Speaking up for what’s right: politics, markets and violence in higher education

Content note: this post contains reference to sexual harassment and violence.

Universities in the US, and increasingly in the UK, are finding themselves under siege. The far right is targeting academics and their social justice work, bolstered by a mainstream suspicion of ‘experts’ and ‘elites’, and a general rightward shift in politics and public opinion. With a white supremacist, alleged serial sexual harasser and abuser in the White House, a hardline English government, and a ‘new normal’ that involves overt and unrepentant sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination, we’re in for a tough few years. I have previously written about the feminist classroom as a ‘safe space’, and the need to protect our most vulnerable students. I have also thought a lot about how the neoliberal university suppresses the very capacities required to do this. I have theorised an ‘institutional economy’ of sexual violence, exploring how institutional responses (or non-responses) to violence and abuse are shaped by neoliberal rationalities. In this post, I will attempt to sketch how the market framings of sexual violence in the university interact with our contemporary political field and growing hostility to progressive work.

Neoliberalism is a notoriously slippery concept. Wendy Brown has called it a ‘loose signifier’: a global phenomenon which is nevertheless ‘inconstant, differentiated, unsystematic, [and] impure’. Perhaps this is why it has so often become a ‘catch-all’ invoked to explain anything we feel is too big to understand or that we dislike. Harvey defines neoliberalism as an economic process by which capital has harnessed the power of the state to preserve itself, usually to the detriment of labour. In neoliberal systems, the role of the state is to safeguard the market through deregulation and privatisation: the rhetoric is that the social good will be ensured by the unfettered operation of market forces. This is part of a rationality in which everything is understood through the metaphor of capital. We are all expected to maximise our speculative value within numerous systems of rating and ranking: we become what Brown, citing Foucault, calls a ‘portfolio of enterprises’. Everything, including education, is configured in terms of enhancing future value, whether this is of the state, the corporation, or the self.

The university, then, is a key neoliberal institution. It supplies knowledge commodities for ‘self-betterment’, economic growth, and to support state relations with capital. It is not surprising that market logics have strong purchase here. Academics reading this will be well acquainted with the various metrics we labour under, the emphasis on higher education as an investment with a return, the ideas of student as consumer and lecturer as commodity. Of course, these sit alongside a continuation of older forms of governance: Louise Morley describes the climate of contemporary HE through a binary of archaism and hyper-modernism. Universities, like neoliberalism itself, deliver the discourse of a meritocratic free market but continue to work in favour of the ruling class. To paraphrase McKenzie Wark, this contradiction suggests that neoliberalism is not so much rationality as ideology, functioning to maintain the transfer of wealth upwards in the absence of growth through individualization, responsibilisation, and withdrawal of care.

Sexual violence in UK universities made its way on to the agenda after the 2010 NUS report ‘Hidden Marks’, which found that 1 in 7 women students had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault during their studies, and 68 percent had been sexually harassed. Following this, NUS commissioned Isabel Young and I to do further work on the ‘lad culture’ that frames student-on-student sexual violence, a topic which commanded national media attention. Activities such as initiation ceremonies, nude calendars, sexist themed parties and wet T-shirt contests all came into focus in a ‘moral panic’ around alcohol, pornography, casual sex, and as the Daily Mail put it (without irony), the ‘sickening rise of the male university students who treat women like meat.’ More recently there has been an emphasis on sexual harassment by university staff, which has also seen dramatic media stories about ‘epidemic’ levels of this phenomenon. Opposing all this is a rather bogus politics around ‘free speech’, in which campaigns against lad culture and sexual harassment are positioned as an infringement of men’s rights. This chatter provides a backdrop to a wave of initiatives including policy work, consent campaigns, awareness-raising, disclosure training and bystander intervention, mostly student- and faculty-led.

This is also the political and cultural setting for university responses to sexual harassment and violence. I have argued before that these are preceded by ‘reckonings’ around potential risk and effects on future value: this brings us back to the higher education market, operating in a context of austerity and deepening cuts. For something to be marketable it must be unblemished: everything must be airbrushed out. Of course, communities often close ranks around sexual violence perpetrators – this is not news, or new. But the shift from university as community to university as commodity means that the impact of disclosure on institutional value must be projected and totted up. Markets in higher education operate via hierarchies of performance at individual, institutional, national and international levels. They are also subject to the vagaries of public opinion. We do not want to lose our star Professor and his grant income. We do not want negative media coverage to damage our standing with potential students or key international donors. In some situations, we may reckon these priorities up against each other.

In the case of sexual harassment and violence, we have often seen perpetrators being protected because their welfare is intimately bound up with that of the institution. The power of being a ‘four-star’ academic (or footballer, perhaps) can facilitate violence, and acts as a shield against disclosure. Compared to this, the survivor is dispensable. As one of my research participants said:
They will protect him because of his seniority or his perceived importance, they will protect him whatever he does. Now what I’ve described to you is kind of indefensible, and yet it was repeatedly defended over a period of years because of the REF. So if somebody is an important professor, they can do precisely what they want.
My eleven years of work on this topic has taken me into very different institutions, but what has struck me is their similarities in terms of how harassment and violence are ‘reckoned up’. In most cases, concerns with institutional value take precedence over care for survivors. The previous quote is from an elite English university, where a member of staff cited ‘a focus on finances and reputation to the detriment of wellbeing.’ However, a student from a radical 60s university similarly highlighted a ‘culture of sweeping issues under the carpet…which may have more to do with appearance and a desire to recruit more students, than with student welfare.’ The stakes are different – research profile versus student income – but the end result is the same.

