there is no living here can’t afford wasting my time at 89 say a prayer go to the polls
it is hard to underestimate how much the world can hate a woman oh, the math on that the scale of the debt the resentment and taxes fury and shame home grown and harvested
I woke up today thinking about pedagogy and love and my teacher Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. We could really use her voice these days. I made myself coffee and turned to Youtube, looking for Eve.
The above video is her 1998 Kessler lecture at CLAGS: the Center for LGBTQ Studies at CUNY. In this talk, she shares an excerpt from A Dialogue on Love. The event opens with a series of speakers who honor Eve’s work. I’ve keyed this to José Muñoz’s introduction — at this point José had been at NYU for just a couple years. Disidentifications was about to be published. He was there as Eve’s student, at her request; he speaks for a number of us who worked with her in the 1990s. José’s work had, I think, a huge impact on Eve; when she moved from Durham to New York their relationship developed into a powerful friendship which never lost its pedagogical shape.
Eve comes on at 52 minutes, and it’s all just so her. The title of this post is drawn from her off-the-cuff joke about her own work — about how A Dialogue on Love, which is drawn from her therapy and is a first-person narrative, “is just what people accuse us of doing when we do anything that has the first person in it — this isn’t scholarship, it’s really therapy. So I figured, what the hell.”
I am very lucky to have been her student.
The uncertainty that haunts stories about harassment is an effect of harassment itself — it is an effect of the relational and social nature of harassment. Harassment’s intensities can escalate to a point at which the truth feels not only unknowable, but irrelevant. This does not mean that the identity of the agent and the object of harassment is unknowable. This information is knowable for 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 people 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.
[Orphaned paragraph from an essay on harassment dynamics.]
Imagine what our campuses would be like if Title IX had been not a modification of the Higher Education Act but a spell. What if, in 1972, with Title IX’s passage, being sexually assaulted by a fellow student didn’t exile you from your student community, but rather led your community to address your needs and the needs of the people around you? What if the whole of the sports world had been desegregated? What if fields, disciplines and professions were not dominated by one gender or another? What if the upper ranks of the academy were not so patriarchal and white? What if, while we are at it, we got rid of the idea of the “upper-rank” altogether. What if your work as a caregiver were folded into your educational process? What if the gender binary dissolved in 1972? What if teachers and students worked alongside service workers and campus custodians to collaborate in the care of the institution as a structure, a scene and a space? What if that sharing of reproductive labor were built into what we know as the work of education? What if the “sex bureaucrats” (as Title IX administrators are often called) were not abject social service workers, but prized members of the campus coven?
Harassment produces crisis. It is very hard to know what to do when harassment dynamics descend on you, or on members of your community. Harassment is more than a single event — it is a process. Harassment may be intermittent or constant. It may fluctuate in intensity.
Bullying and harassment are social phenomena — they only happen within a group structure. The group facilitates — it amplifies and conducts. The bully and the bullied are not two sides having a bad conversation — harassment is not a dialogue. It is a debilitating dynamic which acquires additional force from the discriminatory, hierarchical structures that define life inside and around institutions which reproduce knowledge, power, access to a sense of the possible. It’s a form of surveillance and punishment. It is a group sickness. It is fueled by paranoia and it breeds paranoia. It’s difficult to confront alone, never mind stop.
Harassment is often racialized, sexualized or both. It may be racialized and sexualized in ways that cannot be accounted for by anti-harassment policy. And within a racist/sexist organization, few people will have the capacity to acknowledge racialized and/or sexualized harassment as forms of bias, discrimination and hate.
Some forms of harassment are integrated into rituals of belonging. Some rituals of belonging manage harassment. Hazing and bullying both consolidate a group’s sense of coherence through the abuse of a person who will embody, for that group, that which they most despise and fear.
Hazing ritualizes harassment as what holds the group together; bullying is a projection of the group’s fear of falling apart.
A sexual assault may not be part of a harassment dynamic. A sexist social context, however, will amplify the harm of a sexual assault by fruiting harassment dynamics around the victim’s attempt to articulate what they need.
