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.


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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70 Responses to Speaking Out

  1. MadelynDetloff says:

    Thank you!

  2. clareworleyClare says:

    Thank you. You are amazing.

  3. Marian Evans says:

    Good on you and every good wish to you. I left an institution where there was bullying and exploitation of women academics, that continued through a series of enquiries, both before and after I left. The women who were bullied left. The bully remained and flourished in his career. I was not bullied and your phrase ‘walls of indifference’ exactly defines what eventually motivated me to leave. And this post, after 15 years, helps me come to terms with leaving instead of continuing to work within those walls of indifference. Many thanks.

  4. Ally says:

    Everybody stop and read this right now.

  5. Marusya Bociurkiw says:

    Sara, you are so eloquent even in the most stressful of times. Your transatlantic allies are with you. Bon courage, and let us know if there is anything we can say/write/do in support or riposte

  6. Arisika Razak says:

    Gratitude for your courage, your integrity and your commitment. We need your example as inspiration and guideline! Arisika Razak

  7. onlinewithzoe says:

    brilliant. Makes me so happy that these words come together rather than be whispered on a late night call. Well done.

  8. Jessiejwl says:

    Most amazing action in a long time, a true inspirational act of resistance. As a young academic I experienced sexual harassment by a student at the institution I currently work in. I pursued and demanded a solution to the problem and it took weeks for the access of the student to finally be denied. Even then he still managed to come into my office and as if this wasn’t enough, he then openly stalked me and followed me home and took pictures of me on his phone. My institution’s response was disgraceful and the issue is just swept under the carpet. Solidarity with Sara, who has bravely reminded us that silence is unsustainable and just as violent and abusive as the harassment itself.

    • Katalin says:

      I live in Melbourne, Australia. I have been stalked and harassed by an ex-coworker who forces himself on scores of women simultaneously and openly, presumably to experience power and to the obvious delight of his ageing male boss who enjoys the spectacle so much, he looks aroused and does nothing to hide it. I also resigned – in 2012. Stalking and harassment never stopped. The stalker is a middle-aged, married, uneducated, cowardly psycho who lurks in the shadows and uses cyber crime to harass his victims. There is nothing anyone can do to stop him. I know. I have tried. For 7 years and counting.

  9. Irma says:

    Thank you Sara. I was active on mental health issues while an MA student at Goldsmiths a couple of years ago. There are similarly shocking and intersectional silences about that too at managerial and institutional level (though also not confined to one institution). Your words come at a time when the issue of sexual harassment is exploding at UC Berkeley: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/apr/11/uc-berkeley-sexual-harassment-scandal-protests Perhaps with your resignation we are reaching a tipping point.

  10. Pingback: Sara Ahmed resigns from Goldsmiths ‘in protest against the failure to address the problem of sexual harassment’ | Progressive Geographies

  11. cyezer says:

    We are all reading this. We are all hearing you! Thank you so much for speaking out. Solidarity.

  12. Lucy says:

    Brava for living a feminist life with your brave resignation, which reclaims the old meaning of the term: to unseal, to loosen, open, to remove from concealment, expose to view, to disclose. Thank you for your refusal, and for not containing the strength of your voice.

  13. ariddles says:

    Thank you for sharing. I am sharing this with everyone I know to get the story out further.

  14. Ingrid Palmary says:

    Sarah, you won’t remember me but I met you but we met when I was a grad student at mmu. Your work has continued to give feminist inspiration to me after I returned to South Africa. Some of your words nearly brought me to tears “when you do speak out you are seen as a problem. As if the problem only exists because you spoke about it”. I will continue to be inspired by your thoughtfulness and courage. I don’t pretend to understand your struggle but I wish you strength….

  15. Milly Williamson says:

    It’s so important to bring sexism, sexual harassment and gender discrimination out into to the open. And it is absolutely wrong for institutions to attempt to cover it up and silence the victims with confidentiality clauses. I would like us to also acknowledge and honour all of our female colleagues who remain at that institution (and others) who work tirelessly to fight sexism, who were also bruised and upset, who are still bruised and upset and are still there, fighting against institutional sexism. I also want them to be acknowledged and celebrated.

  16. Thank you.

  17. Thank you Sara this is so brave and rare. I have so many experiences with amazing feminists from within the academic world, who must keep silent in order to keep their positions. In order a gender department not be closed. It hurts us all. It perpetuates so many injustices. So thank you for raising the torch so high in order many from far away can see and be strengthened. And hopefully assist in changing the situation.

  18. Pingback: Speaking Out | pepperdez

  19. kunjila says:

    We are students of Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Kolkata, We would like you to know that we have been fighting tooth and nail against sexual harassment by professors and students on campus and have been trying to break the silence, trying to stunt the growth of this violence on women. We have faced everything that we are made to face when we speak up. We are a small group and have around 150 students, almost the entire faculty and higher authorities stationed against us in this battle. We would like you to know that we take a lot of inspiration from what we just read. Many thanks to you and your snapping. We hope we win this battle and we hope to speak to you some day.