The lack of care for survivors reflects how neoliberal cultures treat all of us: Stephen Ball, citing Margaret Radin, defines fungibility as one of four characteristics of commodification in HE. When things (or people) are fungible they are all capable of substitution for one another, with no inherent value of their own. Or almost all of them, perhaps: there are complexities here which need to be unpicked. In his discussion, Ball mentions the REF: and although he does not elaborate, it is certainly true that this is an exercise in which scholarly work is given a numerical rating and aggregate numbers determine the rank of a department or institution, while the people in it disappear. The life of such exercises within the university, though, is not about fungibility but differentiation. Systems of evaluation interact with traditional hierarchies (and often gender, race, class and other relations), to ensure that certain people are reckoned up differently. Or at least, until the risks of protecting them outweigh the benefits, in institutional terms.

The impulse to protect perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence contrasts with situations where academics have been singled out for their political views or scholarship. Last September, the Middle East Studies Association wrote that the State University of New York had failed to protect a faculty member, raised and taught in Israel, who had been targeted for supporting the academic boycott of that state. This February, the American Association of University Professors said administrations needed to be more proactive in defending academics, after a professor at Sacramento State received a barrage of attacks for criticising President Trump. In England, a lecturer at Bristol was recently supported by Jewish colleagues after university management launched an investigation against her on grounds of anti-Semitism, following media coverage of a student complaint about an article critical of Israel. These incidents reflect a broader context in which the far right in both the US and England has pinpointed universities as hotbeds of left-wing indoctrination. This narrative is increasingly being adopted by the mainstream press and accepted by some of liberal persuasion, under the rubrics of ‘tolerance’ and ‘freedom of speech’. Earlier this month, the Times published an article entitled ‘Lurch to left raises concerns for campus free speech.’ In February, in a piece entitled ‘The Threat from Within’, former Stanford Provost John Etchemendy argued that the university was ‘not a megaphone to amplify this or that political view’.

Appeals to ‘freedom of speech’ on the part of the far right perform a rhetorical sleight of hand. They locate legitimate political speech on the right of the spectrum: conversely, left-wing and progressive speech is not speech but anti-speech, a threat to freedom of speech in itself. This convoluted rhetoric (and its growing influence) only makes sense in the context of broader shifts in what is tolerated and found acceptable. As social justice gains recede, sexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism and other prejudices are increasingly seen as mere differences of opinion, while work to tackle them is situated as intolerant and oppressive. A recent report by the Adam Smith Institute on ‘left wing bias’ in UK academia cited the (discredited) science in The Bell Curve around raced differences in intelligence, and Lawrence Summers’ remarks about women’s intelligence in relation to their under-representation in STEM, as examples of ‘politically incorrect’ ideas which had been subject to unfair condemnation. This discussion in the UK has reached its apex with the SpikedFree Speech University Rankings’, in which anti sexual harassment policies (among other initiatives) can get an institution a ‘red’ rating. The 2017 rankings were reported largely uncritically in English liberal media outlets, as well as in conservative ones.

The contortions involved in using ‘freedom of speech’ to protect bigotry and harassment echo earlier appeals to the notion of ‘banter’ as a shield against criticism of laddish behaviour. Similar rhetorical strategies can also be found amongst more progressive communities: Sara Ahmed uses the terms ‘critical sexism’ and ‘critical racism’ to refer to academics who identify as left-wing or radical, who have articulated noncompliance with equality and harassment policies as a rebellion against neoliberal audit culture and Victorian ‘moral panics.’ However, contemporary far right rhetoric around ‘freedom of speech’ is part of a broader struggle over social norms in response to recent political and cultural shifts, in which universities are targeted as sites of potential resistance. Ironically, this operates alongside the genuine threat of censorship which resides in the government’s Prevent programme: this includes in its list of ‘potentially extremist’ views criticism of wars in the Middle East, and criticism of Prevent. The resounding silence of ‘free speech’ campaigners around Prevent (it is not mentioned in the Spiked rankings, for example) is confirmation, should this be needed, that their politics is not about freedom of speech at all.

If these debates are not worrying to those of us who work on sexual harassment and violence in higher education, they should be. Our gains are not secure, because universities tend to function according to market principles alone. Both the protection of sexual predators and the lack of it for political academics reflect a preoccupation with public opinion in the context of what it is possible (and not possible) to airbrush out, rather than a consideration of the principles at stake. This highlights the apolitical nature of the neoliberal university, in which equality and diversity are not ends in themselves but subordinate to market concerns. Indeed, they are often performed for market benefit, for instance in schemes such as Athena SWAN, in which institutional airbrushing can require that bad practice is not addressed but covered up. Penny Jane Burke and Kathleen Lynch have both traced how the commodification of higher education shapes a loss of relational personhood, diminishing the value of care. This is evident in a growing exasperation, not confined to the far right, with ‘snowflake students’ and their demands for safer spaces: indeed, the care these students deserve increasingly goes instead to those who claim that principles of anti-discrimination stifle their ability to speak.

