A couple of years ago, I wrote Campus Sex/Campus Security — a short, performative text which addresses the braiding of discourse on sexual vulnerability and campus security. People sometimes ask me about the way the book is written. I do not dwell on my own experience with the campus complaint system. That fact defies the expectations that some readers bring to a book concerned with Title IX administration, harassment and campus sexual culture.
I have also been in conversation with students about this book — I have the impression that it gets a lot of classroom use, and that campus activists read it. (Nothing could make me happier.) Readers — especially student readers — have asked me challenging questions — questions which speak to the intensity of the fall out when people abuse each other’s trust, and when that abuse is sexualized. Over the past few months I’ve been writing in response to those questions — I think I’ve been trying to write out something like a methodology. I’ve decided to share that work here. This is less an essay than a survey of some of the defining aspects of harassment dynamics and the situation of trying to write about them.
[Note: I’ll be editing this for a few days after I post this. I’m using this as a place to develop clarity, hopefully in conversation with readers. There is a lot of contradiction to the topics I’m addressing here and it is a real challenge to try to parse them out. Major revisions on 7/2, 7/5, 7/12]
Harassment Dynamics and the Institution
People tend to assume they know what harassment is. Living with harassment, however, will teach you that each case is different and that harassment is complex, profoundly social and adaptive. Harassment can seem baked into an institution’s culture — at times it appears to function as a kind of regulation which marks who belongs and who does not. (This is an explicit aspect of mainstream sports culture.) Anti-harassment activism on college campuses aims to reveal and unravel this tie between harassment as a behavior (confined to the story of one person’s abusive conduct and another person’s victimization) and harassment as an aspect of institutional culture (in which harassment reproduces and enforces already existing forms of bias).
Harassment, bullying and stalking are all process-based: the boundaries around these processes are unclear. It can be hard to explain when and why it started. Miserable events accumulate — toxic advising interactions, quid-pro-quo forms of sexual harassment, unwanted advances which persist over the victim’s objection, sexual assault, professional forms of abuse. Sometimes individual events don’t appear, in and of themselves, to be all that alarming. An email. A note. Some weird gossip. A slightly inappropriate remark. A request for a date. An expression of attraction. But for the target, they pile up. One person transgresses a professional boundary. The other pushes back. An apology is issued, and then it starts again. Incidents assemble into a history and seem to predict a future: a future in which harassment never ends. A future in the profession which is contingent upon living with harassment.
Experiences of harassment, bullying and stalking intensify and generalize the victim’s experience of vulnerability. This is particularly intense within a hierarchical organization like a college or university. For students, this sense of “it will never end” can map onto “until I graduate” or “unless I quit school.” One must endure, or not — what it means to not endure it — that might mean dropping out, quitting. It might mean filing a complaint — but filing a complaint will mean enduring more. Victims of this kind of abusive behavior may find that the environment around them feels poisoned. It may, in some ways, actually be poisoned. To victims, it can appear as if a faculty member’s abusive/bullying conduct has been tolerated by their discipline, department, college, etc.
This is a terrible experience, and it is not that uncommon. The difference between an institution’s discriminatory culture and an individual’s behavior can be really hard to discern when the institution fails to respond to the latter.
The institution’s discourse tends to presume that harassment and discrimination are aberrations — that they are rare, and that a harassment-free and bias-free workplace/classroom is the norm. The institution responds to harassment cases with a policy adjustment designed to prevent future harassment.
No policy will eliminate harassment. It can only administer and manage. I wonder if any large, intensely hierarchal organization — especially a university which has a claim on the idea of the establishment (on a sense of the ordering of the world) — could ever be free from harassment.
I am not especially paranoid by disposition — I don’t see harassment lurking in every interaction. A paranoid relationship to harassment is sustained by an all-or-nothing sense of harassment. One is on the constant look-out for things that could be harassing; every instance of harassment is freighted with an enormous amount of meaning. The risk averse language of the institution can foster this attitude.
A frank, non-defensive relationship to harassment, however, might yield something different — it might yield imaginative, generous practices. It might make talking about encounters with abusive behavior easier and more productive.
The challenge of the university, as an institution, is that every classroom is defined by a history of exclusion. That fact haunts harassment cases. We notice who is in our classrooms, and who is not. Who got in. Who didn’t. We might reflect on what happened to make being in school, or in our school, impossible for individuals and for whole communities. First generation students, in particular, are acutely aware of this question.
It is not that every person who doesn’t get through the door is a victim of harassment — though some people will have been. I’m saying more nearly that within an institution, harassment hums with the histories of exclusion which define the institution. Harassment is haunted by the threat of exile, expulsion, isolation. Harassment has an intimate relationship with discrimination.
