Zero Tolerance

First and foremost, I’m sending a huge shout-out to the many school children across the nation who walked out from their schools this morning in protest of lax gun control laws that place the students in what my husband calls “perpetual code yellow” (perpetual potential lockdown).  Deep, heartfelt thanks go to this big, brave group and to the teachers, staff, and administrators who joined them.  (*If you have access, check out Rockbridge County High School Latin Teacher Patrick Bradley’s account of the walkout at his school.)  *Here is the Gender Shrapnel post on guns from a few weeks ago.

Next, I’d like to address the use of the term “zero tolerance,” especially in the college/university environment, as it pertains to hazing and other forms of sexual and racial discrimination and harassment.  This issue comes up in the 2016 Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace book, but I have not written much about it here in the blog.

When institutions cite “zero tolerance policies,” they are referring to the requirement that they investigate reported cases of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, along with sexual violence.  They are not saying that they do not tolerate hazing and other forms of harassment.  In fact, such high-profile and troubled institutions as Pennsylvania State University and Ohio State University and dozens of others  tout zero-tolerance policies, while news reports show them to have tolerated for decades lethal hazing and other forms of sexual abuse and assault.  They also are not saying that, when they investigate these cases, they often find for the complainant. (*Here are some examples of zero-tolerance policies at: George Mason; Penn State (specifically addressing bullying); University of California-Riverside; University of Oregon; University of Southern Maine; news report on zero-tolerance policy at the University of Virginia.)

The National Education Association has published this interesting 2011 article on alternatives to zero tolerance policies.  The focus in the article is more on all-or-nothing punishments than on misleading rhetoric, but the content can help to guide conversations on the whole concept of zero tolerance.  The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission definitely considers zero-tolerance policies when it is presented with reports of employment violations.  Just insert “zero tolerance” as the search item on this site, and you’ll see what I mean.

The rhetoric is incredibly misleading, for it implies that school officials have eradicated violence based in structural hierarchies, when exactly the opposite is true.  I would argue that using the “zero tolerance” term in an environment where hazing runs deep and dangerous (e.g. fraternities, athletics teams, military organizations) contributes profoundly to the “blind-eye phenomenon” I write about in the Gender Shrapnel book.  It covers up an all-too-often whispered reality of lords demanding servitude through violence—something clearly allowed, if not directly fomented, by our university cultures.

I hear it in this way: Hazing will simply not be tolerated in our midst—except for when we tolerate it every day—and I mean it!  Those who created the zero-tolerance policy meant well, didn’t they?  They must have been people who believed that you could say, “Fiat lux!” and there would be light.  Oh, how easy it is to zip out the “zero tolerance” lingo.  If you just declare “zero tolerance” of an odious practice, then clearly that odious practice has ceased to exist. We have zero tolerance, and therefore nowhere on our campus do we tolerate hazing or discrimination based on gender or race.  Just like that!  That’s faster than you get a milkshake in the Cook Out line.

I remember that a long, long time ago, in my first year at the university where I teach, I saw an older faculty member sit in the back, mumble epithets, and occasionally punch the carpeted walls of the meeting room.  He was really frustrated, and also vaguely amused by younger faculty members’ naïve belief that discussion could be had and change could be wrought.  I appreciated his frank demonstrations of frustration and futility, but also thought that of course we could create change, even as I listened to the story of a fraternity whose members were suspended for using electric cattle prods on their newest “brothers.” I remember being horrified at this news, naively believing that kind of practice could never be a part of a brotherhood ritual, and stating openly that our honor system should be under question if we knowingly allowed these activities to take place for at least eight straight weeks, every year.  As we left that spring faculty meeting, at least five older faculty members gently warned me that I’d better be careful if I wanted to earn tenure.  I risked it and kept talking.  As you can see, I still risk it and keep talking.  My position at the university is less precarious than back then, but my big mouth, combined with crumbling faculty governance, still introduces an element of vulnerability.

About five years after I arrived at the university, I sat as an elected member on my university’s board of appeals, which hears cases of student discipline that have been decided upon by the student governing bodies and have been appealed.  I listened to one particular hazing case for many hours, more than I would have spent on even the lengthiest of stints of local jury duty.  As I recall, the fraternity in question had sophomores and juniors who were alleged to have tied new members’ hands behind their backs, forced copious amounts of alcohol down their throats, and left them to lie in each other’s vomit.  I believe that other cases of corporal abuse accompanied these accounts, although I do not recall that element as clearly now.  I watched as well-known lawyers and alumni of the particular fraternity arrived to testify, to indulge the “boys’” actions, and to seek the lowest possible penalty for something that surely we all understand as just a tradition.  I watched as the fraternity was suspended, not expelled, from campus.  I watched that fraternity return to campus and resume its rituals.  In fact, it is the very same fraternity that was just suspended, not expelled, from our campus for reports of the very same kind of hazing.