For Wendy Brown, in neoliberalism we are always homo economicus and never homo politicus. Business models and metrics penetrate every social sphere, and the world is governed by market forces, not elected representatives. Our democratic duty is to conduct ourselves properly in the market, and social and political issues have market-based solutions. When politics recedes, resistance can be repackaged as ‘complaint’. Sara Ahmed has highlighted how those who bring problems to institutional attention become the problem, rather than the issues they raise. Feminist, anti-racist and other social justice academics are routinely cast as ‘complainers’, and their concerns summarily dismissed. However, in far right campaigns against these (and other) political academics, another form of complaint is beginning to be deployed: student, or consumer, complaint. In a 2016 article in the US National Review, entitled ‘Yes, universities discriminate against conservatives’, David French argued that ‘parents are paying tens of thousands of dollars to send their children to glorified propaganda mills’. Calls for US academia to reflect the ideological balance of the population, now spreading to England and overseas, use the language of democracy but may ultimately send the message that the customer is always right.

In response to recent activism and policy work across the UK, most universities are taking a stand – rhetorically at least – against sexual harassment and violence. However, it is worth considering whether a showdown with the far right around the spectre of ‘left wing intolerance’ is somewhere in our future. Negative media coverage of consent workshops has already situated them as a threat to free speech. Is it possible that students might eventually demand protection while they parrot rape myths or talk about grabbing their classmates by the pussy? As has already happened in the US, could we see threats to withdraw government funding if we refuse to platform those whose hate speech has been redefined as merely ‘provocative’? If the ideological targeting of universities continues to influence the mainstream, this will shape institutional reckonings. Starting now, we need to challenge university administrations to recognise, and speak out against, these manoeuvrings for what they are. We must also ask our institutions to consider their values, and to recentre and reaffirm principles of equality and progressive social change. To support survivors – and other vulnerable people – we must all figure out where our lines are drawn, and then resolve to hold them.

This post was originally developed as a public lecture for ‘Tackling Gender-Based Violence in Universities‘, a one-day conference held at Newcastle University on March 14th 2017.

On Outrage

I have been thinking a lot about outrage. Recently, I have been outraged a lot. Outrageous things have been happening. Outrage is an important feature of contemporary politics, within a proliferation of news and social media which has both democratised debate and given us the ability to hold powerful institutions and individuals to account. It is one of a number of emotions which enter the political, arguably more now than before.

OUT-RAGE. It gets our rage out. Out into the public sphere; out of our systems. Outrage is cathartic. It has a righteousness which is a function of its ‘outness’ – it takes up space, demands attention to the issue at hand. We have recently been outraged about cases involving a number of individuals: Thomas Pogge, Lee Salter, Brock Turner, James Deen. In its productive capacities outrage is similar to anger, which Audre Lorde theorises as ‘a powerful source of energy serving progress and change’. Like anger, outrage can be channelled politically: sometimes we may like its direction, sometimes we may not. Outrage at the proliferation of misogynistic abuse on social media has recently been used by female Labour MPs to try to discredit Jeremy Corbyn. OutRage! is the name of the direct action group which has been much-critiqued for its righteousness in pushing neo-colonial agendas around LGBT rights in African countries.

Outrage is cathartic – it puts us in touch with our feelings, and allows them to be released. It is also connective: a crucial way of showing survivors our support. When we do outrage, we say I am with you. In a world in which survivors are suspected and disbelieved, outrage is necessary. After your sense of self has been destroyed by violence, the outrage of others stops you thinking you deserved what you got. It is an important preventive of the ‘second rape’ which often occurs within communities, institutions and carceral systems, in which the victim is put on trial. If outrage is withheld (as in so many cases where perpetrators go unchallenged), you are left alone with your guilt and shame.

Outrage connects us with survivors and can also connect us with each other – just as anger, if heard without defensiveness, can help build coalitions across difference. But unlike the thrashing out of differences, the connectivity of outrage relies on a homogeneous emotional response: it can bring movements together rapidly, as a chorus is formed. In our outrage, we all have the same focus and narrative: a performativity can develop that requires you to get your rage ‘out’ in order to fit in. This can sometimes create the impression that if you are not performing outrage, you are doing something wrong.

You get your rage ‘out’. And then? Because outrage is cathartic, it is possible to release it and move on. Outrage can appear momentary – especially in the fast-moving world of social media, it often settles on the next case while the previous one is unresolved. This differentiates outrage from anger, which Lorde sees as a potential catalyst for conversation. Outrage is a statement: we are outraged about something; we are outraged about something else. If the catharsis of outrage is enough for us, it can become an end in itself.

There are similarities between outrage and hatred. Ahmed writes that hatred is always of something or somebody. For Ahmed hate often focuses on the generalised Other: in contrast, outrage tends to coalesce around a specific individual, and sometimes the institution or group which has failed to deal with them. This failure is also largely seen in terms of ‘outness’: while we get our rage out, we also want its subject out – of our organisations, of our communities. It is much easier to mobilise outrage around removing an individual than to focus on changing the structural and systemic context which has allowed them, and probably others like them, to thrive. Hate becomes a death wish for the hated; outrage demands its subject begone.

Where does the subject of outrage go? There is often an appeal to carceral systems to take them away. Outrage regularly uses what Lorde would call the ‘master’s tools’ – the state and the corporate media – to inflict a social death on its subject and demand that they disappear. In an individualistic, punitive context with very few avenues for rehabilitation, there often seems no other option. And of course, there is a difference between a social death visited on the powerful and the hatred which can bring actual death to the powerless. However, emboldening the master’s tools with the former is not unrelated to their role in the latter. Outrage at Stanford student Brock Turner’s rape conviction involved demands for a much harsher prison sentence, but if we fortify the carceral state this will not primarily affect men like Brock Turner. Outrage at abuses within the sex industry produces client criminalisation policies which feed stigma and violence against sex workers, and make abuse more likely to occur in a variety of tangible ways.

