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.

“Reasonable” People

(Yes, you might need to blink and look again at these headlines.  They’re from The New York Times, not The Onion or McSweeney’s.)

It’s like a terrible joke.  How many movie stars does it take for someone to believe they were sexually harassed and assaulted?  Or, maybe, how many USA gymnasts does it take?  We all know the possible answers:  All of them.  Way too many.  Or, don’t worry they will only be believed for a second until the pendulum swings back to establishing their attacker(s) as credible, measured, reasonable.

Just imagine how many unknown women of far fewer means it takes to be believed.  I don’t think mathematics has yet created the beyond-infinity number (right?), but this question might point us all in that direction.

Over these past few weeks, I have been thinking about an article I wrote a couple of years ago that cited Donna Haraway (*see this 1988 article, for example) and Evelyn Fox-Keller (*really interesting 2014 interview here) on the Enlightenment-generated image of the scientist—that 18th-century white man, in a white coat, working in a white lab with other white-coated assistants, doing white experiments and coming to white conclusions.  This scientist—the quintessence of light, illustration, illumination, reason—would become almost invisible as the reasoned results of his lab were disseminated and taken as true, as objectively generated and disseminated.  Haraway and Fox-Keller talk about women entering the lab as a “germ,” the other.  Their results would be marked by their otherness and thus doubted, disbelieved, considered contaminated.  The privilege of being seen as objective and reasonable, practically invisible in the extreme objectivity of it all, contrasts sharply with the constant existence as the one who is supposed to assimilate, or just can’t assimilate, or won’t assimilate, or who didn’t assimilate well enough—a lifelong germ invading the space of the supposedly “reasonable.”

The Society for Human Resource Management website tell us: “In workplace harassment situations, the perspective of a “reasonable person” is one aspect of the criteria used to determine whether a work environment is hostile. The reasonable person standard aims to avoid the potential for parties to claim they suffered harassment when most people would not find such instances offensive if they themselves were the subject of such acts.”  As I have stated throughout the Gender Shrapnel Blog (for example, here), the law and its applications build on precedent and, therefore, decades, even centuries, can pass before we undo implicit and explicit racism and sexism embedded in our laws.  The “reasonable person” standard established in Equal Employment Opportunity law still has not been examined thoroughly enough to measure how much harassment white male legislators over the centuries have deemed is “reasonable” for someone to accept.

In a talk at Washington and Lee last week, Devon Carbado brilliantly linked the “reasonable person” standard to vulnerability to police violence.  This 2016 article by Carbado treats thoroughly the “Reasonableness Doctrine” as it applies to the Fourth Amendment, “reasonable search and seizure,” and escalating interactions with the police imposed on African Americans.  Carbado provides a type of flow chart, with detailed examples, of how “traffic stops function as gateways to more intrusive searches and seizures” (151). Carbado takes issue with the term “reasonable” to demonstrate that it is imbued with the racism and sexism that our laws and law enforcement systems have inherited through the centuries.  He cites Crenshaw on the “say her name” campaign to understand police violence specifically against black women. This “reasonable person” standard for discrimination, harassment, and retaliation is embedded in Title VII and Title IX law.  In a nutshell, the more often the “reasonable” standard is invoked against people of color and women, the more it naturalizes the stop-and-frisk phenomenon, which I see as both literal (actual police stops of African Americans, in incredibly disproportionate numbers) and metaphorical (allusion to real touching—sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and assault in all types of workplaces, including the education workplace).  Let’s not forget, Republican candidate from Missouri Courtland Sykes just a few days ago said that radical feminism has “a crazed definition of modern womanhood,” and he added that, “They made it up to suit their own nasty, snake-filled heads.”  (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post, “Mary Beard’s Manifesto,” to understand more about retrograde obsession with the head of Medusa.)  We have to improve our ability to question and name these unreasonable candidates so easily masquerading these days as reasonable.  (Don’t make me bring up Roy Moore to re-make this point.)

