Reckoning Up: an institutional economy of sexual harassment and violence

(Content note for sexually violent language and descriptions of traumatic experiences)

I want to construct an ‘institutional economy’ of sexual harassment and violence. What does this mean? These phenomena are often positioned within narratives about boys – or men – ‘behaving badly’. While it is crucial to hold individuals accountable for their actions, as sociologists we must go further. Sexual harassment and violence are of the social: produced and shaped by gender and other intersecting structures of inequality, and framed by the neoliberal rationalities which, as Wendy Brown argues, have seeped into almost all aspects of our lives. An institutional economy of sexual harassment and violence in higher education starts here.

Like schools, universities exist within a marketplace. As government funding dwindles, we increasingly compete for students and research grants in order to survive. We also operate internal markets which bring departments and staff into rivalry, and make us competitors rather than colleagues. I want students to register on my MA programme, not yours. How does our research stack up next to the department’s next door? Students now imagine they are paying us for a service, and while we give them their grades, they evaluate us in ways which have a demonstrable impact on our market standing. There are hierarchies of performance at individual, institutional, national and international levels, and the effects of this are seen in cultures amongst students and staff.

In my work on student ‘lad culture’, I have argued that this combines rather tired forms of sexism with newer modes of sexual audit. ‘Sex charts’ are appearing in student residences, to quantify and assess conquests. Women are being given grades and ratings for their ‘sex appeal’. Men are scoring points for sexual ‘achievements’ – such as ‘slipping a finger in on the dance floor’, and ‘bedding a virgin, with blood to prove it.’ ‘Lad culture’ and neoliberal culture are natural bedfellows.

In 2013, a number of Facebook pages emerged entitled ‘Rate Your Shag’, linked to universities across the country. These offered spaces for students to give their sexual partners marks out of ten based on any criteria, and were ‘liked’ by about 20,000 users in the first 72 hours. They were deleted just as quickly, deemed to contravene Facebook’s policies on bullying and harassment. Unsolicited evaluation is bullying and harassment. Unsolicited evaluation is also often gendered – women are appraised, men do the appraising. Although students of all genders had been encouraged to post, much of the Rate Your Shag content consisted of men rating women on criteria drawn from heteronormative and objectified constructions of femininity.

‘Was like shagging her mouth, best blowjob in [the city]. Eight out of ten.’

‘Nought out of ten. Shit body and one heavy dose of Chlamydia. Get checked love.’

Unsolicited evaluation is bullying and harassment. Constant evaluation is also bullying and harassment. Contemporary ‘lad culture’ was defined by a participant in my research as a ‘hostile environment where everyone is judging everyone else.’ This could also describe cultures amongst higher education staff, many of whom feel alienated by processes that incessantly measure them against each other and against the curve. Again, this evaluation is gendered: men continue to hold most of the positions of power in the sector, definitions of ‘success’ prioritise research (coded as masculine) over teaching and admin (coded as feminine), and assessment exercises favour modes of scholarship and impact which reward the confidence, time and freedom to take risks and consistently self-promote.

A UCU survey in 2012 found that bullying and harassment between university staff was common, usually perpetrated by managers and disproportionately affecting women, BAME and LGBT people, and people with disabilities. Recent media and academic discussions have also focused on staff relations with students, with high-profile exposés of powerful US Professors who are serial sexual harassers feeding growing unease in the UK.

Sara Ahmed recently resigned her Professorial post at Goldsmiths in protest at the institution’s failure to tackle sexual harassment. Last December, I spoke at a conference at Goldsmiths where difficulty of even naming sexual harassment was brought to the fore. For a problem to be disclosed, it must be named. For it to be addressed, it must be disclosed – but our failure to address sexual harassment and violence prevents it being disclosed in the first place. We are caught in a vicious circle.

In any institution, disclosures of harassment and violence are situated within reckonings. What is the cost of naming and addressing this problem? ‘Cost’, however, is not neutral – and we need to think critically about how it is defined and calculated. In a neoliberal institution, ideas of ‘cost’ are shaped by marketised reputational games. For something to be marketable it must be unblemished: everything must be airbrushed out. This gives rise to the figure Ahmed has named the ‘institutional killjoy’ (a relative of the feminist killjoy), who ruins everything with their complaints. I have been one of these killjoys for as long as I can remember. In fact, you might even call me the ‘sectoral killjoy’ – my work on ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence in universities has led to many uncomfortable discussions, some of which I have been party to, some of which I have not.