[this might reproduce text which has appeared in earlier, longer, more rambling posts]
a penny drops
and a shoe
flies across the room
A note in August: Folks arriving here via Brian Leiter’s blog — if you want to know why I described Brian Leiter’s blogging practice as trollish, please click through any of the links below. Also, I wrote about the letter of support written on behalf of Ronell before anything at all was known about the case, beyond the fact that there was this letter of support.
The story of this post: in mid-June I wrote down some thoughts about a letter that was written in defense of Avital Ronell and published via a blog that some people experience as trollish and that some people see as encouraging harassment. (These links take you to posts about that blog or to posts about harassment within philosophy.) In my original post I made some observations about the letter and the context within which it was shared. I revised my post a few times, as my thoughts evolved. These paragraphs replace that writing.
Not long after my initial post, The Chronicle of Higher Education published two stories. The first offers a little perspective on the letter itself (e.g. via comments from people who wrote and signed it). The second article (which is behind their paywall) is more broad, and centers on the resonance of this letter with one written in 2004 by Derrida in defense of a friend of his (Dragan Kujundzic, then at UC Irvine) who was accused of SV/SH. The second Chronicle article includes a reference to my blog — to my characterization of the blog that published Ronell’s letter (Leiter Reports) as untrustworthy. In that post, I also describe that blog as trollish. Because of this, Brian Leiter wrote about my blog. Someone emailed him and said some negative things about me. Leiter published that and threatened to write more about me.
My original post about the letter of support written on behalf of Ronell revolved around an observation: the letter belongs to a genre in harassment literature — the character testimony written in defense of a friend/colleague accused of misconduct. This kind of testimony is meant to inform disciplinary action, and is usually considered independent of investigative processes. I wanted to stress, too, that we know nothing about the case itself, and I wanted to alert readers to that blog’s history.
It is normal for letters like that to be grounded in the prestige of a person’s career, their accomplishments, their professionalism and in the prestige etc. of the signatories. This particular letter might have been framed differently had it been written as an open letter — this grates on readers because, stripped of its context, it becomes a glimpse of what scholars say about themselves and each other behind closed doors. This letter also contains strong denunciation of the charges themselves. I feel confident that the archive of most harassment cases which gets to a disciplinary stage includes letters like this. This letter is notable largely in the distinction of the people involved.
(Here, for example, is a link to another letter written on behalf of someone accused and found guilty of harassment. Here, a story about the controversy surrounding another open letter written in support of another professor accused of harassment.)
There’s a reason I have thoughts about letters like this. My heart has been broken by colleagues who have chosen not to stand with victims of harassment, and — worse — by friends who have defended abusers. I try to forgive these things, but I can’t quite bring myself to forget them.
If I’ve thought about these letters it’s also because I have written a letter or two. I’ve signed letters like this. I’ve been asked to write letters like this and refused. I signed one letter I shouldn’t have — I signed a letter expressing dismay at someone’s removal from a leadership position, and realized later that this removal was, in fact, the right thing. When I advocate for students accused of academic misconduct I encourage them, if they were facing a disciplinary charge, to gather letters of this sort in their defense. I would advise faculty and staff facing disciplinary action to consider doing the same. In the end, however, letters like this probably do more for the people who write them than anyone else.
In my own navigation of accusations (against others and against me), rumors of accusations and as a witness to harassment, I have tried to understand the positions of people who have defended harassers – to appreciate what it means when SVSH charges are filed against people you really and truly love. Or whose work matters to you.
I’ve tried to understand the public eagerness to believe that every rumor of harassment is real — and to square that with the persistent dismissal of sexual violence and sexual harassment within our own communities. It’s real and not real. It’s a story and it’s just a story.
Students, staff and faculty should be able to file complaints and grievances. Students need to be able to raise questions about faculty conduct and they should have different pathways for doing that. Complaint, grievance and resolution processes should be transparent, timely, balanced and sensitive to the needs of the student, staff and faculty community. Those communities should be informed about and engaged by these processes. They should be free from forms of bias. They should be driven by a commitment to de-escalation, to non-adversarial resolutions wherever possible. Faculty, staff and students should be able to trust complaint processes.
That a complaint has been filed against a person should not be treated, in and of itself, as a scandal. A student, in fact, filed a complaint against me — this was a counter-complaint to the one I filed because that person was harassing/stalking me. I’ve written a little about this in the preface to Campus Sex/Campus Security.