About a year ago, I wrote this “Loving People” post in response to the report that a Penn State University student had died, had been left to die, as his “brothers” covered up their felonious actions and the university again had to confront its indulgence of violent, supposedly underground practices, even as they continued to invoke zero-tolerance policies.

At our faculty meeting this week, I foolishly jumped back into the belly of the beast I’ve avoided for several years.  The beast is the fraternity system, whose hazing practices range from mild to lethal and whose academic focus for new pledges ranges from zero on the Fahrenheit scale to zero on the Kelvin scale.  Two years ago, I taught intermediate-level courses in the semester in which fraternities conducted “new member education.”  Approximately 72% of the students in these classes, already dominated by male students, were men receiving fraternity “new member education.”  Their performance in the class went from mediocre to piss-poor to mostly nil.  Their sense of privilege went from high to higher-than-a-kite to sky-high.  I’m too old to think this is cute, or good, or simply a rite of passage.  Mostly it seems like a huge waste of time, money, and the opportunity to learn to live at times outside of oneself.  I am definitely old enough to understand that these so-called “boys will be boys,” “brotherly” behaviors can be deadly.

How are we doing as we continue to say that no hazing is tolerated?  Have we sent the message that boys won’t be boys, that hazing is not tolerated, that our young men aren’t learning to be lords of the manor?  Recent and past events certainly tell us otherwise.

C’mon. Are You Kidding Me?

(Summary headlines from The New York Times, 12-15-17)

I need to write about how 2017 kicked my ass month in and month out, but I will save that for next week.

I’m saving the story of 2017 kicking my ass for next week because, well, it is still kicking my ass.  Take a look at the images above, a partial list of headlines from the December 15th (2017) edition of The New York Times.  There is no end to the list of harassers and assaulters, and yet there also seems to be a long line of doubters, some of whom are boasting, jousting doubters who are causing a backlash against the women who have me-too-ed.

This past week, my family and I had the good fortune of seeing many family members and friends for the holidays.  We are lucky to want to see so many people and always feel like we come up short, like we wish we had another week to finish the conversations and start some new ones.  This year was no exception, but I did hear some conversations in big-group settings that I wish I hadn’t heard.

Men from my father’s generation think that women and men will never be on the same page and that the #MeToo business proves this.  They think that women have gotten uppity in their quest to rupture gender role expectations.  They have no idea what non-binary means, and they really don’t want to know.  They long for the days when things were simpler, when men could stroke, grope, and fondle and women just shut up about it.  These particular men in my conversation don’t necessarily want to wantonly stroke, grope, and fondle, but they certainly don’t want to have to hear any complainin’ about other men’s stroking, groping, and fondling.  Mostly, they long for the days when men could stroke, grope, and fondle and never question whether it was right or wrong. They definitely don’t want the words “stroking,” “groping,” and “fondling” to be replaced with “harassing,” “attacking,” and “assaulting.”  That’s just over the top.  Too much, I tell you.  It’s time to restore some balance and civility and let the strokes, gropes, and fondles fall where they may.

Men from my own generation want to gather to talk about not riding elevators with women.  They have had the Human Resources training.  They have read about Harvey Weinstein.  They want to maintain their sexist work cultures without the threat of being accused of sexual harassment.  They want to believe that sexual harassment and sexual assault are confusing and nuanced concepts.  They don’t know it, but they want to become Mike Pence and never dine with any woman who isn’t their wife (remember: that’s most women).  After all, any random woman on an elevator might accuse them of sexual harassment.  They don’t know how to be alone in an elevator with a woman because who knows what exactly sexual harassment is?  If they’re pushing buttons to get to the fourth floor, is that sexual harassment?  If they say hello to the other person in the elevator, is that sexual harassment?  I mean, who really knows?  How can you know?  Is it possible they could just say, “Hi.  How are you?” and then not stroke, grope, or fondle another person on the elevator?  If they could succeed in doing that, they might be able to assure themselves that this is not sexual harassment.

Many men from a generation younger than me seemed to actually get it.  Huzzah!  They understood that women and men are professionals.  They understand that most professionals prefer not to be stroked, groped, fondled, propositioned, or otherwise harassed or assaulted at work.  They read articles and books about these issues, but mostly they talk to their friends, some of whom are cis-women, some of whom are trans-women, and all of whom do not want to be stroked, groped, fondled, propositioned, harassed, or assaulted.  They all seem to know what these words mean.  They know how to ride in elevators and greet other human beings.  They know how to respect body autonomy, work etiquette, and human decency.

Nevertheless, one topic that still too few people are addressing is the assaulter-in-chief in the White House.  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post that treats yet again why Trump must go.)  The more the old guys wax nostalgic about when women put up and shut up, the more the middle-aged guys worry that they might suddenly start masturbating on an elevator, the more we understand how so many people have indulged the assaulter-in-chief for so long, from long before his Russian-rigged run to the present day.  Accusing Trump of loudly admiring or detracting, stroking, groping, fondling, harassing, and assaulting—women and girls—might require people to assess what they themselves have done to others, what they themselves have indulged in others, and/or what they themselves have allowed others to do to them.  None of it is good.