The cost of sexual violence is totted up at multiple levels, from departmental finances to the grandiose idea of ‘bringing the university into disrepute.’ We do not want to lose our star Professor, or their grant income. We do not want a media frenzy around campus rape which would damage the university’s standing with potential students or key international donors. The airbrushing of the institution makes disclosures disreputable, rather than the acts of harassment and violence they reveal.

Disclosures are disreputable in neoliberal institutions where economic values have replaced civic ones. We have experienced, as Stephen Ball puts it, ‘a thoroughgoing commodification of university life.’ One of the characteristics of this, he argues, is the fungibility of staff and students: we are all capable of substitution for each other, with no distinct value of our own. Or almost all of us. Those who are reckoned up differently are often the ones who use that power to perpetrate harassment and violence in the first place. Disclosures, then, are problematic only inasmuch as they threaten their welfare, because this is intimately bound up with the welfare of the institution.

I have argued before that power works to cover some people up. As Heidi Mirza points out, some of us are used to revealing ourselves. The bodies of women of colour and LGBT people, for example, are often seen as public property; we are also often forced to commodify our experience in a world in which abstract thought is not for us. Others, however, are not to be exposed. ‘Laddish’ disclosures are made by men, but women’s bodies are laid bare: ‘lad points’ demand that women’s boundaries are crossed, their secrets told. Indeed, when these acts re-appear as women’s disclosures of sexual violence, they are minimised and denied.

When it comes to staff, some people are bundled up in layers of bureaucratic power. The manager who sexually harasses you at the Christmas party also allocates your teaching, assesses your requests for research leave, and conducts your annual appraisal. The Principal Investigator on your research project can either help you get your next fixed-term contract, or leave you to flounder. Your PhD supervisor has a key role in whether you get that first job at all. These bureaucratic power relations raise the stakes on disclosure, and also make it difficult to look up from our desks to support colleagues and students who are suffering. There are other bureaucratic layers, such as stressful and opaque complaints processes which mean it is often easier to keep quiet.

Some of these forms of leverage are not new: academic and institutional hierarchies have always facilitated abuse. In fact, the phrase ‘sexual harassment’ was coined in 1975 by a group of women at Cornell University, after Carmita Wood resigned her post as a Professor’s administrative assistant because of his unwanted advances. But in a neoliberal institution some people are really snug: even swaddled by the equality policy frameworks which are less about tackling problems than giving the impression they are already solved. The developing ‘pressure-cooker culture’ for senior academics and the casualisation of junior ones have also created an individualism which may mean we turn a blind eye while trying to keep our jobs (at best) and advance our careers (at worst). This normalises sexual harassment and violence because it inhibits disclosure. As Whitley and Page put it: ‘If everyone knows what is happening, and yet no one objects to it, then what would reporting it do?’ When boundaries are being crossed in the open, there is nothing to expose.

While heavy bureaucratic layers envelop some people, others carry the weight of sexual harassment and violence. ‘Carry That Weight’ was a performance art piece by Columbia student Emma Sulcowicz, in which she carried a 50-pound mattress around campus during her final year. Sulcowicz had alleged a rape perpetrated in her dorm room by a fellow student who was found ‘not responsible’ by a university inquiry. ‘They’re more concerned with their public image’, Sulcowicz said, ‘than with keeping people safe.’

Sulcowicz’s mattress represents the weight of disclosure within an economy of sexual harassment and violence that prioritises the cost to the institution. When we disclose within this framework we only expose and harm ourselves, leading to the ‘second rape’ or institutional betrayal which has been shown to hugely exacerbate trauma. While we lug our mattresses around, perhaps our disclosures do become the ‘peas’ under theirs, but it is hard not to be cynical about what ultimately stops them from sleeping.

It is not surprising, then, that only 4 per cent of women students experiencing serious sexual assault report to their universities, and that sexual harassment by staff is so difficult to even name. This is not just an issue of ‘speaking up’: it is about how sexual harassment and violence are reckoned up; who calculates the cost, and who pays the price.

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Author: alisonphipps

Academic working on issues in the politics of the body - sexual violence, sex work, reproductive justice. Feminist; queer; Prince.

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