I have worked for ten years now in a field in which there are periodic swells of outrage. Sexual harassment and violence in higher education institutions is absolutely outrageous. When outrage swells, I feel vindicated and supported – when it ebbs, I worry about what happens next. One of my key concerns in these ‘between’ times is the unchecked power of the neoliberal university over its students and staff, and of the neoliberal state over us all. I understand why outrage produces demands for punishment: in this system it is the only justice survivors get, and ostracism and incarceration of perpetrators seem the only routes to protection. Furthermore, outrage does not welcome complexity, and although I do not want to bolster punitive and carceral processes, in a similarly unproductive way my outrage has led me to imagine tearing everything down.

My fantasies of demolition bring me back to Lorde: she writes that anger alone cannot create the future, it can only demolish the past. Due to the qualities I have described, perhaps this is even more true of outrage. Tearing down is not helpful unless I am prepared to build something better. Of course, I am not suggesting that we ‘work within’ the system rather than raging against it: it is much more difficult than this, and requires a great deal more thought. I am also aware that Lorde writes about women connecting across their differences – she does not advise entering into relationships with the kyriarchical state. Indeed, she warns against white women in particular being seduced into joining this oppressor under the pretence of sharing power.

With this in mind, I am certainly not aspiring to a politics constituted by compromises within, or with, dysfunctional institutions: particularly since it is always the most compromised who end up compromising the most. But I do want outrage to be more than catharsis. As it ebbs away I want more of us, especially those with social and institutional privilege, to stay behind to do the work of thinking, and enacting, alternatives. This need not take place within institutions: when issues are particularly outrageous, sometimes we can work more productively outside them. But the work must happen nonetheless – survivors need and deserve that too.

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.

Disclosure and exposure in the neoliberal university

This Spring, as part of a collaborative partnership of colleagues from the UK and 5 other European countries, I helped to launch a European Commission-funded project entitled ‘Universities Supporting Victims of Sexual Violence‘. Our main aim is to create university environments in which students can disclose experiences of sexual harassment and assault, through providing ‘first response’ training to key staff. We have committed to training 80 staff in each of our 13 Partner and Associate Partner universities.

As we begin our work, I want to think more deeply about disclosure. The word is loaded, and the act is too: laden with emotion and often perceived as a threat. It means to reveal, to expose, to name something which creates discomfort and shame. Our work is loaded. Sexual harassment and assault in universities is pushed under the carpet in every national context I have studied, both within Europe and further afield. The 2015 film The Hunting Ground portrayed US university campuses as sites where sexual predators roam with impunity. Although I was not a fan of the film’s restitution-retribution narrative, it relayed powerful testimonies by survivors who described a heartbreaking silence which resounds across national borders.

In both the US and the UK, disclosures are made within institutions shaped by neoliberal and new managerial rationalities. These both force and inhibit speech in a variety of ways. While not over-simplifying neoliberalism and/or over-stating its effects, a key question for our project must be: what does it mean to respond to disclosure in this context?

Silences within the neoliberal institution have been the subject of much discussion. Less often, we explore how HE sector frameworks, practices and cultures are dependent on particular types of disclosures. Evaluation requires information: as Stephen Ball argues, we must make ourselves ‘calculable’ within contemporary performative regimes. The REF demands descriptions of our departmental intellectual homes; the NSS asks students how they feel about our teaching; we represent our ideas and ambitions in particular (or on particular) forms for annual appraisal. Benchmarking exercises such as Athena SWAN and Stonewall Diversity Champions require us to document our successes, admit our failings and promise to fix them. Foucault’s modern confessional comes to mind here: just as we are asked to give up the secrets of our bodies and minds to doctors and psychiatrists, audit culture demands that we give up the secrets of our labour.

Neoliberal rationalities intersect with the gendered cultures of universities. I have written extensively about student ‘lad culture’, contending that within the contemporary university, this often articulates itself through modes of sexual audit. Like other forms of audit, these force particular types of disclosures: ‘conquests’ must be documented and assessed. The notching up of ‘lad points’, Heidi Mirza reminds us, is not restricted to students: retro-sexist masculinities are at play at all levels of the academy, from the bar to the boardroom.

Citing Felly Simmonds, Mirza also reiterates that for those marginalised within academic environments and discourses, legitimacy often depends on disclosing private information. Women of colour, LGBT+ people and others are excluded from the realms of abstract theorising and speech. We are pushed into the personal register, but this position is vulnerable to dismissal and derision. Partly in response, feminism and other resistant political forms have rightly reclaimed the personal as epistemology. However, I have argued that in a neoliberal context in which both knowledge and experience have become capital, personal disclosures can be weaponised within political movements to shore up power and privilege. Disclosure is complex, then, for our engagements with and our resistances against, the neoliberal institution.


Disclosure is exposure. But exposure for whom? We expose ourselves when we disclose what has happened to us. We also have the potential to expose those who have hurt us, at individual and institutional levels, but this is commonly not realised. We fear exposing ourselves but perhaps even more, we fear exposing them: there will be consequences. This thought is often enough to stop us from disclosing in the first place.

Disclosures are situated within reckonings: for survivors and for the institution. The terms of these are frequently dictated by marketised reputational games. The same systems of monitoring and evaluation which demand some disclosures deny others, insisting that everything is presented with a ‘good spin’. This gives rise to the figure Sara Ahmed has named the ‘institutional killjoy’ (a relative of the feminist killjoy), who ruins everything with their complaints. Like disclosure, complaint is a loaded word. As Whitley and Page remind us, it places the focus on those who complain, rather than those who are complained about. Ahmed puts it like this: ‘those who are damaged become the ones who cause damage. And the institutional response can take the form of: damage limitation.’