160 women testified that Larry Nassar sexually assaulted them.  Some of the women were as young as six years old when Nassar committed such felonies.  These assaults happened over decades, permeating just about every corner of USA Gymnastics and, quite apparently, Michigan State University.  The world is ready to believe in the integrity of a single male doctor before it is prepared to believe hundreds of women and girls with an entirely credible claim.  Nassar’s non-apology statement and self-defensive testimony combine to re-harass and re-assault the 160 women who had already, miraculously, survived his abuse.  Nassar’s most salient statement, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.  It is just a complete nightmare,” serves to do what so many non-apology defenses have done in so many others of these recent cases—to deny wrongdoing, cast doubt on those who have filed suit, assert some kind of moral high ground, and minimize the gravity of the actual crimes committed.  Nassar believes himself to be the objective white man in the white coat in the white laboratory.

The New York Times reported on January 20, 2018, that Pennsylvania Republican Representative Patrick Meehan had settled his own sexual misconduct case using taxpayer money.  Ah, yes, the highly reasonable Meehan was even a member of the House Ethics Committee, which has been seeking solutions to what the article rightly calls “secretive congressional processes for handling such complaints, which advocates say are slanted to favor abusers, allowing them to use the vast resources of the federal government to intimidate, isolate, and silence their victims.”  The fact that it took Meehan five more days to realize the jig was up—that the woman whom he insisted was his “complete partner” did not see the situation in the same light and that he would not be a viable candidate for re-election—speaks to the extent to which he, and probably many people around him for decades, still bought into his “reasonable,” objective, rational character.  United States culture reveals a tendency to bend over backwards to forgive felonious men and a leaning forward to blame victims.  One glance at the second headline in the image above reinforces that it’s not just the United States.  The person considered the most progressive leader of one of the most powerful religions in the world practices the same “reasonable” person standard: defend the criminal and blame the victim.  This is as tiresome as it is dangerous.

(A book available at a local pub.  Yes, please.)

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.

Trump Must Go (and Take Thomas With Him)

(Meme from social media; Access Hollywood quote)

The assaulter-in-chief continues to be busy, as he ejects Haitians by the tens of thousands from the United States, proposes a tax plan that benefits only him and his cronies, launches more money-making products and schemes from his White House perch, and moves on North Korea to grab its metaphorical pussy and put us all in danger.  In the meantime, we citizens must plan for his impeachment, indictment, and/or imminent invisibility.

The post-Cosby, post-Weinstein, post-Louis C.K., post-Spacey, post-Franken, post-Rose, post-Moore era tells us that there is nothing “post” about any of this.  We are living with and among men who use their power and position to serially harass and assault women (and men and transgender individuals).  As I wrote in the 2016 Gender Shrapnel book (and often have to remind people who write to say, “But, Bill Clinton, but, Bill Clinton…”), I have never viewed sexual harassment and assault as the domain of only Republicans, and I do believe we have to understand politics and entertainment as real workplaces, subject to Title VII and Title IX.

If we have learned nothing else from the #MeToo era, it is that many men use their power and privilege to stalk, bait, hunt, harass, assault, and rape women.  The only saving grace of some Democrats is that they at least don’t also (or at least always) punish women through brutal legislation that denies us our humanity.  Both sides of the aisle swim in hypocrisy.  The Democrats run on being the party strong on women’s rights. See Susan Brison’s article on Al Franken to understand the depth of Franken’s hypocritical stance on women’s rights.  On the other side, the Republicans boast of being the “family values” party.  Ohio state lawmaker Wesley Goodman ran an anti-gay, pro-“family values” campaign, only to resign last week when it was discovered that he has had relationships with men, at least one alleged as non-consensual.  Roy Moore is the symbol of the entrenched Christian-values right that is completely bereft of values, except for crime, greed, and stupefying self-interest.  If these power-laden individuals spent more time thinking about others’ needs, they would be less criminal and more effective legislators and governors.  As it stands, they are assholes and, in some cases, felons.