Accusations can be used as a form of gaslighting in a harassment dynamic. This could be what’s going on at NYU, in which case the anonymous leaking of a letter like this might be part of a harassment dynamic. To date, no writing on that letter has given us any insight into the case itself. The leaking of case documents can have all sorts of triggering effects for immediate and surrounding communities. It might trigger the harassment of me, for example — harassers will dominate the discussion of harassment, harass and threaten anti-harassment voices — they will bully people who disturb their sense of the order of things.
Standing with victims of harassment, for me, means resisting scandal mongering and trolling — and it means being super wary of any narrative about a harassment case that isn’t victim-centered and victim-led and, ideally, informed by the standards of professional, feminist investigative journalism. In the absence of the latter, how does one know who the victim is? (There is a long essay on this blog about confidentiality, harassment discourse and harassment dynamics.)
I aim to follow the lead of anti-violence, abolitionist feminists — to find a compassionate perspective on the community failures which reproduce and amplify SVSH, in order that those failures might be acknowledged and addressed. I know this can be done without sacrificing the victim’s wellbeing.
I started Trouble Thinking shortly after the 2016 presidential election. It’s a sandbox, a notebook, an on-line journal of sorts — an experimental space. Normally, I get very little traffic (e.g. less than 10 visits a day). But the Chronicle drew Leiter’s attention to my blog — in just a few hours after his initial post about me, his blog post directed a thousand visits to mine (compared with 60 directed to my blog by The Chronicle). This happened because The Chronicle leaned on my quiet blog to say something they might have said by referring to their own reporting. The Chronicle is not, in my view, a good outlet for reporting on harassment. (For good reporting see Jessica Luther and Dan Solomon’s work on Baylor, Nidhi Subbaraman’s reporting on UCSC, and the Indy Star’s reporting on MSU.)
I don’t trust the community that reads his blog (click through the links at the top of this post and you’ll understand why) — when I saw that traffic I wrote a bunch of sentences aimed at those readers — e.g. “Are you excited by the prospect of the professional humiliation of a woman scholar? The vulnerability of the student victim? Both? Is this your new episode of Law & Order?” I decided, however, that addressing a reader I don’t trust creates an ungenerous, shitty vibe, so I made this blog private for a couple days so I could make space to think and write. Once things quieted down, I opened the settings and started writing/live-blog-editing.
I use this as a writing space — I revise posts all the time and rarely flag those revisions. I like exploring the capacities of a blog, as a distinctive literary space. I like the idea that posts aren’t stable, for example. That the things people read here are both ephemeral and on the record. I also like exerting some control over how people access this material.
I’ve narrated all this because I’m interested in creating a safer space on-line — it takes very active management of your website. I wrote a feminist sports blog for five years — the trolling, threats and overt misogyny of the sports mediascape was and is intense. I really enjoyed writing for readers looking for relief from that. I want to produce that kind of safer space for people trying to get to the other side of harassment discourse. I know that in doing this work I become a target for harassment — the goal here is to model a non-defensive, reparative relationship to that fact.
Here, for people who are looking for teachable and well-researched work on campus sexual politics, I recommend some alternatives to Kipnis’s work. It’s important to know that, where Title IX is concerned, Unwanted Advances is not well-researched — among its many problems, the book reproduces some popular myths about IX and the 2011 “Dear Colleague Letter.” Nearly all articles on this book do the same. (These problems have been taken up by a few folks — here, and here, for example.) I’ve got my own criticism of the administration of Title IX and the general handling of sexual harassment, sexual violence and discrimination/bias on college campuses. But Campus Sex/Campus Security is really different from Unwanted Advances and from the texts I list here — it’s performative, creative non-fiction. It is useful to conversations about Title IX and sexual harassment, but only if you read its (extensive) endnotes.
Plenty of feminists have written tough, provocative and well-researched essays and books about these things — works which one can trust on the history of the administration of Title IX, on debates about the law, and which examine the problems at the core of popular ideas about sexual violation and the law. Here are a few of my favorites. (I’ll add more as they occur to me.)
