To tackle sexual harassment, we need cultural change

This is the longer version of a piece published in the Guardian on 13th December 2017.

We’re talking about sexual harassment in higher education again. We need to talk about sexual harassment – in agricultural and domestic labour, sex work, Hollywood, politics, academia, and every other industry. That we’re talking about it in universities at all is due to the work of the 1752 Group, NUS and the Guardian. Because of them, female academics, especially early-career researchers, are coming forward with their experiences. I’m a survivor, too – and with each story, my stomach knots with grief while my heart swells with pride.

Many of the latest Guardian findings are positive. Almost two-thirds of universities now provide sexual harassment training for staff. Three-quarters have trained student services advisors. But with the history of ‘naming and shaming’ on this issue, this may be compliance out of fear. Many institutions may be doing the minimum they need to, to not make the papers. This is a concern – running scared is not conducive to thoughtful engagement with an issue. And the negative tone of much of the media coverage is not fostering openness in the sector.

When sexual harassment revelations emerge, we often call for the removal of offenders. But ‘zero tolerance’ approaches collapse many behaviours together, which doesn’t help us understand or tackle them. And dysfunctional systems, as Whitley and Page argue, can’t be fixed by purging a few individuals. This is what I call ‘institutional airbrushing’ – the visible blemish is removed, and the underlying malaise left to fester. Once airbrushed out, the blemish tends to just reappear elsewhere – as shown in a number of reports from the US on how universities have ‘passed the harasser‘.

There have also been discussions recently about codes of conduct, with disciplinary implications. Clarifying what constitutes professional conduct in higher education is urgently necessary. But as Melissa Gira Grant points out, seeing sexual harassment as ‘sexual misconduct’ ignores the fact that these behaviours are about power, not ‘misplaced’ sexuality. In other words, sexual harassment is a form of discrimination – and in the midst of what could easily become a media ‘sex panic‘, Rebecca Traister has written eloquently about the systems of gender inequity which make women more vulnerable, as well as making it difficult to come forward and making it more likely they will be ignored if they do.

Behavioural frameworks do not tackle these structural inequalities, or others such as the rapidly expanding casualisation of the sector which puts early career researchers particularly at risk of abuses of power. Used in any context, disciplinary tools also tend to create compliance through fear, which is the opposite of systemic reform and which may even end up hiding or compounding systemic injustices under a docile veneer. Or people can respond to punishment with more anger and aggression – adults are not that different from children in this regard.

I’m concerned about how institutions might (mis)use conduct codes, especially given escalating cuts and recent attempts to cut out the ‘dead wood’. Brexit and its implications for international recruitment play a role here, as does the TEF. The new decisions for REF 2021 are also significant – staff who have left the institution, for whatever reason, can now be submitted. In light of all this, I’m not sure we should be advocating anything which makes it easier for universities to manage staff out of their jobs.

There is potential for conduct codes to be weaponised in the current political context. Several US academics have been disciplined after being targeted by far-right groups. Many are scholars of colour who have challenged institutional racism or supported movements like Black Lives Matter. Campaigns against them have used the notion of ‘reverse racism’, as if critiquing white privilege, even in the strongest terms, is equal to centuries of racialised oppression. On this side of the Atlantic, social justice discourse is also being painted as intolerant and oppressive. Conduct codes could support these types of attacks on academics, if not implemented wisely.

Intersectionality tells us punitive systems don’t treat us all equally – there are disparities around structures like class and race. Certain people are more likely to be seen as aggressors or bullies – see the ‘angry black woman’ trope and the fact that the ‘police blotter rapist’, as Angela Davis points out, tends to be a black man. Or the persistent construction, now enjoying a resurgence, of queers and trans people as sexually deviant and dangerous. Historical and prevailing notions of ‘respectability’ also shape the experiences of victims: they are more ‘believable’ the more privileged they are, by every demographic measure. Given all this, I wonder who might be more likely to be complained about, as well as which complaints might be more likely to be upheld. Seeking justice on sexual harassment without acknowledging the injustices built into the fabric of institutions may protect some at the expense of others.

Intersectionality is also about ‘asking the other question’. This usually means considering multiple forms of discrimination. But it also pushes us to understand our lives, on the ‘everyday’ level at least, as complex mixtures of victimhood and perpetration. Like other privileged women, I’ve been sexually harassed at work. However, I can’t claim to have never perpetrated discrimination myself – racism, ableism, or transphobia for example. This doesn’t invalidate my experiences of sexual harassment, but it does make me loath to cast the first stone. ‘Zero tolerance’ only works if perpetrators and victims are easy to tell apart.

We desperately need accountability in the sector – there absolutely need to be repercussions. It may be necessary for some academics to stop working with young people. I’m also aware that, as Ahmed points out, critiques of carceral/punitive justice can be mis-used by perpetrators to try to avoid this accountability, a tactic which is particularly effective in academic and ‘progressive’ communities. This also, I argue in my book The Politics of the Body, resonates strongly in the present neoconservative moment where feminism is being mis-cast as the oppressor.

Nevertheless, one size does not fit all when we are dealing with an issue as complex and multidimensional as sexual harassment, and ‘zero tolerance’ approaches present a real danger of slipping in to what Gayle Rubin calls ‘misplaced scale‘. Furthermore, naming, shaming and punishing is an inversion of, not a departure from, the power relations which produce sexual harassment in the first place. I understand the urge to do it – I have felt that urge myself. As Sarah Schulman writes, survivors often need to feel in control, to feel safe. But this isn’t the best basis for policy.

Changing behaviour instead of policing it means addressing dysfunctional cultures and gendered (and many other) forms of entitlement. We need to focus less on ‘bad’ individuals and more on the institutional and the systemic. Working from this place, where the institution is not neutral but deeply discriminatory, means being reluctant to wield its disciplinary powers and daring to imagine something different. One of the things this requires is strong values – and in many of our universities, economic values have replaced civic ones. Instead of the insipid notion of ‘excellence’ that currently dominates university mission statements, we need terms we can identify with, that enable us to dismantle oppressive structures and have the potential to positively shape our actions institutionally, interpersonally, and individually. Then, when we tackle sexual harassment, we might begin to create cultural change.

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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.

3 thoughts on “To tackle sexual harassment, we need cultural change”

  1. Well said.

    This also makes me think of how race is gendered and gender is raced, and how that puts extra barriers in place for WOC when dealing with assault and systematic inequalities when trying to address it.

    Liked by 1 person

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