Institutionally, disclosure is reckoned up as a market problem. As I have previously suggested, this operates at multiple levels, from departmental micro-politics to the grandiose idea of ‘bringing the university into disrepute.’ Disclosures, rather than the acts of sexual violence they refer to, are what is disreputable because economic values have replaced civic ones. Institutional reckonings around disclosure reduce students and staff to fungible objects within cost-benefit frameworks. This means that disclosures are problematic only inasmuch as they threaten the welfare of the institution.

As a result, as Ahmed contends, complaints often become an injury to the offender: this is especially the case if he (and it is usually, but not always, ‘he’) is seen as an asset. Disclosures can take down star Professors or threaten fraternity endowments and sporting success. Citing Code’s work on testimony, Whitley and Page argue that disclosures can eventually become challenges to hegemonic accounts of what a university is. Spin does not survive long in the face of sustained truth-telling: this is the ultimate reputational risk.


One of the ways power operates is to cover some people up. Some of us are used to revealing ourselves: our bodies are marked as public property; experience is our most legitimate source of knowledge. Others are not to be exposed. Whitley and Page point out that confidentiality, while essential to facilitating disclosures, can also operate as a means to protect high-profile individuals and institutions from damage. The ‘laddish’ disclosures I have documented are made by men, but it is women’s bodies which 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 harassment and assault, they are minimised and denied. When we disclose within such power relations, we only expose ourselves.

In a neoliberal institution, layers of bureaucratic leverage are bundled around the powerful. Whitley and Page highlight how hierarchies between staff and students both enable and conceal abuse; student communities are also characterised by varying degrees of social and institutional privilege, as are relations between staff. The manager who sexually harasses you at the Christmas party also allocates your teaching, conducts your annual appraisal, and assesses your requests for research leave. There are more impersonal bureaucratic controls as well, including stressful and opaque complaints processes which mean it is often easier to keep quiet. As Ahmed points out, the word ‘harass’ derives from the French word for ‘tire’ or ‘vex’, and harassment and bullying succeeds by increasing the costs of fighting against it.

I have argued in the past that audit culture also makes it difficult to look up from our desks to support our students and colleagues who are suffering. This, in turn, normalises harassment and assault and 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?’ If boundaries are being crossed in the open, then there is nothing to expose.

It is not surprising, then, that only 4 per cent of UK women students experiencing serious sexual assault report to their universities. This is not just an issue of ‘speaking up’: it is not that simple and it will not be easy to fix. It is about whose speech counts and how, and what kinds of disclosures are elicited and ignored. For our project, there will be a challenge involved in moving beyond the act of disclosure to explore its context. Indeed, disclosure is not just an act: it is an idea and a process which goes to the heart of issues of power and violence in the neoliberal institution.

Article – (Re)theorising laddish masculinities in higher education

This is the Open Access (accepted) version of my article entitled ‘(Re)theorising laddish masculinities in higher education’, published in Gender and Education and available via OnlineFirst to those with institutional access at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09540253.2016.1171298. The abstract is reproduced below, and you can download the OA version of the article by clicking here.

In the context of renewed debates and interest in this area, this paper reframes the theoretical agenda around laddish masculinities in UK higher education, and similar masculinities overseas. These can be contextualised within consumerist neoliberal rationalities, the neoconservative backlash against feminism and other social justice movements, and the postfeminist belief that women are winning the ‘battle of the sexes’. Contemporary discussions of ‘lad culture’ have rightly centred sexism and men’s violence against women: however, we need a more intersectional analysis. In the UK a key intersecting category is social class, and there is evidence that while working-class articulations of laddism proceed from being dominated within alienating education systems, middle-class and elite versions are a reaction to feeling dominated due to a loss of gender, class and race privilege. These are important differences, and we need to know more about the conditions which shape and produce particular performances of laddism, in interaction with masculinities articulated by other social groups. It is perhaps unhelpful, therefore, to collapse these social positions and identities under the banner of ‘lad culture’, as has been done in the past.

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.

Sexism and violence in the neoliberal university

This is the text of a keynote speech delivered at the Sexual Harassment in Higher Education conference at Goldsmiths on December 2nd 2015. Content note for sexually violent language and descriptions of traumatic experiences.


I want to talk about markets. Education markets, institutional markets, sexual markets: brought together by similar modes of assessment and audit. University league tables; module evaluation forms; ‘sex charts’ in student residences. Hierarchies of performance (which are often hierarchies of masculinity) at national, institutional and individual levels.

Rate your university. Rate your lecturer. Rate Your Shag.

2013 saw the emergence of a number of Facebook pages under the latter slogan, linked to universities across the country. They offered a space for students to give sexual liaisons marks out of ten based on any criteria, and were ‘liked’ by about 20,000 users of the social network in the first 72 hours. The activity was supposed to be anonymous, but privacy quickly evaporated under the instruction to ‘name them, shame them and if you must, praise them.’

Name them and shame them. All the pages were rapidly deleted by Facebook, deemed to contravene its policies on bullying and harassment. Unsolicited evaluation is bullying and harassment. Unsolicited evaluation is also very 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.’