2018 requires rigorous self-evaluation.  Figure out what you’ve done wrong, and then don’t do it again.  You can do this.  You can ride the elevator and just say “hello.”  You can work with women and appreciate their good work.  You can eat meals with people and move through an agenda. You really can.

Viejo Verde = Sexual Harasser = Criminal Action

(From Yale Alumni Magazine‘s classified ads, current issue)

In Spanish an old lech or pervert is called a “viejo verde,” or a green old man.  I used to think this was funny because I was so accustomed to normalizing the harassing behaviors of men imposing themselves on women in public and private spaces.  I basically thought, of course there will be old perverts, of course we have to protect ourselves and others from them, of course, of course, of course.  It took me until I was 27 or 28 to take these issues seriously—to understand the ways in which the men who engage in sexual harassment and assault cloak themselves in the “no big deal” protections they have always been afforded—and to stop accepting harassment as a given.

The spate of reporting about Weinstein and so many others over this past month (and, of course, about the assaulter-in-chief ) suggests that we in the United States are at least starting to come to terms with the myriad ways in which we have indulged grown men’s felonies and misdemeanors through our undervaluing of girls’ and women’s humanity (and, in not a few cases, boys’ and transgender individuals’ humanity).  Somehow, we see men as the smart adults who get to run the world, while also constantly surrendering to a boys-will-be-boys narrative that implies that men are just victims of their own animal drives.  I recognize this as both binary and Manichean, but, somehow, men get to have it both ways (treated with seriousness and respect and indulged when they commit actual crimes), and women get to have it in no ways (undercut in professional and personal settings and disbelieved when they state difficult truths).  Go back and read 17th-century poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz for an artful catalog of these unjust social mores, and then come on back to the 21st century to see how little has changed.  Even the Weinstein avalanche doesn’t make up for centuries of not caring, not reporting, not attending to profound, gender-based mistreatment.

This month’s reporting has been over the top, maybe precisely because sexual harassment and assault have been so woefully under-reported for centuries.  I doubt many of us have been able to keep up.  Here are a few references whose content has informed this blog post: Rebecca Traister in The Cut (11-13-17); Roy Moore accused by the fifth woman (The New York Times, 11-13-17); Jessica Valenti in The Guardian writing about Louis CK, Roy Moore, and #MeToo (11-10-17); Manohla Dargis in The New York Times, “Louis C.K. and Hollywood’s Canon of Creeps” (11-12-17); Karen Tumulty et.al. on Trump and his accusers (The Washington Post, 10-21-17) and Jia Tolentino on the same (The New Yorker, 11-9-17); Jessica Bennett on the “tsunami” of the Weinstein scandal (The New York Times, 11-5-17); James Hohmann on Roy Moore and the GOP (The Washington Post, 11-10-17); Yamiche Alcindor on sexual harassment in the House and Senate (The New York Times, 11-13-17), also reported on here in The Washington Post (10-27-17); sexual harassment and assault in higher education since Weinstein (The Chronicle of Higher Education; 11-13;17); Laurie Penny’s “The Unforgiving Minute” (Longreads, November, 2017); gender discrimination in the tech industry (The New Yorker, 11-20-17); The New York Timeslisting of men accused of sexual misconduct (11-13-17); today’s reporting about the #WeKnowWhatYouDid campaign at Spelman; in this older article from Forbes, recently making the social media rounds, John Grisham soft-pedals pedophilia (10-16-14).  I could go on, but this sampling certainly demonstrates the pervasiveness of the problem and the variety of reporting angles available to us.

The women (and others) using the #MeToo, #MeAt14, and #WeKnowWhatYouDid hashtags are making the still-important point that most societies across the globe have indulged harassing behaviors, including the felony of sexual assault and rape, for most of their existence.  #MeToo allows us to see the abundance of cases and the pervasiveness of these power plays, while also revealing the detail and texture of each of the individual stories told.  #MeAt14 stories make clear that, just like 14-year-olds of all genders, 14-year-old girls are not yet adults and should not be hunted, fished, baited, or otherwise treated like animals, especially not by adults, whom they might still believe are to be trusted.  #WeKnowWhatYouDid acknowledges that most reporting and adjudication mechanisms still harm victims of sexual harassment and assault and are therefore still far from effective or efficient.

