Sexual Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation: We Still Need Better and Safer Remedies

Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace treats in part the daily functions and dysfunctions of sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation and places these events on a continuum with sexual assault and sexual violence.  Next week’s post will go to the more acute end of this spectrum—sexual assault and violence–, while this week’s post sets up the pitfalls and dangers of mishandling cases of sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.  (*See my Sept. 19 (2016) Gender Shrapnel blog post on the Fox News sexual harassment situation.)

The 2014 RAND Military Workplace Study (Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military, Vol. 2. Eds. Andrew R. Morral, Kristie L. Gore, Terry L. Schell) states this: “Sexual harassment is also closely associated with sexual assault in the military.  Indeed, women who have been sexually harassed in the past year are 14 times more likely to also have been sexually assaulted in the past year than are women who were not sexually harassed.  Men who were sexually harassed were 49 times more likely to also have been sexually assaulted in the past year than men who were not sexually harassed” (xxii).  These data parallel the assertions I make in Gender Shrapnel about the sexual harassment—sexual assault continuum, not only in the military workplace, but in all workplaces.  If we do not clean up our act on the “lighter” end of the spectrum, we will never get at the root problems on the weightier end, and we know we need to get there.  (*Next week I’ll address this horrifying information from the University of Wisconsin and why reporting is such a gigantic piece of the harassment-assault puzzle.)

Back in 2011, the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) assumed greater responsibility for the effective implementation of Title IX (Department of Justice Title IX site; Know Your IX; AAUW) through expanded education, more detailed guidelines for colleges and universities, and more significant presence of OCR officials on college and university campuses.  The OCR Dear Colleague letter of 2011 showed that Title IX could be more elastic, that it could reach further into enforcement goals, thereby attempting to reduce incidents of sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and assault.  The greater visibility of Title IX-based cases in our traditional and social media can be attributed in large part to this increased vigilance.  While it might seem like these profound problems have gotten worse, we should consider that their greater coverage in news media indicates at the very least that more people care about and are addressing these issues.

If you have been, to use the now oft-used term, groped at work, you have been a victim of harassment.  But the “grope” is an easy diagnosis for women.  We all know what it is and what effects it causes.  Most people in the workplace know that the “grope” is inappropriate and illegal.  Fewer people realize, though, that many small comments and actions (the shrapnel) that undercut the ability to work of people in the so-called protected categories (race, religion, sexuality, national origin, gender, ability, parental status) add up to discrimination and harassment.  Think of the comments you’ve heard in the workplace that served to belittle or dehumanize a person and had the effect of limiting that person’s ability to navigate space and get the work done.  The physical “grope” (from the quid pro quo type of harassment) has its non-physical analogs on the hostile work environment (HWE) side.  These include fraternity banners targeted at first-year women, confederate flags (with, as I have seen on more than one occasion, nooses hung on either side), and public interrogation about salary and performance.  Oftentimes, physical intimidation—blocking entrances, looming over seated individuals (think Trump, Debate #2), patting body parts—is part and parcel of HWE harassment.  The confluence of these actions limits the victim’s horizontal movement (in and through the physical spaces of the workplace) and vertical movement (ability to take on increased responsibility in the workplace).

Most policies penned by the General Counsel office of colleges and universities attempt, in a cookie-cutter way, to address the EEOC and OCR recommendations for policy content and procedures.  Nevertheless, the policies often fall far short of clarifying protocols, encouraging reporting, and being fair to those who register reports of violations.

I know people trained in literary criticism (in other words, trained as careful readers of text) who have experienced serious difficulties in understanding their colleges’ convoluted Title IX guidelines.  Sometimes the college or university provides four or five different links and creates systems with ten or more confusing acronyms.  The outline of the procedures offers few protections to the person who is considering coming forward to make a complaint, thus sowing seeds of doubt before the person has even entered any official reporting process.  The already difficult decision to report a Title VII and/or Title IX violation is complicated further by the precarious positions of many people in the workplace.  People need to hold onto their jobs, and a less-than-perfect reporting system and investigative process actively discourage would-be reporters and witnesses from getting harassers out of the system.

Although I’m not sure how to get around it, the notion that the alleged violator of policy is presumed innocent until proven guilty sends the implicit message that the person reporting is lying, confused, or vindictive (instead of brave, forthright, and trying to help solve institutional problems).  We have to figure out a way to send the message that the investigators and adjudicators can also believe the person reporting until proven otherwise.  If we don’t accomplish this, from sexual harassment and discrimination to rape and assault, then we will always be placing blame on the victim for being a liar.  In addition, given that sexual harassment and discrimination are rooted in a power differential, oftentimes the person reporting the violation is low in the hierarchy and must report to someone very closely linked to the alleged violator.