Franken and Rose both formally stated that they don’t remember the encounters the same way the women did.  Exactly!  This is the problem.  They have approached, groped, and/or assaulted women to remind themselves of their own power.  These very actions remind the women, both in the moment and for years beyond, of their own lack of power in public and private spheres.  There is no way these accounts can or will ever line up—not until the harassing men learn to check their privilege, and likely not even then.  Louis C.K.’s non-apology statement re-enacted the allegations of his pulling out his penis in front of unwilling women and forcing some kind of interaction with it.  The more this individual used the word “dick,” in the very statement that was supposed to demonstrate recognition and contrition, the more he emphasized again that he gets to put his penis wherever he wants to, no matter the willingness or unwillingness of his audience.  These statements and non-apologies serve to attempt to discredit those who have registered the felonies and misdemeanors and to re-harass the already harassed.

Ronan Farrow’s “Harvey Weinstein’s Secret Settlements” (The New Yorker, 11-21-17) very capably lays out the power play inherent in non-disclosure agreements and the enormous disservice these documents do to our society. The documents silence those who have suffered sexual harassment and rape and ensure that serial felons can strike again.  Farrow makes explicit that Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, at the age of 22, was bullied into signing a non-disclosure agreement, but that she also insisted on trying other remedies.  In addition, Zelda Perkins appears to have attempted also to impose legal vigilance and restriction on Weinstein, but she was shut down at every turn.  Our legal system is poorly equipped to institute real remedies and operates only for the almighty dollar, thus reinforcing the sheer power and financial and social capital of these serial harassers.

Yes, it is appropriate to go back and understand our nation’s indulgence of Bill Clinton, who, at the very least, was not molesting girls.  Still, two other things are even more urgent: (1) for our nation to revisit the question of Clarence Thomas’s sexual harassment and to end his long term as Supreme Court Justice; and (2) for our nation to gather information and testimony from the 16 women who went on the record against Donald Trump, the sitting President of the United States (it’s still hard for me to refer to him using this term), in order to accuse him of sexual harassment and assault.

Let’s put it bluntly: Anita Hill is a hero.  For over 26 years, Hill has shared her profound legal expertise on sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation through her writing, teaching, and talks.  All the while, Clarence Thomas has set silently on the most important bench in the land, benefiting from the all-white-male panel’s aggressive dismantling of Hill’s testimony.  Even Joe Biden’s “apology” removes blame from himself and emphasizes Hill’s victimhood, rather than her truth-telling and bravery.  Biden soft-pedals admission of participation in the attack in his use of the passive voice (e.g. “Anita Hill was victimized”).  Until I start hearing first-person singular apologies with real admissions of wrongdoing and a plan for rightdoing, I will reject this ridiculous genre of harassment apologies.  What will it take, all these years later, to reckon with 26 years of Thomas on the bench?

The current events surrounding sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and assault should make us regret the Clarence Thomas case and address the cases before us now.  We could look back on this era and proudly declare that we cleaned up our act.  The most significant case before us, of course, is that of Donald J. Trump.  *See Amanda Marcotte’s call to investigate Trump, published yesterday in Salon.  I wholeheartedly agree with Marcotte’s recommendation: “There is one solution that hasn’t been, as far as I know, floated yet: The Justice Department could appoint a special counsel to open an investigation into the years of accusations against Trump.”  YES.  Exactly this.  As Marcotte astutely notes, the investigation is warranted and will keep the public’s ever-straying attention on this issue.  Two special investigations (Russia and sexual harassment/assault) are a drop in the bucket for this sitting “president.”

Those of us who live in the United States should share the above meme every day, in every way possible.  We must write to senators and congresspeople to insist on this special investigation.  We have done this for healthcare, travel bans, DACA, and the tax scam, and we need to respect women’s and transgender individuals’ rights enough to advocate for Title VII and Title IX protections to be applied to the groper-in-chief.

While Trump’s “Al Frankenstein” tweet served to slam Franken, it actually worked harder to re-enact the harassment of Leeann Tweeden.  Add this action to the list for the special investigation.

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).