When I was four or five years old and playing in my backyard, a 12-year-old pulled down his pants and asked me, “if I wanted to piss with him.”  This was somewhat frightening, and I told only my oldest brother, who then told my parents.  When they reported the incident to the police, a police officer came to our house and asked me to “show him” what had happened.  This was far more frightening to me than the initial event, which reminds me again that we still have much more work to do to make reporting and adjudication as non-threatening and non-punishing as possible.  When I was 12, my parents took some of us kids to the holiday concert at the school where my dad taught.  As we navigated the crowded bleachers, someone shoved his hand up my skirt and grabbed me between the legs.  I was in absolute shock, I didn’t know which of the coat-and-tie high-school boys had done it, and so I shoved the one on the end into the one next to him, attempting some sort of lame game of dominoes in my surprise, anger, and hurt.  I told no one because I didn’t even know how to articulate what that was.  When I was 13, my basketball coach felt us all up as he showed us techniques for foul shots.  A foul shot, indeed, especially when we actually joked about it in front of our parents, and no one did anything.  I should mention that the person was also a guidance counselor at our middle school.  When I was in college, a friend of a friend wouldn’t leave our apartment, pulled a Louis C.K., and then left.  When I saw him at the friend’s wedding a few years later, I re-experienced the shock I had felt back in college.  In a mega-city in another country, I embarked with friends on the metro, the most crowded metro car I had ever been on.  As I held my purse tight to me with one hand and held the upper bar of the metro car with my other hand, hands were all over my body.  I had nowhere to go.  There was not an inch of open space to move into.  I exited the metro at the very next stop, which was not my intended destination.  My exit from the car was as violating as the ride had been.  Two weeks ago, my daughter and I were at a hotel.  As we took the elevator back up to our room, two drunk men hopped on and leered at my daughter, while I half-backed her into the corner behind me.  She is 12 years old.

The photograph you see above is from Yale Alumni Magazine’s classified advertisements.  This ad invites older men to “find” women 10-30 (+) years their juniors.  For many men, that makes the “women” they are “finding” underage—not women, but girls who should be allowed to develop fully before making their own decisions about their bodies and sexual selves.  What other media corners are selling, trafficking, raping, and assaulting women and thereby reducing our collective humanity?  Why aren’t we calling them out more?  When is enough enough?

There should be no turning back.  We all know these stories. We know these people.  They are committing crimes, and we do not have to let them.  No more making light of the viejo verde, the old perv, the neighborhood lech, the harassing movie producer or comedian, the groping politician, or the raping swim or gymnastics coach.  No more (and no Moore).

Weinstein and Company

(Table of Contents of a 1990 publication by Elizabeth Bouchard, Everything You Need to Know about Sexual Harassment)

When I was in college, over 30 years ago, a woman from my dorm was raped at a fraternity party.  One year when I was a resident assistant in a dorm, a woman on my hall was in the shower, getting ready for Sunday morning church, and saw a man entering the shower stall through the bottom.  On another day that year, women on the hall upstairs reported that a man had entered their bedroom and climbed into bed with them.  He was eventually caught when attempting to do the same thing in another residence hall.  My third or fourth year—I can’t remember now because these predatory behaviors are so common that accounts of them start to blend together—women students were told to be careful of studying in the stacks in the library because a man was walking through the stacks, holding scissors, and snipping ponytails.  I can’t know whether the creepy perpetrator knew Alexander Pope’s poem, “The Rape of the Lock,” but I can say that making light of these actions is both common and foolish.  Since the college years, many friends have recounted dozens of other stories like these, all from one college in one college town.  I imagine some of you are reading this first paragraph and recalling similar stories from your own college years and well beyond.

As a college professor, I have been made aware of more cases of sexual assault and violence than I ever anticipated I would.  As I have said many times in the Gender Shrapnel Blog (for example, here) and throughout the Gender Shrapnel book, sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation are on a continuum with sexual assault and sexual violence.  If we are not reducing incidents of the former, there is no way we are reducing incidents of the latter.  The blind-eye phenomenon, practiced by so many in our communities, serves only to protect the powerful and create more opportunities for violence against women (and men, an issue that we need to address more frequently, especially in “fraternal” contexts, such as the military, sports, and Greek fraternity organizations).

I’m entering the Weinstein fray a little late because times are busy, none of this is surprising, and here we are again.  (*See previous posts on Fox News, Bill Cosby, needing better remedies for sexual discrimination, harassment and retaliation, rape, and campus sexual assault.)  As I said in the Bill Cosby post, patterns tell us something.  Testimonial elements of one felony line up with testimonial elements of other felonies perpetrated by the same person.  These details matter.  These stories matter.  And I’m hoping that criminal justice experts and/or sociologists can teach us to extrapolate from the stories we know to understand how many stories there may be that we don’t know.  Patterns tell us a lot, and there are many dotted lines between incidents on which we might imagine more felonies happening.  The Guardian provides this 10-11-2017 account of all the women who have accused Harvey Weinstein “so far,” implying that we will hear more allegations of more felonies.  According to The Guardian piece and to the 10-10-2017 account in The New Yorker, Weinstein’s alleged patterns reveal, over a 25-30-year span, a deliberate pattern: finding young women (usually actors or aspiring actors); convincing them to take a meeting with him, the unbelievably powerful movie mogul; dismissing staff members present at the first part of these meetings, often held in hotel suites; asking the women repeatedly to have sex with him or give him a massage; overriding the women’s “no’s” or hesitations by appearing naked and beginning the massage process himself; forcing his penis into women’s mouths and/or masturbating in front of them.

