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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New book chapter on ‘lad culture’ and sexual violence

I have a chapter in the new Routledge Handbook of Gender and Violence, edited by Nancy Lombard and including colleagues such as Marianne Hester, Lesley McMillan, Pam Alldred and Emma Renold. The abstract of my chapter below, and a pre-print version can be downloaded here.

‘Lad culture’ and sexual violence against students
This chapter addresses the issue of sexual violence against students and the concept of ‘lad culture’, which has been used to frame this phenomenon in the UK and has connections to similar debates around masculinities in other countries. This issue is much-researched and debated but under-theorised, and due to a lack of intersectionality, radical feminist frameworks around violence against women are useful but incomplete. The chapter sketches a more nuanced approach to the understanding of campus sexual violence and the masculine cultures which frame it, which also engages with the intersecting structures of patriarchy and neoliberalism. It argues that framing these issues structurally and institutionally is necessary, in order to avoid individualistic and punitive approaches to tackling them which may seem feminist but are embedded in neoliberal rationalities.

The university campus as ‘Hunting Ground’

The Hunting Ground is an incredibly powerful film. Its main strength is the testimony of the brave survivors who tell their stories on camera – tales of harrowing victimisation, and narratives of resilience and strength as they take on the machinery of their universities and help each other through trauma and recovery. I am full of admiration for these survivors – their voices break the silence around campus sexual assault, and in the process become part of a long feminist tradition of sharing experience to create political change. They are both male and female, although it is a shame the film does not refer to (and does not appear to include) people of other genders, since recent research suggests that genderqueer and non-conforming students, along with trans students, may be particularly at risk.

The personal stories of The Hunting Ground are raw and honest: however, they are positioned within a rather dubious argument and agenda, which begins with the film’s title. Together with the soundtrack provided by the Lady Gaga track ‘Till it Happens to You’, it transmits a clear message: that male students are predators and female ones prey, in campuses more like wildernesses or war zones in which sexual assault is inevitable. As educator and a feminist who both teaches and has been taught that discourse reflects and constructs reality, I am not sure whether I want to ensnare young people within this kind of narrative. I also question its function and intent in a film which seems to have been produced to generate profit, judging by the costs charged to university staff and student groups who wish to show the DVD.

The film represents its ‘hunters’ as a small band of men with stealth weapons, who deliberately and systematically pick women off. This is based on the often-made argument that campus rape is a calculated, premeditated crime (usually violent) committed by serial sex offenders. This claim comes from the research of David Lisak, who argues that campus offenders are violent sociopaths who ‘groom’ their targets and coerce and terrify them into submission. Lisak’s assertions punctuate the film: we are told that 90 percent of campus assaults are committed by serial rapists, and that these men average six rapes each. However, Lisak’s research, and its subsequent usage, has been challenged: his initial paper was based on four different student dissertations, none on campus sexual assault specifically. It also did not distinguish between assaults committed on different victims and multiple assaults on the same person.

In contrast to this picture of the violent serial rapist, evidence from the UK suggests that many acts of sexual violence at university stem from a variety of more spontaneous boundary-crossings shaped by particular cultures of masculinity. This is not to underplay the seriousness of these assaults: indeed, their ‘everydayness’ is perhaps greater grounds for concern than the idea that there are a handful of men perpetrating multiple attacks who can easily be removed from student communities to keep everyone safe. The 2010 NUS report Hidden Marks found that a whopping 68 per cent of women students in UK universities had been sexually harassed. Furthermore, the survivors who testify in the Hunting Ground to a huge number of students with similar experiences appear to confirm that the scale of the problem in the US may not be restricted to a handful of violent men either.

A key insight of feminist theorisations of rape is that it is not perpetrated by men who deviate from social norms, but by those who exemplify them. Initiated by the black feminists of the US Civil Rights movements and subsequently articulated by the radical feminists of the second wave, there has also been a powerful argument that sexual violence is not just an individual crime but a practice which reflects and reproduces structural inequality through racialised and/or gendered terror. Ida B. Wells situated rape as a means of upholding white patriarchal power, while allegations of rape were deployed to justify lynching black men as a form of social control. More than 50 years after Wells’ death, Kelly’s continuum of gendered/sexual violence defined a collection of behaviours, from sexual harassment to sexualised murder, with the same social and political function: preserving male power by making women feel unsafe. These structural analyses work at the roots of intersectional power relations: a far cry from the idea that you can just punish some ‘naughty boys’ and make the problem of sexual violence go away.

The retribution-restitution narrative of The Hunting Ground calls on universities to mobilise disciplinary apparatuses, with the ultimate aim being the expulsion of offenders. This works alongside the idea that the most appropriate channel for victims to achieve justice through is the criminal law. This narrative has serious implications, given the sheer scale and ‘normalcy’ of sexual harassment and violence at universities: it also detracts attention from the cultures of masculinity and myriad forms of bullying and abuse which are shaped by the rationalities and practices of the neoliberal institution. What if we punish those ‘naughty boys’, and others emerge to take their place? What if we deal with an issue ‘over here’, and find that it is also endemic ‘over there’? There are also important intersectional questions about appealing to carceral systems, either within or outside institutions, which may be riddled with racism, classism and other oppressive discourses. Who is more likely to be problematised and targeted by these systems, and why?

The most valuable element of the film is its clear message about believing and supporting sexual violence survivors. Indeed, its footage of survivors caring for each other is equally inspirational and heartbreaking, because of the exacting emotional labour involved in filling the chasms – these are not just cracks – in institutional provision. As a survivor myself I understand that the idea of punitive sanctions is gratifying amidst deep anger and pain: however, this may be an unsatisfactory or incomplete response in institutions which are supposed to have a pedagogical mission. Furthermore, carceral approaches detract from addressing institutionalised sexism and other hegemonies in higher education (including those of the neoliberal university itself) which shape and produce bullying and violence. The neoliberal framework is also what creates financial disincentives for universities to uncover and address sexual assault, positioning it as a PR issue rather than one of student wellbeing and social justice. The Hunting Ground might short-circuit this by shaming institutions into action, but punishing ‘naughty boys’ will not help us to create campus communities where people are actually concerned with being good.