Ken Corbett, Murder Over a Girl: Justice, Gender, Junior High. 2016.
Sensitively written close examination of the murder of Leticia (Larry) King by a classmate at their Oxnard, CA school. This murder was a huge story in the SoCal community — there is so much here to unpack, including the behavior/investments/emotional attachments of teachers and administrators to King and to the 14-year old boy who murdered her. Corbett spends a lot more time tending to place of sex/gender/race — of trans and effeminophobia, racism, violence and toxic masculinity—than I’ve seen in coverage of this awful crime and its implications for especially school communities committed to welcoming and embracing genderqueer, genderfluid and trans kids.
An excellent point of entry into the exploration of different models for justice where sexual violence is concerned. Among the many things this essay offers its reader is an overview of the limits of the criminal justice system’s model — especially as it is disconnected from the project of tending to the harm that sexual violence inflicts not only on the victim, but on the victim’s community. This is intensely relevant to campus processes — sexual violence is so overdetermined, so challenging for colleges because this form of harm goes right to the bonds which organize and consolidate a campus’s sense of itself as a community. Models of conflict and injury which take up sexual violence and harassment as forms of harm staged only between individual actors will fail — they will often, in fact, make things worse for the victim and for the accused.
Jennifer Freyd, June 2017 lecture on institutional betrayal. Archived here, start at 1:56
Freyd leads a research team based at the University of Oregon. They explore the impact of harassment, abuse, bullying within institutional settings — focusing specifically on how these experience shape the victim’s relationship to the institution. This could not be more important to conversations about Title IX administration — to conversations about not only students’ relationships to the campus, but to the state. This lecture gives a broad overview of their work and their findings and includes recommendations for minimizing harm. Dealing with harassment in your academic community? Trying to figure out why your experience with a complaint was so debilitating? WATCH THIS.
Jane Gallop, Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment. 1997.
This book grated on me when I read this as a graduate student: my identification was too close to the student in her narrative. It might be hard to teach: can students really speak openly and freely about the erotics of pedagogy in a class — can a teacher lead a discussion about this without subordinating the students to her narrative about these things? — and what happens when boundaries between student and teacher are crossed? How does one go about restoring trust? The power dynamics which structure professorial authority are very hard to dismantle in a way that would allow such a thing — all that said, as a scholar who teaches sex/sexuality-centered material, I know that it is totally possible to address these things, and work these issues through. How one does this is actually part of one’s expertise as a scholar working on sex/sexuality.
Gallop’s knowledge of psychoanalytic practice vis a vis transference etc. is deep enough to inform the book and her perspective on what happened to her. In any case, I found it challenging to read as a student but looked at the book differently when I read it later, as a professor accused of harassment. Like Kipnis, Gallop glories in her own seduction, as a student, of male faculty, as if this were some sort of badge of honor. That’s the part that grated on me — still does! for all sorts of reasons. For me, as a student, sexual attention or at least very gendered attention from faculty was a lot easier to win than, say, recognition of my work as a scholar — one thing felt like it came at the cost of the other — but my erotic and romantic life isn’t organized so much around men, even if I do have sex with them! I think what bugs me is when people turn their preferences, the architecture of their erotic life into a moral high ground. Lots of us have that impulse (to moralize) but there are lots really good reasons to fight it.
When I was stalked and suffered through a really abusive disciplinary process (in which my work was treated as evidence of sexual misconduct), Gallop’s book helped me understand not only the contradictions shaping the handling of my case — it helped me anticipate the moment when it all went south. It has a lot in common w/ Kipnis’s work — it’s a clear antecedent. If you are going to teach Unwanted Advances, you really should read this. I find it meatier, somehow — that I’ve written this much about it indicates how much it has, over the years, mattered to me.
This is a good book to read alongside Janey Halley’s essay “Sexuality Harassment” which is anthologized in Directions in Sexual Harassment Law.
Jennifer Gilbert, Sexuality in School: The Limits of Education. 2014.
This is a smart, queer-theory-centered take on sexuality, pedagogy and schools as de-sexualized institutional spaces. It lands on a chapter which forwards an argument for hospitality as a model for queer pedagogy. Very much recommend this especially for the reader looking for something broader than a Title IX/policy-centered discussion.