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  21. gross says:

    Thank you always for your unending work. The resilience and profundity of your words have and always will resonate with me. I am alumni of the university you recently resigned from, and victim of an assault a few years ago at that university accommodation, for which there was little to no investigation, thereof. I battle with trying to survive that incident in my daily life- and often wonder why I was left so stranded… I fully support all your movements in regards to you speaking out, and I sincerely hope you receive the justice owed to you, regards, G.

  22. Pingback: Sara Ahmed resigns from Goldsmiths, University of London in protest of the institution’s failure to address sexual harassment of students | Feminist Philosophers

  23. John Hillman says:

    Total agreement with so many of these sentiments. Especially relating to institutional silence and the point about: “By snapping you are saying: I will not work for an organisation that is not addressing the problem.” There can be no other way to re-act than to act.

  24. bombrittany says:

    Reblogged this on leevinghome.

  25. tamsyndent says:

    Thank you for speaking out about this. There needs to be a collective language to expose sexual harassment as it just isn’t there and we are all suffering as a result. I know of a leading Professor (male) in my field who has abused his position with female students on two occasions. These are just the instances that I am aware of, there may be more. I see him speak at conferences and I want to scream out. I see his name on papers and my heart pounds with rage. He shouldn’t be working, this culture should not accepted, hidden, belittled. Sara I hope you can lead us all in finding a way to tackle the unspeakable.

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  27. Terry Reeder says:

    Thank you.

  28. Hayley says:

    So glad this has been brought to my attention. This is as courageous as it is important. Thank you.

  29. Reblogged this on Sarah Gillborn.

  30. Amy Anderson says:

    You are an amazing example of strong leadership. The world needs more people like you guiding the rest of us. Thank you.

  31. Peter Collinson says:

    Mmmm. I think you just touched the tip of a very big iceberg. Well done and best wishes in the future.

  32. Anon says:

    Kudos to this brave woman! That Goldsmiths protects its own comes as no suprise to me. I was harassed and manipulated by my supervisor (not sexually), and ignored by the department even when I presented them with hard evidence. I was told by the Head of department that ‘he would protect professor so and so no matter what I say’ – the fact that this was written to me in an email shows just how untouchable they all feel. It was only because I refused to give up and took the complaint futher up the command line that after many months I was acknowledged and the problem dealt with – I was lucky to have proof in the form of emails and written statements. I left Goldsmiths after that and completed my doctorate at another institution. My former supervisor remained in his post and did the same thing to a number of other students who did not wish to rock the boat. A year later one tried going to the same Head of department for help but got shot down and then withdrew. I can only imagine how they must act and how much worse it is if the harrasment is sexual.

  33. Anonymous says:

    I attended Goldsmiths as a student and within my first week I was informed that one lecturer had sex with a student on his desk, another student had filmed herself having sex with a male lecturer (still employed) for her art piece – which she wasn’t allowed to show due to the Goldsmiths lawyers (protecting the member of staff and not the student). The PhD student I had to supervise my dissertation was awful, he looked me up and down during our meetings, made sexual jokes towards me and is now a lecturer there. From my experience there I believe Goldsmiths protects male members of staff rather than the interests and well-being of students. As with everyone else here, these are just the incidences that I know of and have experienced .

  34. lyndseymoon says:

    I want to offer my love to Sara Ahmed because it is mine to give and she is loved by many through a time when love is not shared, and people want to hurt others. I work in an institution where bullying is normative. Why? Who are ‘they’ to treat people in this way – what has given them that right? I feel stronger now. Thank you Sara.

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  37. lee says:

    Hi Sara i have experienced simular at goldsmiths how can i contact you have some information that may help?

  38. anonymous says:

    Dear Sara, after three years of struggle, two examinations of psychosocial working environment at the university of Umeå (which I believe you have visited rather recently) it was clear that the said person was in fact harassing the majority of young women (and others) in the unit he directed. Although he would normally be fired, the university placed him somewhere else, in his very own unit, after they received the following letter that you may read below. Now, the question is, how rotten the system is, and who is brave enough to fight against it? Voices remain unheard because women are afraid to speak; privileged and powerful men and women still support the while middle aged professor-harasser. Also, let me just note that Sweden is in fact considered a paradigm of gender equality and the university is often hailed as ‘red’ meaning working class and socialist. See below. The document is public record, the professor is now placed at CUNY graduate center and there are still people who know the story (it became viral) and go to his events, hangout with him and retweet him. But the hardest thing to live with is the following… Vice Chancellor and Eminent professor, both women, both oblivious to harassment in the workplace. Professor Drucker and those who signed the letter have NEVER RECEIVED a formal reply by the university administration.

    IIf you are interested to know just how rotten the system is, I urge you to examine this case, Sara and make it public and open. May the victims of this sick man find some resolution and maybe, just maybe this will make academia a better place for a few tormented souls out there.