Multiple reports tell us that women who attempted to report the incidents (we could call them “crimes,” for example) were offered non-disclosure statements and money and/or were eliminated from Hollywood movie rosters and dragged through tabloids.  When in 1997 Weinstein’s company settled out of court with actor Rose McGowan, authors of the legal document insist that the settlement’s purpose was to “avoid litigation and buy peace” (The New York Times, 10-5-2017).  Peace for whom, we might ask.  Peace for Weinstein, his all-male board, the so-called “honeypots” who arranged the meetings, and all the men who act like Weinstein or think they should get to act like Weinstein.  This is not peace for McGowan or for the many women since 1997 who allege having been harassed and/or raped by Weinstein, and the many women since then who perhaps haven’t yet come forward.  Our money-run legal system traffics in violence and silence, silence and violence, and we are going to have to generate legal remedies that do not encourage perpetrators to continue their patterns, plain as day.

In this piece by The New York Times Editorial Board, the authors emphasize women’s silence (“Mr. Weinstein controlled many avenues to advancement in his industry and could kill the career of any woman who didn’t hush up”), but they don’t address men’s silence in this piece.  Where was Bob Weinstein on this?  What about all the men on the Weinstein board?  How about all the male actors who turned a blind eye?   The indulgence, abetting, and blind eyes over all these years communicated to everyone in the movie industry (and every other industry, since examples of the powerful getting away with felony after felony are abundant) that this culture was just fine, that power wins every time, that being exposed to sexual assault and violence are part and parcel of “climbing the ladder.”  The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg makes the point in this way: “Placing a particular burden on women, rather than, say, on the Weinstein Company’s all-male board, to have done something about him suggests this isn’t really about feminist credentials at all: it’s about making women, rather than men, responsible for male misbehavior” (10-10-17). (*Alexandra Petri’s hilarious take on the Weinstein case is also worth the read.)

The New York Times has spent the last week bending over backwards to perform a bizarre liberal mea culpa (see the aforementioned piece by the Editorial Board and this ridiculously juvenile piece by Ross Douthat) surrounding the Weinstein case.  Oh, Democrats, don’t be silent.  Oh, Democrats, renounce the money given you.  Hold on here, NYT.  Slow the hell down.  The preachiness is almost unbearable, given the newspaper’s role in harassing Hillary Clinton over e-mail protocols practiced abundantly both before and after her time in Washington.  Parsing the issue of sexual harassment and assault along party lines and expressing outrage or surprise when men who support the Democratic Party engage in these behaviors is disingenuous and tiresome.  We have elected men from the Democratic Party who have harassed, and possibly raped, women.  We have elected men from the Republican party who have harassed, and possibly raped, women.  I would venture to say that the situation is worse when your “president” has bragged about harassing behaviors and half of the nation has turned a blind eye to it.  We have all seen and can all discern these predatory, felonious patterns, but some choose to say nothing, and some choose to vote for these felons.

When The New York Times decided to publish the Douthat op-ed, which I can only call offensive tripe, they allowed Douthat to diminish Weinstein’s alleged criminal actions to words such as “piggishness” and “vice.”  Douthat also employs the euphemism “caddishness.” The newspaper allowed him to reinforce gender binaries in antiquated ways (e.g. the line about the Republic of Gilead, which not only ignores the fact that men are also victims of rape and extreme violence, but also subtly suggests that we should at least move towards the gender dystopia of the Atwood novel of the Moss television series).  Douthat also claims (here and in last week’s op-ed) Hugh Hefner as a liberal icon, but I think he might hear quite differently from liberals and progressives who have actually worked on gender and race issues.  Douthat tells us, “Promiscuity can encourage predatory entitlement.  Older rules of moral restraint were broader for a reason.  If your culture’s code is libertine, don’t be surprised that worse things than libertinism flourish.”  Welcome to the 19th century, people, where women weren’t even allowed to wear the short skirts that apparently caused the violence against them and their own downfalls.  This line also reads like a threat, something like, “Learn from your promiscuity, liberal Hollywood women, or return to Gilead.”  The New York Times’s liberal auto-flagellation reinforces age-old postures that blame women for the crimes, the felonies, of men.  Stop the bullshit.

An urgent question: To whom are we turning a blind eye right now?  Why are we letting them get away with this?  Who has the courage to speak up and out?