Investigative committees are usually appointed from a handpicked group designated by General Counsel’s office.  This ensures that the process is controlled in puppet-like fashion from the perspective of protecting the institution against legal risk.  None of this bodes well for the person who has already suffered harassment and now has to choose whether to trust in a reporting and investigative system that is clearly stacked against her or him.  General Counsel’s role should simply be to implement the decisions that emerge from the systems put in place.  If an organization can keep General Counsel out of investigations and adjudications, it accomplishes two feats: (1) a cleaner internal process from the get-go; and (2) a demonstrated trust in the established systems and protocols.

These elements—lack of clarity of policies and procedures, lack of fairness to (and/or real retaliation against) the individual filing the report of violation, and conflict of interest in reporting up the chain—contribute to more, not less, sexual discrimination and harassment.  They are part and parcel of the cycle of sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.  We need to fix these problems in order to decrease the incidence of this “lighter” end of the spectrum, and thereby decrease the incidence on the sexual assault side.  Until Title IX officers and policy investigators are freed from General Counsel and interpretations of institutional risk that make the reporting party the enemy, there will be no justice for those reporting violations.  This is not to say that there aren’t very well-meaning people in these roles and involved in these processes.  There are!  It just means that they are put in impossible positions, caught in the middle.

Our current reporting systems, despite real overhaul over the past few years, are still falling short.  Administrative hierarchies still circle the wagons, thus alienating those who report and placing them in further danger.  If we don’t get at the problems of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, we will never lessen the incidence of sexual assault and violence.

Race and Gender Shrapnel: He Said, He Said Again, He Kept Saying

He Said, He Said Again, He Kept Saying

An example of race shrapnel (via Donald Trump) is: “Our policemen and women are disrespected. We need law and order, but we need justice too. Our inner cities are a disaster. You get shot walking to the store. They have no education. They have no jobs. I will do more for African-Americans and Latinos that she can do for ten lifetimes.”  The move from “our” to “they” and then to “African-Americans and Latinos” establishes a clear us against them dynamic that repeats and extrapolates racist rhetoric.  An example of gender shrapnel is the use of “such a nasty woman” in addition to dozens of examples of misogynistic Trump-oric.

When you hear these words, phrases, and insults over and over, whether directed at you directly or at someone you see as like you, you have to do the active work of shucking off the insults and walking tall in your own body. Others’ experiences of discrimination pile onto your own. As many of us have recognized, Donald Trump’s repeated racial slurs and misogynistic rants become the substance of real aggression.

He Said, No One Said (on stage, at least)

When the Republican presidential nominee makes racist and anti-any-religion-but-Christianity statements in a two-party presidential debate, he is making an attack with no live person or people on stage to represent the attacked group or to oppose the vitriol. This is a case of He Said/No One Said because Donald Trump gets the final word on stage, a stage shared with millions of viewers. Individuals and groups on Facebook, Twitter, and some traditional media outlets have creatively exposed the candidate’s biases. Hurray, social media, for at least partially disarming the powerfully armed through intelligence, wit, and populist reach. Trump’s biased statements, nevertheless, still leave in the air the words that group people together using a violent shorthand. For example, “hombres” is supposed to evoke the candidate’s previous statements about Mexicans, and the repeated reference to “inner cities” reinforces his previous equation of inner-city suffering with black populations. Of course, anyone who points out this modus operandi is dismissed as ridiculous, wrong, nasty, or worse.

He Said, He Said

On the gender front, the debate forum has given Donald Trump the opportunity to launch direct, misogynistic attacks, cloaked in the “Nobody has more respect for women than I do. Nobody” competitive gambit that has provoked loud guffaws and hilarious memes. But the attacks–from the Access Hollywood tape, to the Howard Stern tapes, to the Alicia Machado twitter storm, to the barrage of castigating language against Hillary Clinton—have a violent feel to them. In fact, we know that Trump himself has threatened to execute acts of violence against Hillary Clinton and has encouraged his supporters to do the same. (See, for example, the transcript of the second debate.) By several accounts (see, for example, Ezra Klein/Vox), Hillary Clinton did an admirable job of predicting and navigating the gender shrapnel aimed at her during all three debates.

