At last week’s American Sociological Association (ASA) annual meeting in Seattle, WA, two women of color graduate students separately disclosed to me that they had been sexually assaulted or harassed at the conference. Beyond courageously sharing their experiences with me, they do not feel brave or protected enough to report their experiences to the ASA. For, their vulnerable positions in the profession (graduate students) and in society (young women of color) present the very real concern of professional or personal backlash if they were to report the sexual violence. We live in a rape culture that denies the prevalence and impact of sexual violence; that does not believe victims, but rather blames them for their own victimization; that celebrates predators and excuses their violation of others’ bodies and space. ASA and the discipline of sociology exist within that culture. Why should we expect different results from them?
The perpetrators of the sexual violence in both instances are senior men faculty members – but, from different institutions. As such, the responsibility to pursue these cases – were they to be reported – falls outside of a particular institution. These incidents occurred at an ASA meeting, and thus are the organization’s responsibility to pursue. As one of the two women pointed out to me, had she reported the assault to local police, she would be offered no support by local police at the next ASA conference as the location changes every year.
I took to social media to ask my fellow sociologists what resources existed to prevent sexual violence at ASA meetings and to support survivors of violence at future meetings. Few colleagues responded, all to say they wanted to know the answer, too. I did receive a response from ASA’s twitter account (@ASAnews) to look to page 2 of this year’s annual meeting program guide:
Ethical Conduct during the Annual Meeting:
It is unethical in any professional setting, including the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, for sociologists to use inequalities of power which characterize many professional relationships to obtain personal, sexual, economic or professional advantages.
Sexual, sexual identity or racial/ethnic harassment is also unethical behavior under the American Sociological Association Code of Ethics.
Attendees are encouraged to immediately report instances of harassment during the Annual Meeting to the ASA Executive Officer at Hillsman@asanet.org or through the ASA Annual Meeting Office.
I should note that I never read the front matter of the annual meeting program guide, and I imagine few other attendees do. It is a thick book! I only use it to find out when and where my sessions are. Some attendees exclusively use the phone app, which won’t force them to flip through the front matter. More importantly, it seems naive to assume that the above statement would stop a predator from assaulting or harassing others at the conference. (Sexual violence is already illegal, yet the law doesn’t seem to stop it from occurring at alarming rates.)
I responded, pressing ASA about what is actually done to prevent sexual violence at these meetings, and to support survivors of sexual violence that has occurred at past meetings. I was informed that the Committee on Professional Ethics deals with reported instances of sexual violence on a case-by-case basis.
I felt underwhelmed by this response. When I returned home, I sent an email to the Sociologists for Women and Society (SWS) listserv to ask what feminist sociologists knew of existing resources and strategies for preventing sexual violence at academic conferences. I also contacted the ASA Committee on the Status of Women in Sociology and the ASA Committee on the Status of Racial and Ethnic Minorities in Sociology to ask that they take on this issue.
I had not anticipated Sally Hillsman, Executive Officer of ASA, to catch wind of my emails; she chimed in on the SWS listserv to emphasize that victims of sexual violence could confidentially report these events to her, and that this approach to handling such reports was voted on by ASA members. I pressed still to highlight the enormous fear that victims experience that prevents most of them to report sexual violence, and that these reporting mechanisms still do not address my concerns about sexual violence prevention and supporting survivors. Sally responded again to offer the following:
For the women who experienced sexual harassment at the Seattle, Chicago or recent meetings:
Please call me WITHOUT REVEALING YOUR NAME IF YOU CHOOSE at my office. I will return to my office this Wednesday August 31 to discuss your experience ANONYMOUSLY. If I am away from my desk, leave a message when you will call again and I will be there.
202-383-9005×316 goes right to my desk; no one else will pick up.
This is standard operating procedure. If you didn’t know about how ASA handles these situations it is good–insofar as confidentiality has been maintained–but bad that we have not been as available to sociologists as we could be.
The ASA has a Code of Ethics that everyone who is a member of the Association FORMALLY AGREED to abide by, and ASA has investigation and sanctioning ability within the scope of the Association. These include confidential (non-public) and public sanctions for those found by COPE to have violated the Code. Council is not involved.
I appreciate that ASA has allowed (which seems like a problematic verb here…) victims to report sexual violence without revealing their names. However, as others pointed out in the SWS discussion, eventually anonymity would become confidentiality, which eventually be disclosed to perpetrators if ASA pursued the reported case. This system does little to protect victims of sexual violence from being further victimized. And, given the horrendous reputation of other institutions, there is little reason for the discipline’s most vulnerable members to expect they won’t be victimized by ASA itself.
Rethinking Sexual Violence In Academia
I bring these events and conversations to the public stage not to criticize ASA, though I am clearly underwhelmed by its handling of sexual violence. Rather, I want to further contribute to the conversation about sexual violence in academia. There is fear that prevents many of us from talking about it, reporting it, criticizing it. Hell, even some sexual violence prevention activists have been censured or worse by academic institutions. Indeed, they are complicit in the production of rape culture within the profession.