Harassment-free/bias-free workplaces/classrooms are utopian ideals towards which we can always only strive. If you see that work as part of the everyday cultivation of each other’s wellbeing, that work need not be crisis driven; it need not be defensive. It can actually be joyful, generous even when it is difficult. The anti-harassment organization must have a very fluid, dynamic relationship to its own institutionality — to its own stability, to its own sense of order. This kind of practice might not be something a large institution will effect from the top down, but organizational groups within that institution (e.g. departments) can certainly create a space that is far, far more imaginative, creative and welcoming than that created when one does only what the law requires — only what keeps our work from being unlawful.
Students might have better access to this kind of dynamism — students are acutely aware of the temporariness of their time on campus, their community changes from year to year, and they are not burdened with the inertia of conservative forms of institutional memory. Students push against that inertia every day.
The school must change with students — often this change is brought about by student activism, through student resistance and intervention. Sometimes change happens because teachers and student affairs staff reach out to students, listen and collaborate. Anti-harassment activism is a part of a wave of campus-based activism effecting change, and should be seen in relation to other forms of campus action: actions supporting undocumented people, abolitionist movements, movements forcing universities like Yale and Princeton to confront their racist roots. These movements are not the same — they may in some cases be in tension with each other. But these movements are changing campuses all over the country — in my view, for the better.
Thinking out loud here (in response to faculty resistance to anti-harassment activism): Activists working in student organizations sometimes have more experience with forms of accountability, with experiments in group-work than faculty — sometimes faculty can resent being asked to be accountable to the university’s culture — it feels like so much more work. It requires a different kind of expertise than that which most of us acquired in our graduate training. Furthermore, faculty, at least in my experience (working at a large public institution), do not see themselves as the authors of a campus culture. So, meeting a student-led push to transform campus culture will feel burdensome. It requires a form of labor, furthermore, for which the university cannot account. It is work that doesn’t count. You do not get promoted as a scholar for doing this kind of work. In fact, this kind of diversity work — especially when it is performed in response to a crisis (filing a complaint, supporting a colleague’s/student’s complaint) can feel like a disruption of work. It is. Imagine putting “filed sexual harassment complaint against X, saw complaint process to its completion with ambiguous result” down on your c.v.!
For the victim, harassment interferes with work and while filing a complaint is meant to make work possible, that also interferes with work. Absorbing harassment and resisting harassment meet each other on this point: through harassment we encounter the organization’s underbelly — we encounter the foundational disavowals which define labor, value — we encounter the institution’s mythologies and our investments in them. (I’ve been taking this up in more academic work.)
Ideologically, work and sex are situated as mutually exclusive — sex work is the exception which proves the rule. Sex and work are positioned as things that cannot be in the same place at the same time. This is a central problem in Marxist feminist work. In Marxist feminist scholarship, one must attend not only to the situation of the person who labors, but for the people who labor in order to make that person’s labor possible. The latter is reproductive labor — the labor of clothing, feeding, caring for, nurturing, birthing, rearing etc. All that unpaid/underpaid labor is hidden in the paradigmatic worker’s wage. Sexualized harassment exploits this division of productive and reproductive labor — the submerged world of care, sexual life, housework. Anti-harassment work confronts the disavowals and contradictions which ground the institution — I think it is one place where we experience the limits of what work is — the limits of what can be known as work.
This division of labor is also important to understanding the operations of racial capital — meaning, among other things, the articulation of race and sex in relation to each other within an institution requiring the production of black bodies, of racialized bodies which it might assemble into its machinery as raw material — the systematization of sex and violence in relation to black people’s bodies. Discourse on sexual vulnerability and safety is that history’s murderous instrument. Campus Sex/Campus Security is meant to push the reader to think about this. That form of crisis is important to the project of CS/CS: it is that book’s starting place. This is one reason I do not focus on my own experience of harassment. While racial dynamics impacted my case — the way sympathy might or might not mobilize around me as a figure has a lot to do with whiteness, gender, authority and power, for example. But to discuss my “case” would have derailed the story of the racialization of the discourse of campus sex and campus security. It might also have invited the revivifying of the harassment to which I had been subjected (and which thankfully stopped).
Escalation, Disavowal, Trolling
If I am writing now about why CS/CS is written the way it’s written, it is in part because people (mainly in my own circles) have been asking me to speak about Laura Kipnis’s work Unwanted Advances. For a lot of reasons (some of which I describe here), I would rather focus on my own work. The problems with Unwanted Advances have been addressed by the philosopher Jonathan Ichikawa and a few others. There are so many differences between our books — I think the only thing we have in common is that we were both the subject of Title IX investigations (I filed a complaint and one was filed against me in response) and we both write about sexual politics. We have this in common with Jane Gallop. (Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment was important to me and I recommend it.) In writing CS/CS, I worked to minimize the risk that the book might re-activate the harassment dynamic in my own life, and that I also not risk aggravating the harassment dynamics operating around the cases I engaged. By the time I wrote the book, almost all had been resolved, at least administratively. I had tried to write about ongoing cases at Northwestern and at Columbia, but I threw that writing out. The only thing that work was doing was seasoning the text with juicy writing about sex scandals. I felt that my writing sounded like a so-so episode of Law & Order: SVU. So, that material had to go.