Rate Your Shag forms part of a whole lexicon of activities which in the past few years have been grouped under the banner of ‘lad culture’. Sports initiations, ‘pimps and hos’ parties, the ‘fuck a fresher’ frenzy, for example. Such pursuits express traditional forms of sexism and male entitlement, but they are also inflected with something else. ‘Sex charts’ are appearing in student residences, to quantify and assess conquests. Women are being given grades and ratings for their physical 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.’ These forms of sexual audit evoke our contemporary marketised environment. ‘Lad culture’ and neoliberal culture are natural bedfellows.

Unsolicited evaluation is bullying and harassment. Constant evaluation is bullying and harassment. Contemporary ‘lad culture’ was defined by one of my research participants as a ‘hostile environment where everyone is judging everyone else.’ This also describes cultures amongst higher education staff, alienated by institutional and sectoral frameworks that constantly measure them against each other and against the curve. 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 criteria for assessment exercises such as the REF 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 staff in universities was rife. This reflects both traditional hierarchies and abuses of power, and newer forms of competitive individualism which lack empathy and ethics. The university has become a dog-eat-dog environment; this is reflected in both staff and student communities. We know less about the prevalence of staff-on-student harassment, due to the institutionalised power relations which work against it even being named. However, we know it exists: and high profile examples, mostly from the US, give a sense of how these modes of violence work.

Consider the case of famous Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy, a potential Nobel laureate who persistently violated the institution’s sexual harassment policies between 2001 and 2010. According to one student’s account, she was at a department dinner when Marcy slid his hand up her thigh and grabbed her crotch.

For many women, this entitlement to touch is familiar. Such ‘everyday’ boundary-crossings are also central to ‘lad culture’, although more often performed in public as part of group one-upmanship. Many of my research participants described such ‘casual groping’ as part and parcel of a normal night out. Indeed, such behaviours have become so commonplace that they are often invisible: instead, the aspect of ‘lad culture’ which has captured the media and public consciousness is its cruel and shocking ‘banter’. This laddish language taps both the violence of hypermasculinity and the callousness of the neoliberal climate.

‘Uni Lad does not condone rape without saying ‘surprise.”

Non-consensual sex is ‘fun for one.’

I’m going out to ‘get some gash.’

The marketised university is a culture based on ‘having’ or ‘getting’ (grades and/or jobs), in which education has become a transactional exchange. This is reflected in the rather estranged ‘lad cultures’ I have studied, with older ideas about ‘having’ women augmented by newer notions of accumulating sexual capital. The principle of maximum outcomes for minimal effort which now underpins educational consumption also animates the quest for an ‘easy lay’.

I’m going out to ‘get some gash’.

In laddish ‘banter’, ancient expressions of woman-hating co-exist with more modern sexualised consumerism, packaged up in postmodern claims to irony. Such ‘banter’ has also been observed amongst some faculty cultures – for instance, the Being a Woman in Philosophy blog, a repository for stories of sexism in the discipline, recounts a comic containing a rape joke being sent to a junior faculty member by a philosopher at another institution, copied to all the other members of her department. In another entry, a recent philosophy graduate recalls a conversation about a job application essay with her previous head of department, in which chose to illustrate a point about how two people’s wills could conflict with the example of him raping her. Finally, in a post entitled ‘a sampling of minor incidents’, another student describes a faculty member stopping his lecture to ask her, ‘did you just flash me?’ because she adjusted her cardigan, and a famous professor discussing with male students which female students were ‘hot’ and which were ‘dogs’.

In this context, it’s perhaps unsurprising that University of Miami philosophy professor Colin McGinn, said to have subjected a female doctoral student to months of unwanted innuendo and propositions, defined the relationship as ‘warm, consensual’ and ‘full of banter’.

Don’t worry – it’s just banter.

What is the line between ‘banter’ and sexual harassment? In my research on ‘lad cultures’ amongst students, and also in media debates, the second has often been reduced to the first. There has also been a refusal to engage with how speech itself can be harmful, and how the realm of the symbolic can frame structural and embodied violence – instead, we often find ourselves on the back foot in debates about men’s rights to ‘cause offence’. Women are always getting offended by something or other.

In 2012, the Imperial College newspaper Felix published a ‘joke’ article providing male students with a recipe for the date rape drug rohypnol, as a ‘foolproof way’ to have sex on Valentine’s Day. The previous year an Exeter University society printed a ‘shag mag’ including an article speculating about how many calories a man could burn by stripping a woman naked without her consent.

When the Facebook page ‘Holyland Lad Stories’ (currently ‘liked’ by almost 30,000 users) was criticised on Twitter, its curators responded ‘get a fucking grip – we’re having a bit of harmless banter.’ Amongst the content highlighted as problematic was a post describing an incident in which a man had knocked a woman ‘clean out with one smack’ and left her for dead on the side of the road.

Get a fucking grip – it’s just banter.

To ‘offend’ with impunity is a function and exercise of privilege. This applies to the invisibilising and excusing of sexual violence perpetrated by middle class white men, and the insistence of all privileged groups that their ignorant, hurtful and harmful comments about marginalised people are ‘just my opinion’ or ‘just a joke.’ It is a cruel irony that only those with the social, cultural and political power to hurt other groups get to evade responsibility for it. This irony was recently painfully apparent when Goldsmith’s Welfare and Diversity Officer Bahar Mustafa was arrested and charged for allegedly tweeting on the #killallwhitemen hashtag. The discrepancy between the punitive treatment of Bahar and the amused indulgence of laddish ‘banter’ is a stark reminder of the ways in which ‘free speech’ is the property of some and not others.

