A Sexist Machine Can’t Do Feminist Work*

A dark thought: Most faculty working in higher education do not believe that sexual harassment is real.

Harassment is process-based: victims generally have a dossier of materials evidencing the truth of their experience. But, to the sexist, the evidence of harassment simply reinforces their sense of the victim’s sexualization — it proves that the victim has a body problem. The victim brings sex to work, and the victim should punished for it. The victim becomes a problem because she/he/they receive sexualized attention — they are treated as a lightening rod, as inviting and bringing it onto themselves.

For the sexist, it is easier to believe that someone has been falsely accused than that a person in their community has been harassing their colleagues/staff/students — or, more nearly, they can’t imagine what harassment is. It might surround them; they might participate in it — but they don’t experience it as wrong. They experience it as just the way things are. The sexist has a lot invested in the naturalization of sexual harassment.

Because sexists do not see sex-based forms of harassment as harmful — no matter the evidence, sexist faculty and sexist administrators won’t support a harassment charge because they don’t believe the complaint’s foundation: they don’t believe that sex and gender based forms of bias are unfair, they see sexual subjects as degraded and their own sense of professionalism is defined in an oppositional identification: they are not “like” the complainants, and never will be.

Sexist colleagues, furthermore, imagine sexual harassment as an aberration rather than the rule. They imagine it is something that happens somewhere else — the truth of it is deferred — situated in a different time and place. On television, maybe.

Feminist colleagues, by contrast, see sexual harassment as a constant within racist/patriarchal hierarchical structures, and understand their work in relationship to this given. At the University of California, for example, men make up a significant majority of ladder-rank faculty. At one campus (UCSD), they comprise 75% tenured and tenure-track faculty. Men dominate university level committees for this reason — the structure is sexist. Gender imbalance will, furthermore, be exaggerated by committees which require seniority and equal representation across the colleges (the kinds of committees that, on some campuses, adjudicate harassment charges). Some disciplines have much bigger gender disparity issues than others — so a college wide committee is more likely to have dramatically marginalized female membership. Feminists faculty, staff and students struggle against the effect of this imbalance in all sorts of ways.

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Feminists do not debate if the patriarchal workplace exists. They will instead debate how one goes about building an anti-sexist/anti-racist workplace. If many important university level committees tend not to be dominated by women; they are even less likely to be dominated by feminists. A university level committee dominated by men who have no training regarding sex/gender bias is unlikely support any sexual harassment complaint. This is, at least, what I see from my perch. This is the story behind the poor administration of complaints against faculty: the administration handles things badly — but so do the faculty themselves.

You can’t make sexist machine to do feminist work.

This is one of the reasons harassment complaints are so painful for the impacted community. The institution itself fosters a cloud of disbelief around harassment complaints — the nature of that disbelief is sexed and raced. How disbelief collects around faculty and students is racialized — a woman of color with a complaint, a white man with a complaint — a complaint against a white man, a complaint against a woman of color — who does a community embrace, or exile? Who feels able to come forward at all? What abuse will an administration feel compelled to confront? What abuse will an administration ignore?  It is all contingent.

You can’t ask a racist machine to do feminist work.

(To read more about racism and university structures, I recommend the anthology, The Imperial University. It is not about sexual harassment, but it really digs into the politics of how universities operate, as institutions. See also Sarah Ahmed’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. )

Sexual 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. 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 is process-based. 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. An expression of attraction. One person transgresses a professional boundary. The other pushes back. An apology might be issued, and then it starts again. Gaslighting and implied or explicit threats will be mixed into everyday interaction. Incidents assemble into a history and seem to predict a future: a future in which harassment never ends. A future in which one’s membership in a profession is contingent upon living with harassment.

Experiences of harassment and bullying 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. 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 those harassment cases it acknowledges with a policy adjustment designed to prevent future harassment. But no policy will eliminate harassment. It can only administer and manage what has already happened.

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 totally free from harassment.

The institution encourages a paranoid relationship to sexualized harassment, in particular — over and above all other forms of harassment. It’s a fully sanctioned form of paranoia. One is encouraged to be on the constant look-out for things that could be harassing. The risk averse language of the institution fosters this attitude. And it’s remarkably ineffective when it comes to addressing the crisis of actually existing harassment.

I am not especially paranoid by disposition — I don’t see sexual harassment lurking in every interaction. I do, however, see all communities within the university as sexual communities — the disavowal of that fact enables sexualized harassment.

If harassment is endemic to university life it is an effect of the university’s hierarchal structure — these structures are deeply racist and sexist: the evidence for this is everywhere.

The campus is a broken place.

A frank, non-defensive relationship to that fact — a frank embrace of the fact that the university is fucked up — might yield something different — something more depressive than paranoid — it might yield imaginative, generous practices. It might make talking about encounters with abusive behavior easier and more productive. It might.

I’m not sure.

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. Students notice who is teaching them, and who is not. Graduate students, junior faculty are haunted by the fear of failure — for the academy scales that fear up to maximum capacity.

It is not that every person who doesn’t get through the classroom door, doesn’t graduate, doesn’t get tenure, or doesn’t get a decent job is a victim of harassment — though some people will have been. I’m saying more nearly 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 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.

I think. Maybe.

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 can effect itself, but organizational groups within that institution (e.g. departments, programs, student organizations) 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.

The organizational culture I imagine is probably a mood. It is probably not sustainable. It is probably something a group moves through.

Students, I think, 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.  Or, they are burdened with it — but that burden is foisted onto them — and they resist this.

The school must change with students — it has zero choice in this. Often this change is brought about by student activism, through student resistance and intervention. It’s also brought about by student debt, by student access to college prep courses, by students moving from racially diverse high schools to white majority institutions, by social and economic crisis.  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 especially elitist white majority universities 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.

Faculty  — whether they be sexist or feminist — 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. 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 or 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. Harassment dynamics will draw love and labor from us; they absorb and digest our capacity for care, and our capacity to care.

Anti-harassment work confronts the disavowals and contradictions which ground the institution —  it is one place where we experience the limits of what work is — the limits of what can be known as work.

The institution will not respond to anti-harassment work by transforming into a structure in which harassment is impossible.

A wild thought: the feminist anti-harassment worker labors not for the love of the institution, but for love of that labor itself. She must tuck that piece of information away, and guard it from the accountants!

 

 

*This post excerpts and revises a section of a 7000+ word essay I posted on July 1. I’m using this blog to write and think out loud. I’ll be posting revisions of posts on this theme as I’ve overcome by the need to work stuff through.

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