The biggest methodological challenge to writing about harassment — especially if you are writing about recent or (even harder) ongoing cases of harassment — is writing without contributing to, intensifying and escalating the harassment dynamic. Shadowing that problem is the more local issue of what saying nothing does — for, let’s say you are in a situation in which a colleague is being harassed. If you say something, you will become involved — as a witness and, possibly, as a target of harassment. When you write about harassment cases, in other words, you become involved in that case — whether you know it or not. When you sit down to write about harassment, you should think about the function of your work in relation to that story’s harassment dynamic.
Most people back away from situations in which speaking up about harassment risks becoming involved in harassment. This, however, is one of the primary conditions of possibility for harassment’s continuation. Bullying and harassment are not simple conflicts between two people. These are social dynamics which concentrate around an agent and an object of harassment. A community makes harassment possible. People in and close to that community have an obligation to intervene.
When I was at the nadir of my experience of being harassed, I came across the following passage in an essay on risk management and stalking. I’ve shared it often, because it helped me to articulate why the language of conflict — so often used to tell harassment’s story — was so very unhelpful. It is also suggests how the problem of harassment dynamics can be aggravated in an intensely articulated hierarchal environment like a school, especially where that school attempts to intervene through processes that take the shape of mediation.
There is a conflict between the stalker’s desires and the victim’s interests, but they are at one in being at risk of damage from the stalking situation. There can be a tragic symmetry between the victim forced to live an increasingly restricted life in a state of constant fear and the stalker’s devoting all his or her time and resources to a futile and ultimately frustrating pursuit. Both the victim’s and the perpetrator’s lives can be laid waste. This is not to argue for equivalence between victim and perpetrator. In stalking, there are real victims and real perpetrators; one offends and the other is offended against. However, they share the chance of disaster. These perspectives, which encompass the risks to stalkers and victims, have the advantage for health professionals of minimizing the ethical dilemma concerning whose interests one is serving: the patient’s or the victim’s. (Paul Mullen, Rachel Mackenzie, James Ogloff, Michele Pathé, Troy McEwan and Rosemary Purcell, “Assessing and Managing the Risks in the Stalking Situation” in Journal of American Academy of Psychiatry Law 34:439-50, 2006)
People sometimes rationalize doing nothing using this sense of ethical conflict: reducing a case to some version of he said/she said, the fact of harassment itself is dissolved into a cloud of uncertainty regarding whose “side” one should take.
Harassment and bullying do not always intensify into a form of stalking — but they share the geometry described above and they are worsened when the group holding harassment gets stuck in this impasse. People tend to sink into this sense of a conflict (between accused and accuser) and absolve themselves of any responsibility to the issue by leaning into their own sense of uncertainty. The above description of the stalking dynamic emphasizes the behavior itself as the problem. By shifting one’s thinking to the behavior, one begins to find a way out of an impasse.
The person who harasses and bullies has an investment in the harassment dynamic, they have an investment in framing their behavior in terms of conflict. If the group within which harassment unfolds frames the crisis only in terms of conflict — they risk amplifying the harassment dynamics. The victim usually, at minimum, wants to the harassment to stop; they want to be left alone. But the person invested in the harassment dynamic wants to keep the harassment dynamic going — in a very bad case, the harasser’s investment is only this. There is no negotiating that problem, there is no “resolution” because there can be no giving this person what they want — the simply harassment has to stop.
Harassment can escalate and intensify around the confrontations intended to make it stop. Filing a harassment complaint, for example, is, in a bad case, going to guarantee an escalation in the harassment dynamic. The victim will be drawn into a harassment dynamic: harrassment will make this impossible to avoid. A whole community has to work together to support the victim and the community’s own integrity through the process of bringing harassment to a stop.
All too often, the group witnessing harassment will respond to the crisis as a simple conflict — as if, if only the victim cooperated and were amenable, things would be OK. In fact, the group may concentrate its anger and resentment on the victim because their resistance to harassment is what makes it surface as a problem. By treating harassment as conflict the group operates as a conduit for the harassment dynamic. This is to say that if a community is not intentional in its response to harassment, it is at risk of intensifying and escalating it.