On October 20, 2016, The New York Times ran an inflammatory headline—“Hillary Clinton, Mocking and Taunting in Debate, Turns the Tormentor.” Really, New York Times? Really? Are you equating Trump’s hateful attacks, stalking, and bullying presence with Hillary Clinton’s calm refutations, policy-speak, and reassurances about her experience, knowledge, and know-how? She had to interrupt on occasion and speak over the other two on stage just to be able to speak and respond to the moderator’s questions. If there was a strategy to use Trump’s weaknesses against him—and I think we all know there was—well, then, that’s just smart debating. Just as with the Kaine-Pence debate, the Democratic candidate was just exposing and repeating the words of the Republican candidate. Hillary Clinton isn’t Trump’s tormentor. Trump is Trump’s tormentor. Hillary Clinton still interrupted far less than Trump and still had less time to speak. Donald Trump still recited “Wrong,” “Wrong,” like an insane mantra, interrupting much of the time that was supposed to go to Clinton. The use of the word “caustic” (The New York Times’ adjective, employed here) to describe the tone of the debate yet again attempts to establish a false equivalency between the two candidates. Donald is caustic. Hillary is caustic. No, the real analysis just tells us that Donald is caustic and Donald is caustic.

He Said, They Said

As I have stated before on this blog, Donald Trump has already had way too much air time, and I regret giving him even more here. In fact, this “air time” question seems ever more acute if we consider the terrible possibility of Trump TV.

In the meantime, I want to underscore the notion that racial and sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation are on a continuum with racial and sexual assault and violence. The rhetoric we have heard from Donald Trump for decades, cemented throughout the primary and national seasons, must be considered part and parcel of a man who is capable of much more.

In The Atlantic (September 19, 2016), Peter Beinart forecasts the demise of “He Said, She Said” journalism, but I think we are not quite there yet. The 2005 Access Hollywood tape is the talk, the “he said.” It is most unfortunate that the news media has dedicated little ink to the many women who have come forward to state that they were harassed and/or assaulted by Donald Trump. This New York Magazine piece lists these numerous allegations. Somehow, despite the many women in the “they said” column, we are still listening to this man, and many are still considering voting for him.

Why are these stories, told by real, live human beings and so connected to the rape culture we talk and write about, still not really front-page news? Do we somehow just want victims to shut up because their stories force us to think about the quality of our government and the roles we play—or don’t—in advocating for real justice? Do we think Trump is more trustworthy than the 22 (maybe 23 at this point) accounts of alleged discrimination, harassment, and assault described in the New York Magazine piece? Why are we so afraid to hold Donald Trump accountable?

Let’s stop the ridiculous “he said, she said” farce. If we look at “he said, he did”—on race, religion, and gender lines—then we have plenty to go on.

{Note:  Since I published this post, a friend sent me a short, related piece from the CNN site, linked here.}

Letters from the Trenches/Gender Shrapnel meets Hypocrisy

Folks, this week’s post offers a more visceral response to the gender shrapnel flying all around us. Here are a few short epistolary screeds in response to the additional abuse heaped upon the United States public in the last 10 or so days.  These screeds mostly address questions of gender, but their content is related to the reality of continued attacks on people from African American, Jewish, Latino, and Muslim communities.


Dear Paul Ryan,

Thanks so much for letting us know that men should revere women.  I revere you so much that I’d like to put you up on a pedestal and just keep you there.  You won’t need to do or say anything up there; you can just sit still and feel revered.  Really, don’t say anything at all.  If you stray from the pedestal or try to say something or do something active, don’t worry, I’ll protect you so that you can just stay up there and be quiet.

Looking forward to patting you on the head, oh Revered One.


Dear Mitch McConnell,

I’m Not Your Daughter, I’m Not Your Sister

Do I have to be a woman related to you for you to treat me like a human being?

Do you have to tell me that you understand because you have two daughters, or that you wouldn’t want that bad situation for your sister?

What of the people who have no daughters, no sisters,or of the ones who don’t really give a shit about their daughters or their sisters?

Will they know to treat me like a human being just because I am one?

Don’t tell me that you understand because your daughter went through something similar, and then throw up your hands and do nothing to alleviate the illegal situation.

Don’t tell me that the woman with her legs spread in your internet browser is nothing like or everything like your sister or your daughter.

Don’t tell me that the human being whom you bought or rented to perform sex on you doesn’t matter because she’s nobody’s daughter or sister.

Just cut the crap. You cannot have it both ways.  You cannot both be a sexist and claim feminist street cred because you happen to have genetic lineage to a female.

Guess what?

We all do.


Dear Pat Robertson,

You say that Donald Trump is macho.  You say he rises from the ashes like a phoenix.