Dear Colleague

 

ME

ME

ME

ME

ME

ME

ME

TOO

TOO

TOO

TOO

TOO

TOO

TOO

What is it going to take for a large group of people to believe that women of all races and many individuals from the LGBTQIA+ community have been sexually harassed, discriminated against, and assaulted and then made to believe it was their fault?  We didn’t protest vociferously as we heard cases and allegations against Fox News, our current “president,” and Bill Cosby (2005 and again in 2015).  Do white women actors from Hollywood have a certain clout that is waking people up to the pervasiveness of workplace harassment (hostile work environment and quid pro quo), street harassment, and sexual violence?  We have to hope that the visible and audible outrage about the Harvey Weinstein case expressed in traditional media outlets and copiously on social media raise awareness and allow us to make real incursions into social and legal change.

I wrote last week about how unsurprised we should be about Harvey Weinstein’s alleged 30-year campaign of sexual harassment and assault.  The textbook elements of the case include: predatory and criminal behaviors enacted by those higher in the hierarchy on those lower in the hierarchy (power differential); the person harassed is taken aback by the situation and feels threatened, and therefore often doesn’t respond in a way that she might otherwise have done (she is hit by gender and/or race shrapnel); cronies of the higher-up accommodate the illegal behaviors of their colleague and maintain their own power (male networks of power and boys-will-be-boys attitudes); those who have been harassed and/or assaulted and are brave enough to speak out are silenced in any number of ways (threats; tabloids, black lists; lack of employment; etc.); society reinforces negative responses to the women who speak out (can’t take a joke; nags; drags; exaggerators; liars); the boss preys again.

I dare say that this The New York Times piece, which reports on Woody Allen’s BBC interview about the Weinstein case, reveals again how those accused of these serious crimes rarely understand what they did (or continue to do) wrong.  Allen states that he’s grateful for the work Miramax gave him after his own sexual harassment and violence cases, makes clear that no one should be interested in hearing these types of allegations (“You’re not interested in it.  You are interested in making your movie”), and warns of a “witch hunt atmosphere,” which sounds curiously like the “president’s” words about the Justice Department’s inquiry into Russian involvement in our most recent presidential election. The New York Times op-ed columnist Bret Stephens applauds Betsy DeVos for ending “a campus witch hunt” in her removal of Obama-era Title IX guidance for colleges and universities.  Who are the witches and who are the hunters here?  In this opinion piece in The New York Times, campus sexual violence researchers Miriam Gleckman-Krut and Nicole Bedera insist that “Obama-era policies did not malign men.  What they did was make it easier for victims to come forward.”  The headline asks the poignant question, “Who Gets to Define Campus Rape?”

As I write in Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace, many people who are harassed have to change their daily paths to avoid the person in power and often have to turn down job opportunities that would require them to have contact with that person, thus permanently changing the course of the careers of the people who have been harassed.  These acts of avoidance occur in every career and on many college and university campuses.  The power systems set in place are replicated in the social lives of the students, thus demonstrating again the continuum through which sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation are linked to sexual assault and sexual violence.  If we don’t take issues of harassment and discrimination seriously, then we will not get at the enormous problem of sexual assault and sexual violence.

Sexual harassment in the higher education context is important for many reasons.  Turning a blind eye to it reinforces for young men, women, and people of all genders that young men are supposed to have, exercise, and retain power, both during the college years and beyond.  It sets the tone for the workplace, since we presumably are educating students to be the workers of tomorrow.  The blind-eye habit in higher education also sends a message to students in middle and high schools that boys have the power and girls should shut up.  This doesn’t bode well for their futures in higher education and/or the workplace.  The sexual harassment problem in Hollywood, at Fox News, in the White House, and in so many other industries, simply reproduces itself in other power-dependent settings, like schools.

President Obama’s “Dear Colleague” letter of 2011 (now included on the Office of Civil Rights’s website only as “archived information”) sent a direct message to United States colleges and universities that the reduction of sexual assault and sexual violence on higher education campuses was a priority for the Obama administration.  The “significant guidance” included in the letter comes with great detail, and in the second footnote of the document, sexual harassment is directly linked to sexual violence and Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is invoked.  In other words, the document recognized the more acute context for people who find themselves at the intersection of gender, race, and/or national origin. These moves, along with the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, reveal the Obama administration’s understanding of the problem and the seriousness with which the administration approached recommendations for adjudication.  I strongly recommend this 19-page document to anyone interested in reducing the incidence of sexual harassment and violence and in understanding links between and among Title IV, VII, and IX law.