Bullying and harassment are enabled by a group’s passive complicity. In my experience, this takes the form of a disavowal. This is a serious issue for communities impacted by harassment — they bear a collective responsibility for what happened but acknowledging this is painful. The case at Penn State is the most intense example of this — when I read reports on that case, I see a lot of men who knew Sandusky was abusing the boys he was “mentoring” and who disavowed the fact that they knew. Disavowal is a very powerful psychic phenomenon. It is not a question of knowing and pretending one doesn’t know. It is more nearly not having the capacity to be present to what one knows. Penn State’s football program is cult-like — it is a whole way of life organized around the lionization of its patriarchs. A man in that circle exploited his position to groom and abuse vulnerable youth — a wide circle of people were psychically invest in maintaining a structure which protected the abuser. What does it mean to confront this if you are a part of that structure?
Confronting sexual harassment and sexual abuse within intensely hierarchical and often deeply patriarchal structures is genuinely challenging — at stake are people’s senses of themselves, their work and the institutions which organize their lives. Writing about things of that order should be difficult. The stakes are high for everyone invested in the Penn State’s patriarchal figureheads: if people will defend these men to a point that defies reason it is because they have an intense investment in them. Those men give them a sense of who they are — that is why they are called father figures.
That collective disavowal allows harassment dynamics to flourish and intensify. It is harassment’s condition of possibility. When the only person who complains is the victim because everyone else is afraid of becoming one themselves, the entire community becomes harassment’s medium.
The stakes in the collective disavowal which is the precondition for the flourishing of a harassment dynamic are high. Writing about harassment dynamics within a specific, high-profile community (like Penn State’s football program) will almost certainly mean that you will become a target of trolling. This, however, is not a reason not to write about these stories at all. But as a writer, when you receive this kind of trolling, you have to bear in mind the effects of your response.
Engaging stories about harassment, bullying and sexual abuse especially within sexist, tightly knit or intensely defined communities (sports, certain academic scenes, gaming) will expose you to harassment and bullying. It is isolating. Every feminist writer who has written about sexual violence in sports has experience with being trolled — with receiving rape threats, death threats. The worst trolling I’ve gotten was in relation to my writing about a case of sexual violence within an MMA gym community. Every now and again, four years later, creepy comments about that article pop up on my blog — I believe those comments are from fans or friends of the accused (possibly the accused himself). I am an aggressive moderator. I do not publish comments which insult/escalate. I do not publish sexist/homophobic/transphobic or racist comments. Sometimes I don’t publish comments because I don’t like them. I curate the comments sections on all of my blogs. No post of mine will turn into a forum for harassment. (See Anil Dash’s helpful guidelines for keeping your blog free of harassing discourse.) It is a shame — a crying shame — that this is not the standard blogging practice. Most editors are eager to stir up controversy — and so blogging platforms and sensational media outlets will publish stories on harassment cases hoping to stir shit up in the impacted community. It makes for entertaining reading — for everyone except victims and their communities. For us (and yes, this has happened to my department), those social media platforms extend and deepen the crisis.
What Is It About Title IX?: (More) Disavowal, Segregation and the Division of Labor
Title IX looks simple: it bans sex-based discrimination in schools. As students, staff and faculty take up primary language of this ban, however, they force institutions to take on genuinely challenging questions like: What is sex? What is sexual? What constitutes consent?
Title IX’s passage led to the recognition of sexual harassment as a form of sex-based discrimination and to the recognition of the failure to address sexual violence within school communities as also, potentially, discriminatory. The challenge of administering Title IX is a feminist problem. By this I mean: Title IX attempts to regulate sexism out of existence. Nothing short of a dramatic re-organization of our lives would bring this about. So much about its administration is confusing, so much about the application of this law feels invasive. If you were really going to eliminate the use of sex as a barrier to access to educational opportunity, you’d have to re-imagine what school is! Of course aspects of Title IX enforcement feel like a threat to the academic’s way of life. That’s just what it is — this piece of legislation (like all legislation banning sex and race-based forms of discrimination) is written as if the structures of power and authority which organize our lives were not fundamentally sexist and racist. Adding to this — racist and sexist organizations/institutions are charged with enforcing these bans against racism and sexism. Of course it’s a mess.
Now, this isn’t how the Title IX officer at my university looks at it. That isn’t how the Department of Education looks at it. That’s how I see it, as a feminist theorist committed to ideology critique.
A friend who works as an investigator once told me that every complaint is a “situation.” People who address harassment within their organizations by engaging its systems create a situation for that organization. They create a problem — that’s how it feels for the institution. Even if the people administering a complaint are sympathetic, the institution itself responds to a complaint as a problem. It’s structural; it’s environmental; it’s affective. The person who says “there’s a problem” is, in other words, at risk of embodying the problem — and that’s the problem. That’s how sexism and racism work.
So much contradiction inhabits the complainant’s situation.
Title IX forces school communities to confront the disavowal of that fact that schools are sexual communities — that disavowal is sexism’s foundation. This is paradoxical, because, at the same time, within Title IX regulation sex often appears as a violent intrusion on a non-sexual space.