I say he disrespects everyone but himself. You’re included in that “everyone,” Pat.  Tell us more about your Christian values.


Dear Trump supporters who started the Repeal the 19th Hashtag,

It’s awesome to be reminded how tenuous voting rights are. Thanks for that!  We’ll keep it in mind as your nominee continues to talk about rigged elections.


Dear Glenn Beck,

Wow, you are so ethical, so moral. It’s really great to see that you can’t support Trump. Oh, and thanks so much for clarifying that Hillary Clinton is not the devil.  Might be time to cancel the tea party and, along with it, the hypocrisy.


Donald Trump,

I have no words for you. You’ve already had way too much air time.

Battling on All Fronts

Many people following the United States elections (millions, maybe billions, of us, unfortunately) have wondered if Trump was created by the Republican Party or if he simply exposed troubled cultural currents that already existed. I believe the answer has to be a complicated mixture of these elements and more.

This one man, backed by so many people who seem to crave open expression of insecurity and/or hatred, has tapped into and fomented our nation’s fearful response—to a perceived loss of Christian hegemony, to the coexistence in the United States of many different groups of people, thus challenging white, Anglo dominance, to the increasingly public existence of LGBTQIA individuals, and to the challenge of women of color and white women of patriarchal standards in our nation. As a member of one of these marginalized groups, I feel an incredible cascade of emotions as I continue to be bombarded with Trump-rhetoric. These range from fury, outrage, and violation to fear, frustration, and sadness. I can only imagine how this range of emotions is broader, more complicated, and more acute for those individuals who belong to more than one of these marginalized groups.

Robin Alperstein in her most recent post on Voluble has thoroughly documented Donald Trump’s harassing, discriminating words that have attempted to reduce African-Americans, the differently abled, the Jewish population, Latinas/os/xs, Mexicans, Muslims, women, and those who have experienced Trump’s fraudulent business schemes to less than human. If you boil things down, there really aren’t too many groups who have escaped Trump’s withering words, dehumanizing demonstrations, and threats of violent plans for the future. This amounts to what I believe we are seeing as a national trauma.

Trauma works in all tenses—past, present, and future. Systemic racism, misogyny, heteronormativity, and Christian privilege stem from our past and define our present. The present harm inflicted by the potential Assaulter-in-Chief does tremendous damage right now, heaping real injury on top of centuries of unsolved problems. For many people here in the United States, the violent rhetoric and plans to marginalize so many of us even more than we already are tap into past trauma (harassment, discrimination, and assault disproportionately meted out to the groups listed above) and to fear for our future (who will be deported?; who will lose rights if they’re “allowed” to stay?; who will be bullied and beaten up?; who will be killed on the streets of our nation?; who will be sexually assaulted?; who will be raped?; who will be trafficked?).

Even (if and) when Secretary of State Clinton is declared our President on November 8th, we as a nation will have not just a moment, but likely decades of reckoning with our deep, systemic national problems. When I think about the tens of thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands?) of hours we have spent just trying to stop the torrent of hatefulness from one way too powerful individual—hours that could have been spent in much more constructive ways (e.g. contributing to Black Lives Matter, aiding Syrian refugees, organizing relief efforts for Haiti and Florida after Hurricane Matthew, reducing sex trafficking)–, I am sick. We have many problems to solve and many wounds to heal. It’s time to give no air time, no newspaper ink, no attention to the megalomaniac and to give all of our work, know-how, dedication, and love to solving problems and healing the wounds of the traumatized.

The ‘B’ Word

On September 10, 2016, The New York Times published an op-ed piece by Bitch Media founder Andi Zeisler. The headline read, in reference to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “The Bitch America Needs.”

How would you have felt if a piece like Zeisler’s had been written about Barack Obama in September, 2008, with an invocation of the ‘N’ word?

Zeisler has clearly attempted to co-opt a word used pejoratively against a specific group in order to take back the term (“bitch”) and empower the group (women). Even though I have subscribed to Zeisler’s magazine for years, I don’t believe the ‘B’ word has shaken off its baggage and become a universally empowering term for women. Successful co-optations of terms used pejoratively include “queer” and “Quaker.” The ‘B’ word just isn’t there yet. Moreover, the term certainly hasn’t assumed enough strength and swagger to occupy a New York Times prime-time headline about the first woman to be a major party contender for the presidency.

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘bitch’? Take a moment to list all the definitions and images that come to mind.

