us to the scale of the problem of sexual harassment. Since then there have been four enquiries. Before then there had been two enquiries. That is six enquiries relating to four members of staff: at least that I know of.

I mention numbers because they teach us something:  when I talk about the problem of sexual harassment I am not talking about one rogue individual; or two, nor even a rogue unit, nor even a rogue institution. We are talking about how sexual harassment becomes normalized and generalized – as part of academic culture.

We are talking about what we are not talking about.

So when I referred to the “failure to address the problem of sexual harassment” I did not mean nothing has been done. There have been enquiries, after all. But these enquiries have not led to a robust and meaningful investigation of the problem of sexual harassment as an institutional problem. Even when we had policy reviews, and policy changes, the review process was not opened up for a general discussion.

In the last there years many people both within my own college and at other universities have talked to me about their experience of sexual harassment. I began to realize something through these conversations: that there have been many cases of sexual harassment in universities, but there is no public record of these cases. They have vanished without a trace. No one knows about them expect for the people directly affected. How do these cases disappear without a trace? Almost always: because they are resolved with the use of confidentiality clauses. The clauses do something: they work to protect organisational reputation; no one gets to know about what happened. They most often protect the harassers: there is no blemish on their records; they can go on to other jobs. But they also leave those who experienced harassment even more isolated than they were before (harassment is already isolating). They leave silence. And silence can feel like another blow; a wall that is not experienced by those not directly affected (because silence is often not registered as silence unless you hear what is not being said).

And another consequence: we have no way of knowing the scale of the problem.

That we have no way of knowing the scale of the problem is indicative of the scale of the problem.

I will be saying a few words about confidentiality and archives at our conference Archives Matter tomorrow.  When sexual harassment cases are wrapped up by confidentiality, we do not have an archive; we do not have access to papers, materials, which would allow us to know what happened. There are so many missing cases, as I have been involved in this work I have learnt of more and more of them. If we are to create an archive, we have not to follow the directives of an institution. And if we do not follow the directives of an institution we become the cause of the damage we document. The response becomes: damage limitation. If diversity is damage limitation, as I have described in my work on racism, then damage limitation takes the form of controlling speech: trying to stop those who speak about violence from speaking in places where they can be heard.

To contain damage is to contain those who have been damaged.

She is heard as complaining. When she is heard as complaining she is not heard.

The absence of a hearing is reproductive. Silence enables the reproduction of the culture of harassment and abuse. When we don’t speak about violence we reproduce violence. Silence about violence is violence.

There were many students who left in silence. We still do not know not what they would have said if they could have stayed.

Missing documents; missing people. We don’t know how much we are missing.

Silence.

When there is no official word by an organisation, it is not just that no one knows what happened; no one has to know. You are giving individuals permission not to know. And then the talk becomes contained in pockets: feminist centres like the one we created. These spaces are important: they become shelters; life-lines: places to go.

But the following can also be true:

When we talk they do not have to listen.

And even:

We talk so they do not listen.

And in the last three years we have been working with silence, working around it; trying to break that seal; trying to find ways to get through; trying to get a more general or collective conversation going, a conversation about what happened.

Nothing. Silence. Still.

And from the point of view of those harassed, it is like that history of harassment has just disappeared. And the history of challenging harassment (which often means opening oneself to being harassed all over again) disappears with it. It is as if nothing happened. Those who had a vague idea something was amiss have a vague idea that it has been dealt with. But even if individuals leave, it has not been dealt with.  People remain (often those who had leadership positions); networks stay alive; structures or processes are not put under investigation.

And problems come up again. And complaints are ignored again.

Confidentiality agreements do not mean and should not mean we cannot talk about sexual harassment. They mean we must talk about sexual harassment. We need to participate in this conversation because it is difficult. We have a responsibility to each other; it is the same responsibility we have as educators to create an environment that enables students to flourish; to learn.

There is more. When you do speak out, you are seen as a problem, as if the problem is only there because you speak about it. It is as if the problem would go away if you stopped talking about it. I have described this difficulty before: how exposing a problem becomes posing a problem. And you will find that you accused of disloyalty – of damaging reputation, even of damaging feminism because of what you are trying to say, as if you are bringing everything and everybody into disrepute.

But we must still speak: the silence is what is damaging.

And I want to thank publicly the students I have been working with on the problem of sexual harassment over the last three years. Although there has yet to be a public acknowledgment of what has happened, although many things  have been left in place that should have been dismantled, you achieved so much, and I know many students to come will benefit from your painstaking labour even if some students are still coming up against some of the same things.

I was vague about some things; the same things. I am still being vague. I hope in time and with support we can acquire more precision. We need to leave traces. More traces. Traces of what has happened. We need to talk about what happened to learn how to stop it from happening.

I have added a paragraph on my resignation to my chapter, Feminist Snap, from my forthcoming book, Living a Feminist Life.

Let me share it by way of conclusion, and with thanks.

What I had been asked to bear became too much; the lack of support for the work we were doing; the walls we kept coming up against. That I could resign depended upon having material resources and security. But it still felt like I was going out on a limb: I did not just feel like I was just leaving a job, or an institution, but also a life, an academic life; a life I had loved; a life I was used to. And that act of leaving was a form of feminist snap: there was a moment when I couldn’t take it anymore, those walls of indifference that were stopping us from getting anywhere; that were stopping us from getting through. Once the bond had snapped, I realised that I had been trying to hold onto something that had already broken. Maybe my relationship to the institution was like Silas’s relationship to his pot: if I tried to put the shattered pieces back together I would be left with a memorial, a reminder of what could no longer be.

Resignation can sound passive, even fatalistic: resigning oneself to one’s fate. But resignation can be an act of feminist protest. By snapping you are saying: I will not work for an organisation that is not addressing the problem of sexual harassment. Not addressing the problem of sexual harassment is reproducing the problem of sexual harassment. By snapping you are saying: I will not reproduce a world I cannot bear, a world I do not think should be borne.

 

 

 

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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63 Responses to Speaking Out

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  7. papersetc says:

    With respect and admiration for your courage and principle – Steve Wright

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  10. In secondary school I experienced sexual harassment. A boy used to feel my legs and bum in science class in front of other boys who used to laugh and encourage him. I was made to feel uncomfortable by him talking about sex making references to my vagina. In PE it was particularly awkward coming out of the changing rooms some of the boys commenting on our bums and the size of our breasts. Occasionally I got my bum slapped. I told my mum who then spoke to the teachers. I got no apology , just a why didn’t you tell us sooner..Well it’s quite difficult because you think you’re the problem . He got called into a meeting then him and the other boys had a go at me and made fun because he was only “messing.” Three years on this has affected me I really don’t like people to touch me at all. My confidence has decreased. Thank you for writing this, it has given me hope X
    ~SS

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