Jessica Luther, Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape. 2016.
This is a well-researched analysis of the big political issues structuring the reproduction of rape culture — including its racist dimensions — as a defining feature of college football. Accessible and VERY teachable. Want to get your students talking by reading a book that doesn’t sneer at them? Writing about sexual harassment and sexual violence centered on sports culture has the unique feature of being of inherent interest to a broad range of students. Most students, including students who do not identify as feminists, care a lot about these issues. Luther writes, as a journalist, from a victim-centered position for a general audience: this makes a big difference — this work is hard-hitting and yet anti-sensationalist. Which is, of course, why it’s not the engine of lots of complaints and lawsuits and doesn’t end up making weekly headlines in the Daily Beast and Inside Higher Ed.
Katherine A. MacKinnon and Reva B. Seigel eds., Directions in Sexual Harassment Law. 2004.
Still useful anthology compiling scholarship on sexual harassment law regarding the classroom and in the workplace. This includes important intersectional analyses drawing from critical race theory to consider the relationship between discourse on rape and racism. Wonderfully, it features feminist scholarship written from quite distinct political perspectives (e.g. Andrea Dworkin and Janet Halley). Expensive as all get out, but you can read bits and pieces on google books, and any decent campus library should have it.
Vanessa Place, The Guilt Project: Rape, Morality and the Law. 2010.
A hard-core critique of the exceptional status given to sex crimes. A deep read of the criminal justice system written by a public defender representing sex offenders in the appellate court system. Even given the book’s non-engagement with race/racism (implied here is that many of the people Place is representing are people of color, the book’s title suggests lynch-logics to me), this is, to my mind, one of the most important books written on the subject of (as the book promises), rape, morality and the law. Read this and then ask yourself why Kipnis’s book is popular, and this one isn’t. Answer that question, and you’ll look at media discourse about these issues differently. The fact is, issues like the indeterminate sentencing reserved for people convicted of certain kinds of sex crimes is far, far more distressing than anything going on a college campus (not to rank miseries, but it’s really and truly frightening to think of people locked away forever not because forever was their sentence but because they are marked as unthinkable — as disposable — and just, well, erased) — but that doesn’t make for a juicy headline and good clickbait. I see the endless sensationalist writing about the important issue of SVSH on campus as a distraction from the fuckedupness of abusive public discourse and law regarding SVSH — this book shows that it is possible to care very deeply for victims, and for the accused. That doing so does not require disavowing the offense — but, instead, a top to bottom overhaul of what we think we know about sexual violation, and what we want from the law and from our institutions. Check out this review. And this recent NYT article about the junk science supporting popular ideas about the sex offender and legal decisions upholding “indeterminate preventative detention.” This shit will keep you up at night. And students need to confront this — it is the material expression of sexist/racist ideology vis a vis sexual safety/security.
Read this essay on trauma and affect, written by a psychoanalyst who works with trauma. Here, we have a grounded, compassionate take on what trauma is — very helpful for a teacher trying to understand what it is that students look for when they ask for something like a trigger warning.
And, for “fun” —
Octavia Butler, Lilith’s Brood. 1987-2000.
This devastatingly beautiful trilogy explores the question of consent and coercion across three novels describing the plight of the last surviving humans — who are being kept alive and managed by an alien species which specializes in seduction and collection. I can’t recommend this series enough.
Rosamund Smith, Nemesis. 1999.
Fantastic novel by Joyce Carol Oats (published under a nom-de-plume), loosely based on an infamous case in Princeton’s English Department. You can read about that case here. Nothing I’ve read captures the intensity of the sexual dynamics of academic life, except for…
Zoë Heller, Notes on a Scandal. 2003.
A very different kind of novel, more of a stalker text. An underappreciated aspect of academic sexual politics: the sometimes toxic dynamics which unfold between women within rigidly hierarchal and deeply sexist structures. This novel centers on one woman’s obsession with and manipulation of another — so many different forms of boundary violations! This might be a misogynist novel. This might be a portrait of the ugliness of women’s desires for and identifications with each other, as they unfold in a space in which women are always moving towards a specific form of sexual abjection and nothingness. Jury on that is still out, for me.
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.
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.