Kill all white men.

It’s not rape if you shout ‘surprise’.

Structural relations of gender and race inequality render one of these a much more credible threat than the other. Indeed, they make the first statement an understandable expression of frustration about a racist and misogynist society, while the second is evidence of it. Nevertheless, the political hyperbole of ‘killallwhitemen’ became a crime, while laddish banter is defended as an exercise of freedom.

Oh, get a fucking grip – it’s just banter.

The privilege to offend is often wielded in response to privilege being threatened: in this, contemporary ‘laddish’ masculinities are marked out from working class laddism, which has been seen as more to do with alienation. The main players in the recent theatre of student laddism in the UK are middle class and white, progeny of the 1990s ‘new lad’ and the Bullingdon Club toffs. These rugby players, drinking and debating society ‘bros’ are also siblings of the frat boys in the US who are central to debates there about campus violence.

The aggressive sexism these privileged men perpetrate in student social spaces can be defined as a ‘strategic misogyny’. Sexual harassment very often functions to preserve masculine power and space. Our ‘uni lads’ enact the backlash against feminism, embodying populist and policy concerns about the ‘crisis of masculinity’ and the ‘feminisation’ of HE. Feminism has gone too far.

Contemporary laddism is a defensive strategy by those accustomed to topping the ranks, threatened by both the reality and the hyperbole of women’s achievement, the idea and practice of ‘widening participation’ and the increasingly blurred lines (no pun intended) of gender and sexuality amongst student and youth cultures. Laddism is an equal-opportunity offender, rooted in sexism but often incorporating racism, classism, transphobia and homophobia as well.

Feminism has gone too far.

Boys need to be protected.

There is evidence that in reaction to these ideas (and also in fear of their ‘disruptive’ working class and black contemporaries), white middle class boys are being hothoused by parents who see them as frail and imperilled. Boys need to be protected.

This propensity to feel threatened is palpable in both ‘lad culture’s unmistakable ‘woman rage’ and the way critics of laddish behaviours have been vilified as censorious, creepy and a menace to freedom. We must catch the grain of truth here – feminist initiatives, especially in the area of anti-violence, have sometimes been co-opted by prevailing moral panics and carceral projects. However, first and foremost laddish defensiveness is part of the anti-feminist backlash, and a dialectic between student communities perceived as excessively ‘politically correct’ because of their advocacy for the marginalised, and the privileged who experience this liberatory politics as oppression. They are not to be evaluated.

They just can’t say anything any more.

Oh, get a fucking grip – it’s just banter.

A similar reformulation of critique and resistance as oppression has been identified by Sara Ahmed in the way that some male academics have responded to equality initiatives in higher education. Anti-discrimination, sexual harassment and other diversity policies can be resisted alongside more problematic new managerialist reforms which threaten scholarly autonomy. Elite male professors become the victims within narratives of restricted freedom and nostalgia for a ‘simpler time’ when their rights to do as they wished were not curtailed. Feminism has gone too far. Political correctness is out of control.

As Ahmed argues, these critiques often settle on ‘complaining’ students who are seen as entitled and demanding, even in their appeals for equality. This location of neoliberalism in the consumerist student serves to hide the fact that, as Whitley and Page contend, academics also benefit from new bureaucratic regimes which cement their power over students and make it difficult for students to speak out.

The costs of speaking out are illustrated in a heartbreaking post by a PhD student on the Being a Woman in Philosophy blog:

I just want to caution those of you out there who are thinking about coming forward to report sexual predators. Expect your department to turn on you; expect your department to retaliate against you. Expect to be bad mouthed at every PhD program to which you apply. Expect to lose your committee. Expect to lose your letter writers. Expect your department to withdraw all support from you. Expect to become persona non grata. Expect to be de facto barred from all opportunities in your department. Expect to be gas-lighted. Expect people to be thrilled to watch your fall from grace. And, then, when you succeed, against all odds, and despite the prodigious efforts of your department to the contrary, through sheer force of will and talent, expect your department to exploit your success at every opportunity. Expect to watch as your success is used to further the career of the predator. Expect them to ignore your pleas to stop. Expect this.

In an article about being sexually harassed by her PhD supervisor, Susan Gardner writes that once she changed supervisors she was disappointed to find that her new one was not keen to support her or even discuss what she had been through, ostensibly for fear that it might impact on her ability to get tenure. In this country, similar structures of probation and performance management can make colleagues reluctant to step out of line. Furthermore, the developing ‘pressure-cooker culture’ for senior colleagues and fears about casualisation for junior ones have created an individualism which may mean that academics turn a blind eye to difficult issues while trying to keep our jobs (at best) and advance our careers (at worst).

I began my research and activism on sexual violence against students around ten years ago, and was immediately struck by how difficult it was to get colleagues (of any gender) to show interest in, let alone take action on, issues which did not directly affect them. I have vivid memories of giving a talk to a meeting of mostly senior women, in which the customary noises of outrage failed to materialise as action. In contrast, shortly afterwards I was inundated with input and offers of help as I drafted a consultation document around maternity leave and the REF.

I am not taking the moral high ground or pointing the finger; there are plenty of issues I have overlooked. Individuals are not to blame for this, especially not women and academics from other marginalised groups for whom university life is still a struggle. The constant evaluation of the neoliberal regime makes it difficult for us look up from our desks, let alone take on the institution in what is usually a losing battle. Constant evaluation creates silence.