And a reminder.  I wrote the following text in the September 19th blog post of last year, and I fear I’ll be copying and pasting it again at this time next year:

*****

Let’s think for a moment about the common denominators at the core of sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation:

  • Hierarchy with powerful, high-salaried white men at the top [e.g. Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch]
  • Reinforcement of white, male privilege through the hiring and retention of more people who look the same, thus making people of color and women a rarity [Just look at the Fox News administrative team and line-up of anchors]
  • Institutional leaders who practice sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation are not only protected by other organizational leaders [e.g. Bill Shine, Diane Brandi], including general counsel, but are also imitated by men below them in the hierarchy [e.g. Bill O’Reilly, who has also been the subject of complaints of sexual harassment]
  • Establishment of a workplace environment that gives power to men and takes it from women.  Examples of this include giving more and higher quality airtime to men, regulating women’s appearance in highly scripted ways, and repeatedly airing sexist broadcasts as if they were news [Check out this series of clips of Fox News’ rampant misogyny]
  • “Boys-will-be-boys” indulgence of men’s illegal behavior [See that series of clips I just mentioned!]
  • Punishment of and retaliation against those lower in the hierarchy who make people aware of the illegal acts [Fox News firings of those who came forward about sexual harassment]
  • Silencing news of the illegal behaviors, through intimidation or pay-off
  • Condoning these behaviors through high-level protection afforded the wrongdoers.  The wrongdoers stay, and those who complain of the wrongdoing must go.
  • This cycle repeats itself.

While the law (see also Chapter 6 of Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace) distinguishes between quid pro quo (usually involving requests for sexual favors) and hostile work environment (HWE) harassment and discrimination, often where there is one form of harassment, the other is lurking as well.  There are multiple ways for the higher-ups in an organization to create a dehumanizing culture in which the lower-downs are not accorded respect for the work they do, are paid too little for the jobs they do, are silenced for taking a stand, and/or are removed because they challenge the hierarchy.  It is reported that Fox News employees, with Ailes at the helm, used both quid pro quo and HWE to foment a culture of harassment and dehumanization for decades.  This is textbook, people, and there is absolutely nothing shocking about it.  (Bryce Covert makes a similar point in this New York Times opinion piece.)

*****

 

 

Bill Cosby’s Case

(http://www.torontosun.com/2017/06/12/defendants-say-the-darndest-things)

A Philadelphia native, I was weaned on Fat Albert cartoons and grew up watching The Cosby Show.  Bill Cosby’s face called out from billboards lining the Schuylkill Expressway and announced the greatness and accessibility of Temple University.  Bill Cosby’s long and varied career made him a local and national legend.  I’ve read with interest the reception his work has received, especially from different individuals and communities of African-Americans in the United States.  Professor Mark Anthony Neal’s opinion piece in The Washington Post (6-17-17) provides ample cultural context for what Bill Cosby did and did not achieve in terms of cultural representation of family life and, specifically of black family life, in the United States.  Neal declared that Cosby became largely irrelevant once The Cosby Show concluded in 1992 and the concurrent Rodney King decision made even more visible the criminalization and unjust adjudication of black men.  In 2015, journalist Roxanne Jones stated that Bill Cosby had “betrayed black community”.  Journalist Denise Clay takes Cosby to task in this June 18, 2017, piece in Philadelphia Magazine.  In a recent NPR piece, journalist Gene Demby writes: “That’s why it’s worth noting how much the very real political position Cosby himself occupied — the kindly cultural ambassador of Negritude — has become if not entirely outmoded, then at least viewed far more skeptically.”

It is not mine to speak for, against, or in neutral terms about Bill Cosby’s interactions with definitions and interpretations of being black in the United States.  No doubt, he already was a controversial figure in this regard in the 1990’s, and his recent increased visibility has heightened the controversy.  While it is impossible and not desirable to remove the question of race from Bill Cosby’s case, I am going to focus more on the elements of the Cosby case that emerge from power, especially television star power, and decades of obscene privilege gone unchecked.  These alleged actions (and some admitted to in the 2005 deposition; quotes from it at this link) are not unlike the alleged violence perpetrated by the likes of Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and other Fox News power players accused of rape, sexual assault, violence, and subsequent cover-up that occurred over decades. (*See this related Gender Shrapnel Blog post from 9-19-16).  In fact, The New York Times’ and other newspapers’ editorial decisions to place much of the Cosby trial coverage in their “television” sections speak to the focus on entertainment and the media circus, rather than to the real-life possibility that a person seemed to have developed a pattern of administering powerful drugs to unwitting women and then doing to them whatever he pleased.  Editors of respected national dailies have made similar decisions with rape cases surrounding athletic superstars—placing the coverage of the case in the sports section, rather than in sections that typically cover criminal and civil lawsuits.  (*See this related Gender Shrapnel blog post from 1-2-17.)  The fame and fortune of these alleged criminals help their stories to be reported as more pulp fodder, more Kardashian-esque gossip, more sensationalized rise and fall, and less of an actual criminal case that reveals cruel and predatory patterns of the dehumanization of women over multiple decades.