Check out’s definition of the ‘B’ word. The Merriam-Webster list doesn’t revel quite as much in all of the slang terms, but does maintain the clearly pejorative sense of the word. This Oxford English Dictionary list is quite thorough and shows that the derogatory use of the ‘B’ word is many centuries old.

The primary definition—“a female dog”—already, when used in reference to human women, turns us into dogs. The term also implies that women are only good for our breeding capacities. Secondary definitions use adjectives like “malicious,” “unpleasant,” “selfish,” “lewd,” “submissive,” “subservient,” “passive,” “complaining,” “nagging,” and “difficult,” all referring to women, unless the adjectives are referring to a man who has lost status and therefore become, by these oft-used definitions, a woman.

Just a week ago I heard a much-celebrated writer say, “These men enter prison as men. Two days later they’re raped and become girls.” The implication here, heavily forcing us to recall the ‘B’ word, is that women are the raped ones, women are the disempowered, women are the bitches, women are the girls who will be raped. Men who are raped become girls. That is something. The ‘B’ word reinscribes time and again that men are universal and women are “other.” This reinforces the still limited gender roles available to women and the punishments we suffer if we diverge from those roles.

When we use the ‘B’ word, we are referring in a negative way to a woman, who is of course linked to the female of the canine species, or to a man who has lost status or power, or to a complaint, or to a mean person, or to something difficult and/or annoying. The ‘B’ word basically tells us that women are conniving, complaining, mean, negative versions of the human species, if we get to be human at all. This term, so frequently used in our culture and our media, dehumanizes women, which has real-life consequences, such as gender-based violence and a lower status that can translate into fewer opportunities, less pay, and more sexual harassment. In fact, we are so culturally inured to this term that I suspect many people, women and men, will think I should lighten up on this point.

Despite the generally positive reviews of Hillary Clinton’s performance in last Monday night’s debate, some of the coverage still ran along these ‘B’-word lines. For example, in PBS’s post-debate coverage (see here the link to the debate itself and then to PBS’s post-debate coverage) Mark Shields said about Hillary Clinton, “She can’t give a short answer.” Gwen Ifill’s co-host Judy Woodruff states that, before the debate, her colleagues, David Brooks, Mark Shields, and Amy Walter, had stressed Clinton’s likability as a huge issue. Shields adds that people need to see Clinton as a “good egg,” someone whom you would want in your “carpool” or “PTA” (clearly gendered references), but that Clinton still doesn’t achieve this level of likability in the debate.  David Brooks says that, when Hillary Clinton talks about policy, “It can’t just be 3 things, it has to be 16 things, and you get into laundry list mode.” Clinton’s thorough preparation and willingness to share nuanced answers seem not to matter when it boils down to whether or not she is the ‘B’ word who gets to be in your PTA. (Fortune Magazine ran a post-debate piece titled “There Is Literally No Facial Expression Hillary Clinton Can Make to Please Male Pundits.”)

I was not the only one to be startled and taken aback by the Zeisler headline, published in a newspaper that has consistently criticized various aspects of presidential nominee Hillary Clinton (see, for example, this op-ed piece by Maureen Dowd; and this open letter to The New York Times in protest of the paper’s “skewed coverage” of Secretary of State Clinton). Two days after the publication of the Zeisler piece, Liz Spayd (“The Public Editor” of The New York Times) published a response titled, “The Word a Headline Didn’t Need.” Like Spayd, I get that Zeisler (and, possibly, by extension, The New York Times) is attempting to appropriate the term and to use it as an appreciative and empowering aspect of Secretary of State Clinton’s image. Nevertheless, I believe that many people in the United States just see this as further license to use the term in increasingly discriminatory, violent contexts.

Spayd rightly concludes her piece by saying, “… Referring to the first female presidential nominee as the right bitch for the job brings an air of legitimacy to the word that seems beyond where we are at this moment in history. The mainstream may someday apply this term to women who stand up for themselves and bust through feminine stereotypes. Until then, it remains an insult, degrading and misogynistic.” Indeed, misogyny and racism are running rampant in our nation. Do we need to add fuel to the flames by using a term that hasn’t quite ripened into an empowering counter-cultural existence?

ann e michael

Poetry, nature, books, & speculative philosophical musings

Ms. Magazine

Ellen Mayock

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics


killing joy as a world making project

Edurne Portela

Bio, información sobre publicaciones de libros y artículos, agenda y más

ann e michael

Poetry, nature, books, & speculative philosophical musings

Ms. Magazine

Ellen Mayock

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics


killing joy as a world making project

Edurne Portela

Bio, información sobre publicaciones de libros y artículos, agenda y más

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