How Sexual Harassment Disappears

Dr. Leila Whitley

I have been thinking about where, if I were to try to give an origin story of this event, I would need to start. To give an account of the inspiration for this day, and of the conditions that made it both possible and necessary, I would have to go back a long way. What I want to start from today is the inauguration of the Centre for Feminist Research and the Feminist Postgraduate Forum at Goldsmiths in 2013. Those of us who came into these two spaces in 2013, the CFR and the FPF, needed them badly. I think the CFR was so important to us because it took what we were experiencing – sexism – and gave it a name. The first conference was even called Sexism: a problem with a name. The FPF and CFR allowed us to have necessary conversations about sexism, and gave us a structure of support as we thought through and confronted the ways that sexism was shaping our experiences of higher education.

One of the first projects that came out of the FPF was the blog Strategic Misogyny. We created the blog as an online forum for fellow students and staff, both at our university and at other universities, to share their stories of sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault. Our idea was to create a site where we could collect these stories in order to expose sexist acts for what they are, and to document the problem of sexual harassment and sexism in higher education. We wanted to show that these experiences constituted harassment, which can sometimes feel hard to do exactly because these kinds of experiences are so common. That sexism and sexual harassment are so common in higher education, and yet rarely is there any sustained objection to these conditions, can make it seem as though the conditions are not objectionable.

We also wanted to show that these acts weren’t marginal, or limited to one individual, or one institution. We wanted to document the scale of the problem.

Today’s event has a particular focus on the problem of sexual harassment of students by staff. As Anna has already said, this is not something that is spoken of very often. Sexual harassment and sexual violence on campuses in general has become something that we are aware of through the important work of people like Dr. Alison Phipps, who is going to give today’s first keynote thought piece.

Sexual harassment of students by staff, however, has not yet become something that we are as aware of.

To think about how this issue is marginalised we might think for example, even, about the organisation of today’s event. This event is something that we’ve been interested in hosting at Goldsmiths for two years or more. Finding institutional support for this event has taken this long. Today is an academic conference in one sense, but in another it’s a practical event for the institution, and for institutions more generally, about how to confront and handle sexual harassment on campuses. Included as part of the day, for example, is a training session for the Students Union on how to respond to disclosures of sexual harassment. These types of training are important, and they could (and should) be organised by the university itself or even – because we are talking about how to handle issues involving staff – by the UCU. Instead, today has been organised by students and former students at Goldsmiths, and has largely relied on the voluntary labour of an even larger group of students. I want to be clear about this: it has taken the work of those in a position to be harassed by staff to create the space for a conversation about the problem. Without this voluntary labour, today would not have happened. Sexual harassment of students by staff members would have remained something that is generally not discussed.

One of the things that we have found working with experiences of sexual harassment of students by staff is that it is a problem that is surprisingly – or perhaps unsurprisingly – hard to name. Sexual harassment when it happens across the teacher/student divide has a way of continually disappearing. Those who write to Strategic Misogyny write of:

soft touches at the waist, comments on clothing, open staring and comments about their bodies.

They write of lecturers speaking too close, of leaning in too far, with boozey breath.

They write of professional opportunities (teaching experience, for example) given out as though they were favours, mixed up with all of the leaning in and touching– perhaps even offered in that boozey breath, while too close.

And they write of being offered tutorials only outside of regular hours, at the pub or at their lecturers home, and of how hard it is to say no to these offers when they feel like the only offer of support.

Why is it so hard to name this sexual harassment as what it is: as sexual harassment? Because that is something else that those who write to Strategic Misogyny describe: the difficulty of naming what is happening to them. They write of how long it went on, of how many times it repeated, before they felt like they could find the name and use the name.

One story describes the way sexual harassment happens in public: while at a departmental event, the lecturer asks the student if she intends to have sex with another of the people in the room. She doesn’t respond; she doesn’t know how to. Later, she brings it up with friends on the course. She’s trying to register what happened to her – to make sense of it, but also to point to it. It is a private conversation following a public act, so that what becomes private is the objection and what remains public is the harassment. The other students laugh. They tell her he’s known for that sort of thing. No big deal.

The publicness of the harassment makes it a public matter. But, in the response, the other students treat harassment as something to laugh at, both publicly and privately. When it is brought up as something serious, the fact that it is common becomes a reason that it is not something to object to. And no one other than the student herself does object.

Stories of this sort are common: on another blog project, a woman describes the way that public acts of harassment, along with any attempt to discuss them, are ‘laughed off’.

We know that universities are hierarchical spaces. We know that students are dependent on staff in a number of ways. We know, and now I want to speak as someone who has taught both here at Goldsmiths and elsewhere for the past four years, that as academic staff we mark student essays. We make decisions that affect their results and their degrees. We know that we give them advice on how to write, on what to read, and on how they might approach questions – in short, on how to think. Most students I have come across seem to take what I say quite seriously. What I say in a classroom sets the tone. I am often seen as having ‘the right answer’ – even when I do not, or there is not one. When I have tutorials with students, they do not ask questions if I ask them to meet me in a cafe instead of an office, because no office was available. Because I am positioned as someone who teaches them they trust me, and they also tend to assume that I both know what’s best and have their best interests in mind.

What I am pointing to is the power attached to the role of teaching.

The power of being in a teaching role makes it very easy, as we see when sexual harassment occurs, for staff to harass students. There are so many ways that someone who teaches can take advantage of a student.

A common scenario that comes up, and comes up again, is abusing tutorials as a means to gain sexual access to a student. Tutorials that happen outside of office hours; tutorials in pubs and at homes; tutorials as a means to spend time alone with a student who does not want to be alone with a staff member, but who does want support on her essay, her presentation, or in preparation for her exam. In the case of PhD students, we see the close supervisor-supervisee relationship abused as a way to gain intimate access to someone who is in a position to rely on intensive, one to one feedback on work.

These things are hard to name for students exactly because of the power dynamic that allows them to happen in the first place. As we see in the play that Phil Thomas has written, The Girls Get Younger Every Year, which we will read and discuss as our first session today, one of the most insidious ways these things can disappear is through manipulation from the abuser, who may tell a student that he harasses that he understands feminism better than she, and that she is therefore wrong to object – even, that he is a feminist, and therefore his harassment of her cannot be harassment.

There are other, much more blunt ways that abuse can disappear. Exactly because students are dependent on staff, they may fear alienating those who are in a position of power over them. Those who have experienced sexual harassment describe the ways they feared angering those who harassed them, as they saw the meagre access to support offered by these staff members as in fact their only access to support.

In this way, one of the important ways that sexual harassment fails to appear – fails to take up its name and appear – is through institutional failure to provide safe supporting mechanisms for students, and ensure that academic support can be accessed through other channels when sexual harassment complaints are made.

Tiffany Page will now talk about these institutional failures.