When there is a single he said-she said account of a single incident, we experience great difficulty in believing the person who makes the accusation and finding against the accused.  This somewhat dated (2002) Department of Justice report, titled “Prosecutors’ Charging Decisions in Sexual Assault Cases: A Multi-Site Study, Final Report,” reveals that decisions to charge sexual assault cases do still hinge on perceptions of the accused (more likely to be charged if the person is black) and of the accuser (more likely to succeed in going forward if the person fits the “ideal victim image”, i.e. “pure” or “innocent”), thus striking at the core of race and gender shrapnel.  This much more up-to-date 2016 report about prosecution of sexual assault cases in the District of Columbia demonstrates that police officers and prosecutors need better training on collection of evidence, language for interviewing people in sexual assault and rape cases, and shortened processing times and evaluation of so-called rape kits.  The system still favors letting sexual assault and rape cases go, appearing at least tacitly to reinforce that rape is just supposed to happen.  In this The New York Times piece from June 20, 2017, Susan Chira interviews Jeannie Suk Gersen, who says: “We chose to set up our system to be stacked in favor of the defendant in all cases,” she said. “So, in areas where most of the defendants are male, and most of the accusers are female, it’s a structural bias in favor of males. Even if we were to get rid of sexism, it would still be very hard to win these cases. I think this is what we have to live with on the criminal side, because we’ve made the calculation that this is the right balance of values.”

You would think, though, that if 50 or 60 people told their stories, each story with its own specific context and details, but each contributing to a composite indication of malicious intent to disable people and then to violate them, you might be able to believe the 50 or 60 people who were victims of a pattern of violence and privilege and to act on your belief that they are telling the truth.  The pattern was able to establish itself, in fact, because each of the victims over this long stretch believed it impossible to take on the legendary Bill Cosby.  A person rendered an object might believe herself less important and less able to tackle an enormously difficult task, that of confronting “America’s dad.”

Take a moment to review the accounts of the now 60 accusers (there were 50 back in 2015), outlined here by The Los Angeles Times (6-17-17).  The first woman on this long list must wonder if there would have been fewer (or no more) victims had she been able to go up against Cosby and his star power.  In Andrea Constand’s case against Bill Cosby, Cosby is reported (e.g. here) to have claimed to have given Constand an “herbal” pill and later to have told Constand and her mother that it was only Benadryl.  Lili Loofbourow in the same opinion piece from The Week, quotes Cosby’s version of the events: “’I don’t hear her say anything.  And I don’t feel her say anything,’ Cosby says of the sexual contact.  ‘So I continue, and I go into the area that is somewhere between permission and rejection.  I am not stopped.’”  What the hell?  You were never looking for either permission or rejection because you had drugged the person so that you could ensure her silence and temporary ignorance of her own situation.  Cosby here is trying to co-opt consent language to make the case seem more innocent, but instead confirms the worst—a decades-long pattern of administration of drugs, forceful incapacitation of women, and sexual assault and rape.

The power and privilege of Bill Cosby, television superstar and celebrated member of Temple University’s Board of Trustees, has protected him from the full freight of potential conviction and punishment.  Here I give two specific examples.  First, most individuals with multiple charges of sexual assault against them would quickly lose support from high-level institutions (although we have seen time and again that these individuals often do not lose the support of their wives and/or immediate family members).  Cosby’s 2005 statement about drugging women did not get him removed from Temple’s Board of Trustees.  It wasn’t until the multiple charges were issued ten years later that he “resigned” from the Board.  This 2015 Washington Post piece analyzes Temple’s troubled relationship with Cosby.  Cosby’s lawyer from 2015, Patrick J. O’Conner, is still the chair of Temple University’s board of trustees.  This must send a rather fraught message to the university community about Title IX protections, or lack thereof, for students, staff (of which Andrea Constand was a member back in 2004), and faculty in the university community.

The second example of Cosby’s astounding sense of privilege and protection is his plan to offer “a series of town hall meetings this summer to educate people, including young athletes and married men, on how to avoid accusations of sexual assault,” as reported here in a 6-22-17 piece from The New York Times.  (*See this related post in the Gender Shrapnel Blog.) This plan absurdly ignores that the best way to avoid accusations of sexual assault is not to sexually assault.  This fake rehabilitative proposal is insulting, as is the statement by another Cosby employee that “anything at this point can be considered sexual assault” (same piece from The NYT).  As I write this, another Cosby spokesperson has announced that the time isn’t right for Cosby to undertake these town hall meetings.

This is a Trump world in which reality t.v. glitz and glamour override logic, decency, and even the law.