Last month, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rescinded the Obama-era guidelines.  (*See this previous post on DeVos and public education.)  DeVos has replaced the “Dear Colleague” guidelines with a Q&A document, which arguably creates a “both sides” false equivalency that had been eased by the Obama-era guidelines.  (*See Jeannie Suk Gersen’s and Christina Hoff Sommers’s support of “both sides” approaches. )  One report cites “confusion over specifics” of the interim guidelines provided by DeVos’s office.  The Chronicle of Higher Education’s September 11, 2017, commentary by Scott Schneider analyzes in legal and practical terms “what DeVos got wrong in her speech on the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter.”  Information and clarifications have come out in drips and drabs (e.g. this updated piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education), thus sowing more confusion and making victims wonder whether it is worthwhile to report traumatic incidents of sexual assault and violence.  A reporter from The Chronicle has chronicled his numerous attempts to get straight answers out of the Education Secretary.

DeVos’s replacement of the Obama-era guidelines (both 2011 [“Dear Colleague”] and 2014 [Q&A format for clarification of “Dear Colleague”]) speaks again to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s idea that the current “president’s” “presidency” (quotation marks around these words are mine) “hinges on the fact of a black president” and “has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own” (these brilliant quotes are from Coates).  Recent college graduate Jamil Smith in this piece in The New York Times states that:  “Instead, my experience taught me that we need to be proactive in preventing sexual assault, and much of that involves something that should be a natural fit for college campuses: education. The workshops I taught to captive audiences of fraternity brothers are a start, but even they weren’t enough. Rape prevention education should be more than an hour, and it should be mandatory for everyone, not just those involved in Greek life. And beyond the legal landscape of sexual assault, men should be disabused of the beliefs that lead to it and should be required to understand its effects on victims.”  The United States could clearly use several thousand more Jamil Smiths, young men who understand structural oppression of women and do something to change it.

DeVos has taken her marching orders from this “president.”  It’s time to dance to an entirely different tune.  Let’s get it right here, on campus, the place guided by lofty mission statements that usually assert that we are all people.

P.S. After this blog post was published, I saw Professor Mikki Brock’s excellent piece on witches and witch hunts in The Washington Post.  Check it out!

Witches and Warlocks

This week Fox News removed Bill O’Reilly from its roster (reported on by The New York Times here).  Finally.  After multiple complaints of sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.  (*See the Gender Shrapnel Blog post on Roger Ailes and Fox News here.)  The New York Times reported: “Mr. O’Reilly and his employers came under intense pressure after an article by The New York Times on April 1 revealed how Fox News and its parent company, 21st Century Fox, had repeatedly stood by him even as he and the company reached settlements with five women who had complained about sexual harassment or other inappropriate behavior by him. The agreements totaled about $13 million.”  The New York Times reports that O’Reilly was still able to hold a meeting with the Pope this week and will not lose his book contract with Henry Holt.  Bill also keeps the $25 million (figured cited in this The Washington Post piece) that Fox News would have paid him in the upcoming year. I think Bill is doing just fine, in case you were worried.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has featured for several weeks now Laura Kipnis’ article titled “Eyewitness to a Title IX Witch Trial.”  The article, published in The Chronicle’s Review section, has given ample publicity to the publication of Kipnis’ new book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (HarperCollins).  In this blog post, I am addressing only Kipnis’ piece in The Chronicle.  I haven’t yet read the book.  I disagree with the main points of the article, but maybe the book will offer more nuance.

In the lengthy review article (about her own book), Kipnis recounts at great length the process by which Northwestern University adjudicated a case against philosophy professor Peter Ludlow.  The case has been covered in The Chicago Tribune, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Daily Northwestern.  I’m only familiar with this case through reading these articles and therefore am no expert on it.  I understand that Ludlow was accused by an undergraduate student, who had been Ludlow’s student, of forcing her to drink alcohol and making unwanted sexual advances towards her.  Soon after this became a formal lawsuit, a graduate student (from the same department as Ludlow, but not his student) accused Ludlow of raping her.  These are the two cases at the center of this story.  Northwestern University had no policy prohibiting faculty-student relations (called “dating” by Kipnis in the Chronicle piece).