    Rector’s Office
    Umeå University
    27 September 2015

    Dear Rector Gustafsson

    I write to you with a sense of urgency with regard to events unfolding in the treatment of Patrik Svensson. I am hoping this letter finds you already disposed to intervene in a process that appears to be one of action without foundation in which Patrik is being subject to disciplinary action on the basis of anonymous information and without a chance to address his accusers or their accusations. In recent conversations (I saw him in New York a week ago) he informed me that no formal charges have been brought against him. He has had no formal means of clearing his name or dispelling the rumors that have been circulated about him. Whatever the final evidence turns out to be, or ruling in any official process, Patrik is certainly due fair and open treatment and opportunity to defend himself against accusations that well may turn out to be untrue or unfair.

    I strongly believe in the tenets of academic freedom and also just procedures. To reassign an individual from his posts, strip him of responsibilities, remove projects from his direct supervision, cancel assignments or take any other measures that can be construed as punitive without a full, fair, open case being made and the chance to refute charges is a violation of due process in any circumstance. But in an institution of higher education, it goes against all the beliefs and values that undergird our credibility. I believe that if such actions are taken within the next weeks, as now seems likely, this will damage the University of Umeå’s reputation as well as causing considerable professional and personal distress to Patrik Svensson.


    I could go on listing the many ways in which Patrik’s contributions have been essential for building HUMlab, establishing it as a center of creative and experimental work in Digital Humanities, and otherwise distinguishing himself and the University. But this letter is not part of a review of Patrik’s academic performance. It is prompted by the distressing news that he is at risk of losing his position at the HUMlab and being assigned to report to an administrative official, a Dean, who seems to have passed judgment on him without a formal process. I recognize that many aspects of professional life factor into assessments within internal processes. But to repeat what I said above, my understanding is that no formal complaints or charges have been brought or proved. I have seen such destructive and irresponsible actions destroy careers. I have also seen justified complaints and charges in circumstances where they were, unfortunately, warranted. But it is essential to distinguish between uncomfortable circumstances and illegal and unethical ones. I am not privy to the details of the University’s discussions about this matter, but I do want to be certain that the administration be aware of the support that exists for Patrik in the international community and the degree of visibility that this case has generated.

    I urge you not to act in haste, or give in to pressures of individuals or groups whose own self-interests may be motivating their actions in ways that are not in the best interests of the University in its larger identity and profile. You have a highly valuable and very respected professional colleague in Patrik Svensson. I hope you can allow him to pursue his work at HUMlab, clear the air and put any accusations or charges to rest, and continue to work effectively within the University.

    I have asked a number of my distinguished colleagues to add their names and signatures to this document. We are, under no circumstances, trying to meddle in internal affairs or embarrass anyone at Umeå. But there are times in professional life when it is essential to demonstrate support for an embattled colleague. This is one of those times.

    If I can be of any further assistance in this matter, please do not hesitate to call on me.


    Johanna Drucker
    Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies

  39. I think you just touched the tip of a very big iceberg. Well done and best wishes in the future.

  40. Dr Rory Allen says:

    I don’t know the facts of these allegations, but clearly you believe there were injustices and it was courageous of you to take a stand against them. The official response to your concerns was disturbingly bland. If these allegations are true, there is institutional rottenness at work. Nobody is in a position to investigate such cases who is independent of the structure that was responsible for the abuses in the first place. I don’t pretend to know the answer to this.

  41. I am ignorant of the facts of these allegations, but clearly you believe there were injustices and it was courageous of you to take a stand against them. The official response to your concerns was disturbingly bland. If these allegations are true, there is institutional rottenness at work. Nobody is in a position to investigate such cases who is independent of the structure that was responsible for the abuses in the first place. I don’t pretend to know the answer to this.

  42. anonymous says:

    Thank you for your words, your strength and your courage. I wish you the best.
    In the newspapers, there was a case of a guy taking pictures up women’s dresses. It was on the front page of the newspaper. He was prosecuted etc. The same thing happened in my faculty. I supported the student. But I watched as it was scuttled into the ground and called it minor etc etc. The student who sought help had to move home. Yet 100 meters up the road in a public area it is a criminal offence on university grounds it is – not!!!!
    And all I could do was when he graduated I did not stand as he crossed the stage – a small but yet again silent protest.
    For any students reading this, it is your choice, but every time I am have been blocked or felt that I was being blocked, as a staff member from saying “go to the police”– it may depend on the country. But you may be offered more options than a system that believes in ways to make things – go away.

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  46. geocognition says:

    This is such a widespread problem all over the world. A long list in the U.S. – maybe other countries need their own lists to show doubters that harassment happens all the time: https://geocognitionresearchlaboratory.wordpress.com/2016/02/03/not-a-fluke-that-case-of-sexual-harassment-is-not-an-isolated-incident/

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