Sexual Assault Prevention Training in the News

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports (3-31-17) that Brandon E. Banks, a former Vanderbilt University student and football player charged in a rape case from June, 2013, has spoken at several universities to student-athletes about sexual assault.  This subsequent Chronicle piece [4-2-17], titled “Victim in Vanderbilt Rape Case is Shocked That a Suspect Is Speaking on Campuses,” says that at least five universities have hosted Banks. Banks has visited these campuses in conjunction with Tyrone White, who is described in the earlier Chronicle piece as “a motivational speaker and former coach who organizes speaking events.”

White’s website underscores the main theme of “winning in life.” In addition, the website bills one of White’s speaking programs with the headline, “Say ‘NO!’ to Hook-Up Drama: Skills to wisely navigate intimate relationships.”  One of the bulleted points on the side states that students will learn “how to get appropriate help if the ‘drama’ becomes violent.” The use of “drama” as a term for sexual assault or sexual violence is deeply problematic, as is the inclusion of a speaker who is currently facing sexual assault charges.  I’m not saying that there isn’t something to learn about these situations and quite possibly from these individuals, but I am saying that the programming seems more than insensitive to victims’ rights in general and very specifically to the young woman who is alleged to have been the victim of “multiple counts of aggravated rape and other charges” (Chronicle, 3-31-17).

It wasn’t until this tour, targeted at student-athletes (described just as “athletes” in the 3-31-17 Chronicle piece), brought White and Banks to Louisiana State University that members of a university community raised objections.  The e-mail invitation to the event reportedly featured Banks’ imminent sentencing as a reason to attend the talk.  This seems to exploit both alleged perpetrator and victim.  The 3-31 Chronicle piece appropriately signals that the e-mail invitation assured potential attendees that the session would be over before the start of the NCAA national championship game for men’s basketball.  (You can learn about sexual assault, guys, but we won’t take up too much of your valuable time.)

According to the Chronicle, Tyrone White billed Brandon Banks as “not [the victim’s] hero” and highlighted the increased difficulties in Banks’s life since the incident.  Faculty at LSU perceived this whole invitation as “a tone-deaf mistake by the athletics department” (Chronicle, 3-31-17).  This is certainly true, but the invitation is more than just tone-deaf.  It reveals a continued desire to focus on the alleged perpetrator’s changed life, instead of that of the victim’s, to give the alleged perpetrator a microphone and public mode of reconciliation at the cost of the victim, and to reinforce old gender scripts that cast woman as victim and man as her savior.  Let me put it bluntly: Imagine you were raped by four men, some of whom photographed the assaults, and then you saw reputable universities inviting one of those men, his sentencing for felony charges imminent, to share his wisdom about sexual assault cases.  I believe you would be retraumatized by the original incident and the lightness with which it was considered by several universities (don’t worry—you’ll make it on time to the Final Four, folks!).  I believe you might think you might have a little more to offer in the realm of sexual assault prevention training.

The Chronicle (3-31-17) reports that faculty members were concerned about the following related issues: the University was booking an “untutored, ungraduated athlete who is on the brink of standing trial for a felony”; the University didn’t go to the root of the problem; the presentation seemed to lack scholarly grounding; faculty members would like more collaboration on these issues between athletics and academics.  These faculty concerns, echoed by many LSU students, are valid and should be considered an important part of prevention programs.  The “hero” and “winning” rhetoric touted by White reinforces hypermasculinist behaviors and casts women as victims.

Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, issued a statement on 3-14-17 that called his “team” to solve the problems of “disrespecting women by crude jokes, wisecracks, sexual harassment, and in its worst manifestations, sexual assault—a serious violent crime.”  Richardson says that “in teams, there are no bystanders.  We are all in.”  While on the face of it, these might seem like noble or appropriate words, they again reinforce gender scripts (the “respect” model, or the woman-on-the-pedestal model).  More importantly, these words are accompanied by a fierce us-versus-them rhetoric, exemplified in these statements: “We definitely don’t allow anybody to disrespect another teammate—we close ranks and protect”; “…to remain the world’s most powerful Navy we must be 100% focused on staying ahead of our competition…”; “There is no room in our Navy for toxic behavior.  It makes us weaker, and cedes advantage to the enemy.”  The “fighting words” model of sexual assault prevention might not be the best way to get people talking about actual violence.  In addition, as I say throughout Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace, in the current climate, statements that invoke zero-tolerance policies tend to be full of bluster and bravado and hypocrisy.  We continue to tolerate sexual discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and assault—all the time.

In fact, these issues and their emphasis on bystander intervention underscore some of the shortcomings of current approaches to sexual assault prevention.  Bystander intervention is of fundamental importance, but it cannot be the only approach to solving the problem of sexual violence on campuses.  Some programs based on bystander intervention ignore root causes of gender-based violence and neglect to link sexual assault to patterns of sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.

Women’s and gender studies scholars and students have a lot to offer to organizations seeking to provide sexual assault prevention training, staring with undoing gender binaries and age-old gender scripts.  For example, see the AAUW’s tool kit for sexual assault prevention.