Kipnis takes issue with Northwestern University’s handling of the case in the lengthy hearings of Ludlow, at which were present the faculty panel and “three outside lawyers, at least two in-house lawyers, another lawyer hired by the university to advise the faculty panel…,” (cited here) along with Ludlow’s lawyer.  Kipnis was there in the role of “faculty support person” to Ludlow.  Her account of the hearings is supplemented by Ludlow’s file of e-mails, text messages, memos, and formal university documents.  I appreciate Kipnis’ detailed account and willingness to question Title IX proceedings that are still woefully inadequate on most college and university campuses.  She believes that the university was trying to respond to unclear Title IX guidelines and that this resulted in the “witch trial” of Peter Ludlow.

Laura Kipnis is implicated in the case as well because her earlier defense of faculty-student “dating” had resulted in a Title IX complaint against her at Northwestern.  Kipnis believes that prohibitions on such behavior are paternalistic and remove sexual agency.  I believe we need to understand this entanglement to analyze well Kipnis’ highly public (and well remunerated) opinion on this case.

I would like to examine the language Kipnis uses in this piece. Kipnis remarks, “So when Ludlow’s lawyer called, of course I said yes—I was being offered a front-row seat at a witch trial.” The “witch trial” analogy seems poorly applied in the case of Ludlow, who has enjoyed great privilege and position for years.  I get that “warlock trial” doesn’t do the trick, but I’d rather go in that direction.  I also don’t completely understand the desire to witness a so-called “witch trial” because I don’t wish the pillory upon people, whether they are innocent or guilty. On the other hand, if Kipnis had made clear that her goal in being present at the hearings was to bear witness in the name of justice surrounding fraught Title IX policies, practices, and procedures, then her participation in, association with, and writings about the case to me would be more convincing.

The conflation of the term “sex” with “sexual harassment and discrimination” and “sexual violence” presents problems that weaken some of Kipnis’ arguments.  “Sex” refers to (1) biological determinations that have been appropriately complicated by gender and sexuality studies and (2) physical contact (often officially referred to as sexual intercourse, with reference to genitalia) between and/or among individuals.  Kipnis states, “I soon learned that rampant accusation is the new norm on American campuses; the place is a secret cornucopia of accusation, especially when it comes to sex” (cited in her 4-2-17 Chronicle piece).  The hyperbolic language (“rampant” and “cornucopia”) belies the realities of sexual assault on college campuses, where 2016 statistics (RAINN statistics here) still tell us that one in five women is sexually assaulted during her time at college or university.  The figures are worse for transgender, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming individuals.  Kipnis uses the bald term ‘sex,’ instead of giving it context in the hierarchical layers of colleges and universities.

Nowhere in this lengthy piece does Kipnis deal with actual statistics that speak to a culture of sexual violence, embedded in power hierarchies, on our college and university campuses.  Kipnis claims that “new codes banning professor-student dating infantilize[d]students—this wasn’t feminism, it was paternalism.”  Kipnis’ foray into questions of feminism and sexual agency is interesting and necessary, but becomes much more complicated when the professor-student relationship is added to the mix.

Professors do wield power.  We design syllabi, determine the flow of class, assign grades, vote for assignment of department awards, and write (or don’t) letters of recommendation. Undergraduate and graduate students can develop a type of hero worship (something I detect in Kipnis’ enraptured tone as she describes Ludlow) that might translate as sexual attraction.  No matter an institution’s lack of policy on “dating” (Kipnis’ oversimplified term), or “fraternization” (a charged term in and of itself often used in the workplace), a professor who gets entangled in a relationship with a student in his class or department is exercising power.  Students in the same department are often nominated for the same awards, scholarships, and grants, and therefore departments breed competition, a competition that takes on a different look and a less fair landscape if a professor is sleeping with one of the students involved.