The culture of school is defined by a disavowal of the school as a sexual space. Thus girls, in particular, are subject to dress codes. No visible bra straps, is a common one — anyone who has worn a bra is likely to know the fidgety worry about this undergarment. Straps that slip off the shoulder, that don’t cooperate up with your outfit’s neckline. The question of what a bra strap is — is it the same if what you wear on your chest is closer to sports bra? The sexual body is policed, aggressively — in a sexist environment, bodies marked as female, feminine and queer create noise and static as they move through that institutional space.
School is the site of so much humiliation on this point. Debilitating anxiety about menstruating through one’s clothes, anxiety about using school bathrooms (which can be the site of sexual harassment and homo/transphobic violence), the misery of having large breasts — students who are marked as sexual subjects struggle to feel welcome in school. One’s sexualization is experienced as at odds with one’s capacity to work and learn: school policy and social practice will reinforce that feeling. In sexist spaces, sex is conjured through intensely structured social rituals and symbolically expelled. All too often gender non-conforming students and students of color are forced into this scapegoating role.
We accept this division of sex and work/school in our day-to-day lives — indeed, it is all but impossible to function professionally without participating in that disavowal. (An important exception: feminist communities practicing sex work.) The maintenance of this collective disavowal of the fact that we are always sexual subjects comes at a cost — this disavowal intensifies the sexualization of subjects in a minority position within the space of school and work (as bodies who don’t belong, as bodies who belong to the space behind or underneath those structures). The story of the collusion of Penn State staff and administrators with years of sexual abuse is one example of what this level of disavowal can enable. The overwhelming domination of certain fields by men is another.
As a queer theorist, I have been struck by the way sex and race are segregated from each other in discourse on campus sex and campus security. Even in the above paragraphs — whose body feels sexual on a campus, and why, is racialized. Whose suffering is normalized is racialized. Whose body represents a threat to the stability of the forms of disavowal and exclusion which give an organization its sense of stability and cohesion is racialized. Whose body is recognizably sexual is racialized. This segregation of race and sex from each other in conversations about the campus should signal a problem — when this happens, something has really gone off the rails. When this happens, we enable the enlistment of a racialized discourse of risk and threat in the service of sexualized discourse of security and safety.
The Form of Campus Sex/Campus Security
Campus Sex/Campus Security is meant to be read out loud. It is written as a Jeremiad: it should give the reader a sense of a world in which the moral high ground is poisoned. I want the reader to feel a sense of urgency in that — not (only) because the world is corrupt, but because, for me, a queer ethics requires removing oneself from that particular space of entitlement. The book is unusual for me — I hardly use the first person. The book’s preface (which I wrote at the editor’s request) describes the situation which brought me to writing the book — I was stalked by a student, a campus committee indulged a discussion of my breasts, hair, sex life and scholarship on their way to deciding that I wasn’t, in fact, being harassed. That committee’s behavior has, actually, had a heavier impact on my working life than the original crisis. That’s not unusual for complaints — they tend to produce compound injuries. The harm produced around harassment can escalate as it is scaled up from a person’s abusive conduct to an institution’s.
Most of the sentences in Campus Sex/Campus Security are short. The writing is descriptive. It is cut with an occasional flash of speculative thinking (“What would it require of the world for sexual violence to mean less? What part of it would be gradated? Would it be less sexual? Less violent? Less absolute? Or more?” ). But for the most part, I try to focus on what happened — I try to create the sense that something is happening.
It was important to me that the text feel alarming but not sensationalizing. The book pivots on very real stories in which people were brutalized by police, sexually assaulted, betrayed and humiliated. How to tell those stories without trafficking in the suffering of others? This was particularly challenging because in two of the most intense stories of physical violence, I was writing from viral YouTube videos documenting the victim’s encounter with the police. I drew, too, from reporting and investigative literature surrounding those cases. It was important to me that people understand these encounters as violent. Those sections were the hardest to write, and some passages still make me uneasy.
In Campus Sex/Campus Security, stories of specific cases of police violence are recounted with a detail that is not available where cases of sexual harassment are concerned. There is a dramatic asymmetry in the presentation of information about cases of sexual assault and cases of police violence. Police violence, in CS/CS, is particularized and visible. Sexual violence is generalized and dispersed. Were I writing the book today, I would not write that difference in quite the same way — I would try to challenge it more explicitly. Too many people have been killed by the police. Too many students. Were I writing that book today, I might start with Michael Brown’s enrollment (or intention to enroll) at a for-profit school. That detail in his story — it speaks to something unbearable — something carried by students all over the country. A sense of school as a space of transformation, a sense of school as something that’s going to fix your life – and the heartless greed which would exploit desire for something — something that will help.