There are many points that I wish to make – others have already said this, but it bears repeating. Sexual violence is an expression of power. Academia is obsessed with power and hierarchies. The profession enables predators to prey upon vulnerable members with little recourse. Those same power-dynamics leave victims and witnesses with few options to seek justice and prevent future instances of sexual violence. Professional hierarchies are laid upon social hierarchies; it is no coincidence that women and people of color are overrepresented among contingent faculty who – perhaps – have the fewest resources and least amount of support to avoid being victimized.
Just as academic institutions facilitate sexual violence among undergraduate students, it does so among graduate students, staff, faculty, and administrators, as well. There exists a rape culture on many campuses, and within disciplines and professional organizations. Victims are either blamed for their own victimization or not believed. Predators go unpunished, and are often times rewarded; their behavior is excused because of their professional status (which is likely enhanced by the privileged statuses of whiteness, masculinity, heterosexuality, wealth, older age, etc.). I once sat in a conference meeting that seriously considered naming an award after an older white man professor from my graduate program who has a long, loooong history of sexually harassing women students and colleagues; with great trepidation, I spoke up to oppose such an honor, but I believe he will still be honored in some other way. Others in that meeting were hesitant to entertain “hearsay,” but conceded when I stressed that I was privy to more than mere gossip about him.
Sexual violence exists at the intersections among racism, sexism, cissexism, heterosexism, classism, fatphobia, ableism, religious intolerance, ageism, and xenophobia. White heterosexual cisgender women are not the sole victims of sexual violence; sexual violence is not merely a “white woman’s issue” or a feminist issue (with the necessary critique of the white, cishet, and middle-class biases of each wave of feminism). We fail many, many victims of sexual violence when we rely on ways of addressing it that are typical among white middle-class women; for example, there are racial differences in even naming one’s experiences of sexual harassment as such, and in reporting these incidents. A focus on sexual violence against white cishet women (presumably by white cishet men) ignores the gross unwanted sexual attention I (a Black queer non-binary grad student at the time) received from two white gay cis men professors at a Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS) conference years ago. Such a focus ignores nuances of sexual violence in queer spaces and in communities of color, to name a few – especially across racial, gender, and class lines within those spaces communities.
We need to take seriously the bystander intervention approach to prevent sexual violence in academia. That means it is not merely the responsibility of potential and actual victims of sexual assault and harassment to seek justice and support survivors. It is everyone’s responsibility. Yes, everyone. Sexual violence is a systemic issue. It is an expression of systems of oppression. It operates within the very social institutions each of us inhabits everyday. We must each challenge victim-blaming, rape-myths, and institutional practices that either ignore sexual violence or that even facilitate it. We must intentionally support all survivors of sexual violence, even those who do not come forward. Predators must be banned from our academic spaces so that they do not perpetrate violence again (because there is a good chance that they will).
I could go on. And, all of this is coming from someone with limited scholarly expertise on sexual violence and minimal personal experience with it. There is a great deal we can learn from the experts and survivors to actually prevent sexual violence in the academy. Right now, it is a crisis. In these first few weeks of the semester, countless undergraduate students are joining the statistics of victims of sexual violence; universities are continuing to be complicit in the predatory practices of perpetrators of such violence. And, graduate students, staff, and faculty are returning for another year – some to continue to be harassed as they suffer in silence. Who are we to offer guidance to the rest of society on ending sexual violence when hundreds of schools are currently under federal investigation for the mishandling of reported sexual assaults?
Further reading and resources:
- Sexual Assault Network for Grads (SANG)
- Faculty Against Rape (FAR)
- End Rape On Campus (EROC)
- “Contexts quicklit: 8 Agenda-setting articles on the sociology of rape” via Contexts magazine
- Dr. Sara Ahmed’s resignation following ongoing exposure to sexual harassment
- “Persistent Sexual Harassment Is a Primary Reason Women Leave STEM“ via Jezebel
- “#YesAllWomen: Violence against women on campus, and what we* can do about it” via Tenure, She Wrote
- “Title IX — A Step By Step Guide” via Tenure, She Wrote
- “Don’t be that dude: Handy tips for the male academic” via Tenure, She Wrote
- “10 Ways to Fight against Sexual Assault on Campus” via AAUW
- “6 Ways Faculty and Staff Can Fight Sexual Violence on Campus” via AAUW
- AAUP Resources and Statements on sexual violence
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s “Campus Sexual Violence Resource List“
- “4 (Intersectional!) Ways to Stop Campus Sexual Assault” via Ms magazine
- “EMERGING FEMINISMS, Faculty-Survivors and Campus Sexual Assault: A Conversation” via The Feminist Wire
- “Campus Rape Survivors Need Policy Change, Not Trigger Warnings” via The Feminist Wire