When things go wrong in the relationship (however we choose to define it), and we know they often do, this power piece is at play.  College students are often trying to figure out sexual desires and identities, and, so, yes, questions of power and sexual agency are more than just a little complicated.  If and when students and professors sleep together, structural systems of power become even more apparent.  Kipnis’ use of the term ‘sexual paranoia,’ in this review piece and in the book title itself, trivializes this important developmental stage for 18-22-year-olds and conflates sexual exploration with sexual discrimination and violence.  Kipnis also reduces real concerns about rampant sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation and about rape and sexual violence to one oversimplified, offensive phrase, ‘sexual finger-pointing.’

Kipnis praises Jessica Wilson, a philosophy professor and former student of Ludlow, and Wilson’s character defense of Ludlow at the hearings.  Kipnis writes, “Like a great teacher, Wilson flipped the question [about Wilson’s own account of “unwelcome behavior” from a different former professor] around.  She’d been speaking from her own experience, she pointed out.  Yet didn’t the panelists have to ask whether she was telling the truth?  They hadn’t been there, so how would they know?  And if she were being entirely honest, she herself wasn’t sure if the disturbing thing was a professor trying to kiss her, or simply that she was getting unwanted attention that she ‘wasn’t participating in.’”  Kipnis neglects to make clear that “getting unwanted attention that you’re not participating in” can be or can easily lead to real violation.  In addition, Kipnis replicates sexualization and hero worship in her description of Wilson: “Here was a smart, attractive, successful woman from one of the top philosophy departments in North America who revered Peter Ludlow.”  She later remarks that, after Wilson completed her testimony, “it felt as if there were an erotic current in the room.”

Kipnis also tires of “exhausted clichés about predatory males and eternally innocent females…”  I think it’s fair to say that anyone who follows the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and the major national dailies might find these “clichés” to not be exhausted enough.  Of course it makes sense to get away from the polarized language Kipnis critiques, but college and university campus statistics and the underlying realities of sexual violence on campus are still acutely bad.  The tone Kipnis uses when speaking of the two complainants is condescending at best.  When Kipnis blames herself for not coming to Ludlow’s defense in a particularly tense moment in the hearing, she wonders if she hadn’t done so because she was “so shaken [her]self, so frozen and appalled” that she couldn’t.  This is exactly what happens to many people who have experienced aggression and assault (and to some who have witnessed it), just like the two complainants in this case had claimed themselves.  If the two complainants are deserving of scorn, I would like more information to understand why.

The strength of Kipnis’ article (and, I surmise, her book) lies in the legitimate questioning of the efficacy of legal processes in Title IX hearings on college and university campuses.  She rightly criticizes Northwestern for running hearings soaked with lawyers from all sides, hiring an outside lawyer to advise the university panel, and worrying more about image than justice (Kipnis writes: “Ludlow was bad for the brand.”).  Kipnis also says that she “was being warned off the subject,” and I am certain that was the case.  Universities have many direct and subtle means to silence unpleasant subjects and cases that sully the brand.  My simplified view of the stance that universities adopt is that they support the side that brings the fewest monetary and public relations risks.  Oftentimes this means that complainants are silenced and run off campus, and, on far fewer occasions, it means that alleged perpetrators are.

We should all be wary when a university hires outside counsel to “advise” an internal panel.  The advice provided stems from whatever is in the university’s best interest.  At that point, the university can be considered wholly separate from the complainant and the alleged perpetrator.  Kipnis points to the fraught intervention of universities in their own processes when she writes, “The university was set on getting rid of Ludlow, and the hearing was a formality.  I also knew enough about the procedures to know that the faculty panel’s vote was merely advisory; the provost would make the final call, and it had been the provost’s decision to put the dismissal machinery in motion to begin with.”  Exactly!  This is a profound problem not only because it is evidently unjust, but also because it exploits student, staff, and faculty labor and their potentially sincere belief in the benefits of university adjudicative processes.

No matter where we readers fall on matters of sexual agency and exploitation of professional power, we can certainly question the Big Brand Machine of colleges and universities, whose students and employees have become little more than additional institutional risks.

The Chronicle has featured Laura Kipnis on several occasions and for several weeks running.  It might be a good moment to consider other editorial decisions that take into account real statistics and violations of actual people.