There is a large public appetite for stories about student/student and student/faculty sexual harassment — that appetite skews writing about the challenges of life on university campuses. Nearly all of what one reads on this subject is sensationalizing. That kind of writing, in my view, feeds a general public hostility towards higher education — the escalating discourse of controversy and scandal turns “the campus” into a kind of garbage can into which the public (which includes students and teachers) dumps its sense of betrayal, rage and despair. School has long served that symbolic function — but in this historical moment, that free-floating resentment of the school as an apparatus is fused to a campaign to strip the public of its access to free, robust and meaningful education. It turns the campus into a space in which students and faculty can be beaten by the police. That is what Campus Sex/Campus Security is about.
Today, the discourse of campus harassment swings between painting the campus as a “hunting ground” — a place where you will rape or be raped — and as a place overrun by mobs of hysterical feminists wielding false/overblown accusations — either deliberately or because they are so fragile they take their hurt feelings for assault. When writing CS/CS it was important to me that the book make those swings visible — and that I ask why, at this moment (the book was published in 2015), the campus is framed so often as a conflict zone (in which faculty and students are at war with each other, and with “the administration”), why that conflict is so explicitly sexualized and why people are so ready to blame students for the campus’s problems.
Proximity and Knowledge, Confidentiality and Reticence
Laura Kipnis describes the campus as overrun by hysterics (Unwanted Advances). When I read the book I noticed that she references a case to which I am connected. The story she reproduces in the book is inaccurate. I know this. I reached out to Kipnis to let her know that the story she presented in her book was wrong. She wrote that she was “pretty aware that there are multiple sides to all these stories, and various interests involved in affirming or contesting the various versions.” She then indirectly confirmed my suspicion that she’d only talked to one person in the case (by not answering me when I asked if she’d talked to anyone but the accused). Our correspondence was brief and telegraphic.
I’ve been thinking about that exchange. I’ve been wondering whether there is room for me to write about Kipnis’s work at all given her comment about a case to which I am connected — and given my desire to avoid writing about that. I have felt cornered by that situation. I would normally review the book. But I can’t — for all sorts of reasons — my proximity to a case she mentions being the most salient. So, I’m writing about the situation of reading her book knowing that one of the stories she presents as emblematic is, in fact, not true. I find myself smack up against my own unwillingness to say any more about what I know than that. (Do I have to? Really?) The issue for me is that the entire discussion of harassment in that book is oriented by assumptions I reject. The conversation that book stages is one I refuse to join. I don’t believe in the version of the world conjured by that book. I do, however, know that a lot of people enjoy the idea of that world — the idea that selfish, hysterical, vengeful and entitled students are ruining things. That feminists destroy everything fun (for more on this sexist version of what feminism is, and for a critique of discourse on students, see Sarah Ahmed’s blog, Feminist Killjoys).
In public discourse about sexual harassment cases, the fact that many people who file complaints aren’t eager to talk about the details of their case is widely acknowledged but poorly understood.
While in some contexts, confidentiality rules limit what one can say about campus harassment and discrimination — those contexts are more limited than most people realize. More often, a vague sense of the rules legitimizes a person’s desire to not-know or not get involved — often this serves the important purpose of naturalizing one’s sense of subordination to an institution. I learned this when an administrator admonished me for “gossiping” about my case. When I insisted that I had the right to discuss what was happening to me, she told me she would check with campus counsel. She got back to me and told me that yes, indeed, I had the right to talk about what was happening to me. It astonished me that either of us had thought that I might not. It astonished me that I waited for the school’s permission.
Students sometimes think they can’t talk about their cases, faculty will be told some version of the same. Some campus staff will give you that impression. Some campuses will write policy that amplifies that impression; during investigations campuses may even threaten people — harass people who talk to much about their own cases. Mandatory reporting policies push members of the campus community to stop conversations about sexual violence in order to warn their interlocutor, “I may be required to share whatever you tell me with the appropriate offices.” This is another way of escalating the sense that some things should not be discussed.
The reality is that, in general, when you are the subject of the case (as victim or as accused), you can share your own materials. Certain aspects of cases staged in public universities are, furthermore, a matter of public record — accessible via freedom of information act requests. The details of the Marcy case, for example, were produced through a FOIA request. The case I’m connected to is a part of the UC’s big document dump earlier this year.
The reality is also that within the harassment dynamic, the more you say, the more you share, the more “out” you are, the more you feed the beast. Rule #1 in blogging: “don’t feed the trolls.” A lot of reticence regarding ongoing cases is about managing this problem.