Higher education markets, epitomised by league tables, ensure that bullying, harassment and violence are minimised and rendered invisible. They become a PR issue, hushed up for the sake of recruitment and reputation. In a context of widespread denial, nobody wants to risk their campus being defined as ‘unsafe’. In the US, despite a legislative framework mandating the publication of campus crime statistics which is more than 20 years old, institutions continue to be criticised for covering these up, or encouraging students to drop complaints, in order to preserve their market position.

The result of this is what Ahmed has pointed out: bringing a problem to institutional attention frequently means becoming the problem. This operates at multiple levels, from departmental micro-politics to the rather grandiose idea of ‘bringing the university into disrepute.’ Feminist killjoys and whinging women are bringing the university into disrepute – as if the prevalence of violence in the higher education sector has not brought us all into disrepute already.

We are all in disrepute already!

Amidst this denial and silencing, it is not surprising that only 4 per cent of women students experiencing serious sexual assault report to their institutions. Whitley and Page add that the stress and opacity of complaints processes is also a deterrent to reporting, and the demands of student support systems can make it difficult for victims not to just drop out.

Furthermore, trends towards the outsourcing of essential services such as campus security and student support threaten student safety and the quality of pastoral care. Commercial service providers tend to offer one-size-fits-all solutions, set within cost-cutting business models. This is a particularly bleak picture in relation to student counselling, already outsourced in Northern Ireland, where burned out practitioners on depressed wages are offering a reduced range of services in a context of growing psychological demand.

In the neoliberal university though, it’s all about the bottom line. Supporting students costs money. Complaining students cost reputation (and threaten income streams). There is a cost/benefit equation here.

But whose cost counts?

Sexual harassment and violence in higher education are situated within cost/benefit frameworks which prioritise the welfare of the institution. Incidents must be hushed up lest they jeopardise our recruitment. Incidents must be hushed up lest they damage our reputation. ‘A Star Philosopher Falls’ was the way Colin McGinn, who resigned after allegations of ongoing sexual harassment, was described.

Allegations of sexual harassment and violence pose a cost to the institution. But who pays the price?

Victims and survivors do: most of them women. This price is high. It could be the loss of departmental support for research, the breakdown of a supervisory team, or the inability to go on to campus for fear of running into the perpetrator. Often, the price is so high that it is less costly to leave. There is a term for this – institutional betrayal – and it has been shown to hugely exacerbate trauma. That’s the bottom line – we are betraying our students.

In an article in Time Magazine, Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University student who carried her mattress around campus for 8 months to protest against the handling of her rape complaint, described her experience as follows:

Every day, I am afraid to leave my room. Even seeing people who look remotely like my rapist scares me. Last semester I was working in the dark room in the photography department. Though my rapist wasn’t in my class, he asked permission from his teacher to come and work in the dark room during my class time. I started crying and hyperventilating. As long as he’s on campus with me, he can continue to harass me.

We are betraying these students.

Institutional betrayal does not just refer to responses to sexual assault, but the fact that universities actively create conditions which are conducive to it. This can be experienced as a betrayal more acute than the lack of institutional response. As Sulkowicz said of Columbia: ‘they’re more concerned about their public image than keeping people safe.’

We are definitely betraying these students.

We are also shirking our legal responsibilities – according to the End Violence Against Women Coalition, the Public Sector Equality Duty and Human Rights Act both mandate universities to deal with gender-based and sexual violence.

How do we move forward? The student movement in this country is consistently showing us the way – under the leadership of and inspired by the NUS Women’s Campaign, we now have consent education initiatives, bystander intervention training, awareness-raising projects, ‘zero tolerance’ pledges, and an effort to develop better policies and procedures. However, most of this activity is student-run: many institutions have yet to take any action at all.

In September this year, the Business Secretary asked Universities UK to convene a task force to tackle ‘lad culture’ and violence against women on university campuses. This task force has been tasked with developing a code of practice for institutions to support cultural change.

Support cultural change. This is a big idea. We need to think big on this.

Sexual harassment and violence in the higher education sector is primarily about gender. We need to think big about gender, confronting misogyny and male entitlement in our university communities, and connecting them with gendered norms and inequalities in society at large. We need to think big about how gender intersects with other power structures and oppressions: the racism, classism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia of ‘lad culture’ are evidence of this. Thinking big about gender also requires us to acknowledge that although women are very often its victims, sexual and gender-based violence affects students of all genders. There is evidence from the US suggesting that transgender, genderqueer, gender non-conforming and gender questioning students who do not identify as women face high levels of risk: this is a gender issue.

We also need to engage with neoliberalism, as it shapes the higher education sector in general and institutions in particular. Sexual harassment and violence in higher education is situated within the culture of constant evaluation. Gender relations are practised via the marketised and managerialist structures of the university, which aggravate inter-group resentments, exacerbate the abuse of hierarchies, and intensify the silencing of victims.

We cannot tackle sexism and violence in the higher education sector properly without looking honestly at neoliberal values and how these shape dysfunctional and harmful communities. Constant evaluation facilitates bullying and harassment. Constant evaluation is bullying and harassment.

Finally, we need to be aware of the risk that anti-violence initiatives will get caught up in, and depoliticised by, that culture of monitoring and evaluation. Let’s set a target. Let’s tick that box. Let’s run a workshop and put it in the Annual Report. We need to resist the temptation to get our house in order, to perform what should shake the institution to its core. Although effective advocacy often involves compromise, women have been put in enough compromising positions already. It will take more than this.

Let’s not just get our house in order. Let’s tear the whole damn building down. Who’s with me?