There are many contexts in which the people close to harassment cases practice reticence in an expression of a commitment to ending that harassment. A department chair might not speak about a case because, as someone with executive authority, they are bound by confidentiality rules which, for instance, protect the privacy of a student’s disciplinary record. They might also want to avoid sharing information which might be instrumentalized within a harassment dynamic. A witness to a case might not speak about what they know because the case is stigmatizing. Their reticence might also express a desire to minimize the sense of crisis in their community. Whole communities can agree to keep a low profile, not in order to cover up what happened but in order that they might confront it together, and deal with it. During investigations a community might go relatively quiet in order to support the process. These are a few good examples in which reticence is practiced in the interest of impacted community.
There are also plenty of terrible examples of campuses clamming up to protect people who abuse their power and authority. There are examples of abusive people who manipulate confidentiality rules in order to shield themselves — these people might, for example, threaten to file complaints against and sue victims/survivors/complainants for libel. Cover-up and harassment enforcing a cover-up is endemic in sports — see, for example, the massive crises within the football programs at Baylor and Penn State and the situation of US Gymnastics. Those cases were cracked by people who filed complaints and by investigative journalists tracking those complaints. Jessica Luther’s writing on this subject (Unsportsmanlike Conduct) is exemplary; Dvora Meyers is currently reporting on gymnastics for Deadspin.
Cases involving sexual harassment require intentional forms of transparency within the impacted community and the cultivation of awareness regarding the needs of people in that community. Stalking cases require that the victim’s community be informed of the problem so that they don’t unwittingly become instruments of harassment (by, say, giving out the victim’s phone number or teaching schedule). Where harassment is ongoing, community requirements are quite similar. Where harassment is ongoing, secretiveness about that fact will make the harassment worse. It is not wrong to say: “I am being harassed by X.” “X is harassing our community.” Unless, of course, the reverse is true — and that’s the nut of the problem, really. If you aren’t close to a case, you often can’t tell if the harassment story you are hearing is true — it might be that the person who tells you that they are being harassed is actually harassing. That’s the grim, miserable truth. Harassment victims may have less convincing stories than the person harassing them because, frankly, when you are being harassed/stalked you never have a good answer to the question: “Why is this person harassing you?” A victim might say something like, “I don’t know. I wish they would stop.” But the harasser might say “That person is out to get me! Let me explain everything that’s evil about them.” The latter is more interesting and engaging. Some people abuse because they feel persecuted — those feelings are real, and they are convincing to people who do not know any different. .
There is also a need to create intentional forms of privacy for all concerned especially while a case is being sorted out. This can be essential to providing some degree of relief, for victims, from harassment — this is especially important where harassment unfolds in professional contexts. These needs for transparency/discretion are not necessarily at odds with each other. Not all practices of publicity are the same. Not all practices of privacy are the same. Every case is different.
This is not to say that campus administrative practices are reasonable. They are often illogical, unproductive and harmful. What I mean to communicate here is: the decisions people make about what to say to whom are not always guided by policy. They may be guided by ideology, a need to disavow, or by a need for space. They might be guided by policy — but in my experience, remarkably few people actually read whatever the policy might be. And, furthermore, some policy is confusing and actually impossible to honor.
Reading and Writing Harassment
Harassment campaigns are now sometimes intensified via social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, as well as through the unmoderated comments sections of a range of websites. Within those media spaces it can be hard to tell the difference between a story about harassment, and a story that is itself harassing. It can even be hard to tell the difference between transparency and harassment.
As I hope one might glean from all that I’ve written here, the uncertainty that haunts writing about sexual harassment is not only an effect of an institution’s confidentiality rules. It is an effect of sexual harassment itself — it is an effect of the discourse of sex, sexism, the relational and social nature of harassment. This does not mean that the identity of the agent and the object of harassment is unknowable. This information is knowable by the community of people impacted by harassment. It is knowable to harassment’s victims. It is not always knowable, however, to the agent of harassment — some of them are driven to harass by persecution complexes. Nothing you say will convince them that the victim (or the system) isn’t out to get them.
People reading about harassment cases should be careful about engaging the story via comments sections and social media. If you aren’t in the community immediately impacted by a case — if your encounter with the “news” of a case is only through social media/blogging — by commenting, engaging that story you are at risk of being instrumentalized in someone’s harassment campaign. Casual publicity often intensifies and aggravates harassment dynamics.
Kipnis of course explores the question of what one can and can’t say — the first of her publications to take on Title IX administration was centered on a case unfolding on her own campus, a case which she treated as emblematic of a national problem. She then wrote about her experience of being investigated after students close to that primary case filed a complaint against her — that led to her book.
Writing about sexual harassment is very hard to do without participating in the discourses and economies of harassment. This why Kipnis was subjected to a complaint. She became a part of the story. The first article that she published brought even more attention to the case than it had already generated — for some people impacted by the case, that attention intensified the harassment dynamic patterning their lives. For others involved in that story, the attention she brought to the case might have felt empowering, helpful. Kipnis’s op-ed escalated things at Northwestern, and she became involved in the case. That was entirely predictable.
Like Kipnis, I wrote a book in response to a close encounter with the administration of harassment. Our books, however, are as different from each other as are our cases. As I stated above, I don’t write much about my own case. Over the two years it took for my case to unwind, I wrote lots of emails, memos and complaints. I’m appalled now when I look back at all that writing— long, insanely detailed narration of all that I’d been through. I sent unreadable emails to my Dean, to various administrators — to colleagues of all sorts. I don’t know what I thought these people could do. I was scrambling, scrambling for some moment of recognition — some connection with the apparatus — I realize now that I was caught in the maw of what some scholars have called “institutional betrayal” — and that I’d placed myself in the dead-end situation of demanding that the institution somehow “fix” the problem. The institution can’t — to this day — even see that there is a problem. (Some of the problems created by the poor administration of my case remain an aspect of my working life.)
I found myself in a situation in which I had to tell the story over and over again as I ran the gauntlet of university proceedings, as my EEOC complaint was processed, as I navigated campus police, security teams, the District Attorney’s office. By the time I got to the end of that process, I experienced telling the story — the compulsion to tell the story — as a part of the harassment dynamic which had shaped far too much of my life.
In CS/CS, I work-through the situation of being compelled to narrate. My position as a critic is usually quite legible in my work — but in my writing on harassment, I hardly use the first person — I wanted to dissolve into the text. Harassment makes you want to disappear. This aspect of the text frustrates some people — that’s OK. CS/CS is meant to frustrate certain readers.
I was eventually relieved of the need, compulsion and obligation to tell the story — all of this dissolved when the harassment itself ended. The residue of the crisis, for me, took the form of a need to write about the situation of having to — I wanted to describe the coerciveness of that storytelling structure. Doing so has been a way of letting a lot of stuff go, and of getting myself to a place from which I can advocate for other models of working together. Doing so was important as a way of practicing theory as a form of working-through.
With regards the case that Kipnis gets wrong: I am not a complainant or even an important witness. I am connected to it, however, as a teacher working in the impacted community, and I am connected as a scholar who writes about sexual harassment and security discourse. It is no small part of my working life — I’m impacted by it — but it is not “my” case, exactly. It is our case, meaning, the harm was done to a community of people — I’m a member of that community, and I’m committed to anti-harassment work.
While I was looking to process the difficulty of writing about these things, I reached out to colleague who was reading Kipnis’s book. I wanted to connect, to talk out this issue with someone in the field — I wanted to talk about what it means to write about actual cases without researching them (as Kipnis had done). That person replied with a remark that was nearly identical to Kipnis’s. They said, “I wouldn’t take the word of people involved in the case on faith any more than I’d take the Kipnis version.”
Involved in the case in what way, I wondered? What did they imagine I was going to say? Is what Kipnis says about something that happened to people close to me more valuable than what I have to say about it? Am I too close, I wonder, to say anything? Does the fact that I write about harassment — as someone who has been harassed — make me less reliable, rather than more?
Do I need to recount the details of my own case in order for the reader to believe that I have anything useful to say about harassment? Do I need to authenticate my expertise with a performance of my own misery? Or have I already done too much of that for this, even to read as, say, scholarship?
CS/CS is written from inside that problem.
Bullying and harassment are social phenomena — they only happen within a group structure. The group facilitates — it amplified and conducts. The bully and the bullied are not two sides having a bad conversation — harassment is not a dialogue. It is a powerful, debilitating dynamic which acquires additional force from the discriminatory, hierarchical structures that define academic life. It’s a form of surveillance and punishment. It is fueled by paranoia, and it breeds paranoia. It’s incredibly difficult to confront alone, never mind stop.
There is a very big difference between writing about harassment, and writing guided by a commitment to fighting harassment dynamics. When I want to write in response to a case I’m reading about — never mind a case I’m involved in — I interrogate that impulse. What do I bring to the conversation? Does this story cycle need my participation? Will my writing make anything better?
Nothing short of long-form investigative journalism will give an outsider meaningful perspective on individual harassment cases, and even then a lot goes unsaid. Consider that infamous Rolling Stone article: that a source is compelling does not make that source reliable. This is true whether one is talking about someone who says they were victimized, or someone who says they were falsely accused.
I also feel strongly that a harassment case should not make news if all it does is make news. Publicity with no intention beyond itself amplifies a sense of crisis.
As you read the next “hot take” on a harassment case — or feel compelled to write one — consider the very real possibility that the story you write is or will evolve into an instrument of harassment. I’m not saying don’t write, but if you keep this in mind, you will write differently.
Campus Sex/Campus Security attempts to create the conditions of possibility for insight — for the reader to sense what harassment is, without amplifying harassment’s debilitating effects.