Concrete Suggestions for Breaking the Silence


There has been quite a bit of talk lately regarding speaking out about problems in the profession. This prompted one reader to send in the following request:

I would appreciate a post that invites suggestions, concrete suggestions, about how a woman who has been sexually assaulted or harassed might actually speak out. This includes women who have been harassed/assaulted long ago, and have seen their way past it, but feel helpless and even guilty in light of the continued problem.  Women are silent because they are terrified of ruining their reputations, the reputations of their PhD programs, and their careers. Even tenured women. And that fear is totally rational. No one wants to talk publicly about getting harassed/assaulted, anymore than one wants to talk about their sex life in general.  How do we get around that? For me, this is what I care most about. How do we break the silence?

The AAUP lists some procedures here about bringing and resolving sexual harassment complaints. However, such procedures do not themselves speak to the concerns that lead victims to be too fearful to make use of them.  So I invite readers to provides suggestions in the comments, both about how individuals should go about speaking out, and also what steps departments can take to facilitate such speaking out. Of course, the advisability of any course of action may depend on local factors about which commentators here are ignorant, but that should not stop us from getting some ideas out to discuss. (Also, please be patient, as comments are moderated and may take a while to appear.)

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Janice Dowell
Janice Dowell
7 years ago

I don’t have any general advice for victims on speaking out, but I do have a few thoughts for what the rest of us might do to make things easier. I think there are three temptations upon hearing about incidents in communities of which we are a part: 1) denial, 2) minimization, and 3) focus on the consequences for ourselves. These are natural, understandable reactions, especially when we ourselves have benefitted from our relationships to the perpetrators. All are devastating to victims. When someone finds the courage to talk about their own case, know that they are taking a huge risk and have identified you as someone they trust to take what they’re saying very seriously. Given the risks involved and the seriousness of an accusation, our default should be that the victim is choosing her words carefully and is to be treated as reasonable, both in her account of what happened and in her response to it. Finally–and this is incredibly important–no one wants to be in a department known for having a problem with sexual harassment. Please don’t focus on how bad it is for you and others in your department for the victim’s information to come to light. Whatever the consequences, it is much worse for the victim and especially for possible future victims, if it doesn’t. (Failure to appreciate this is minimizing.)Report

Rachel McKinnon
7 years ago

I’d like to echo what Janice said. We need to create conditions that minimize the risk and harm of people coming forward. Key among these is to reduce the incidence of gaslighting: “I know John, he wouldn’t do that.” “He’s a good guy. Besides, he’s married.” “I’m sure you did something to lead him on.” And so on.

I’m not saying that hearers have to believe, immediately, what they’re told, but at least don’t express doubt when someone comes forward with a harassment or assault claim.Report

Sarah Adams
Sarah Adams
7 years ago

Yes to both of these comments! I think it’s also important for people in positions of power (who would be listening to victims speak out) to remember that they may not understand what it feels like to be a victim. Since philosophy is so heavily white and male, people in positions of power often are white males. It seems to me to be fairly rare for white (heterosexual) men to experience sexual harassment (not to discount the experiences of any who have, of course!). In these cases, I’ve seen people try to compare the experiences of victims to their own experiences of hostility for other reasons (often academic); I assume people do this in an attempt to sympathize with victims. In my experiences with both, the feelings that result are extremely different, and this kind of conflation can often result in the minimization of sexual harassment (i.e., people come to see it as just another “hostile” experience). I think we all need to be careful to *not* conflate experiences like this, and to take the people who *have* experienced those things as the experts – just as we should for so many other types of discrimination or harassment.

All this is not to say that I think attempts to sympathize with victims are bad, or that I think that people who haven’t experienced sexual harassment should feel guilty. On the contrary, I think it’s far better to want to be able to understand what being a victim of sexual harassment is like than to not want to understand! I just think it’s important to not assume that one does understand, and then to assume one knows better than some victim what that victim is feeling or how best to handle the situation.Report

anonymous
anonymous
7 years ago

Following up on the comment about keeping an open mind, the person handling the complaint should regard the parties as the “complainant” and “alleged offender” (or “respondent”) rather than the “victim” and “offender”.

Compare the AAUP link above; also see the different methods of resolution here:
http://www.ucalgary.ca/discrimination/options
http://web.mit.edu/communications/hg/Report

Cari
Cari
7 years ago

I was sexually assaulted and then later asked to tell my story to 100 or so people that I mostly knew. Trying to explain it to this mostly sympathetic audience was difficult; I couldn’t make it through telling my story without crying and I didn’t quite finish the end of the story. But all of the women who came up to me afterward were very supportive and whether any of them privately thought, “Maybe she mislead him,” or “She shouldn’t have done x…,” none of them said it, and that made a huge difference in my ability to talk about it in the future. I’m sure some found my story to be muddled and confusing. I know I did. It wasn’t that I was confused about what had happened or whose fault it was, but even as it was occurring, I was doing plenty of gaslighting myself, and I certainly did so in the aftermath (e.g., “He’s my grandfather’s age, so he clearly doesn’t have bad intentions,” “It’s just a miscommunication–he must have misunderstood me,” etc.).

My point in sharing this story is to give some insight in what it’s like to be a victim who comes forward: it’s terrifying and painful just to re-live the experience, especially with all of the second-guessing that I experienced (and that is quite common among victims), never mind the reactions of those you’re telling it to. Understand, especially if it has been a while since the events in question happened, that there are likely very good reasons why the victim hasn’t said anything before, and that this shouldn’t diminish credibility. I didn’t want to report my experience to the authorities, and I only did so on the grounds that reporting would keep other women safe. The night that I did was awful: I had to keep repeating my story to different people and keep re-living the experience, over and over again, when the thing I wanted most in the world was just to forget what had been done to me. So, be sensitive to what it’s like to be a victim and set aside whatever doubts you might have at the moment. As posters above have said, don’t minimize or trivialize the experience, and be ACTIVELY supportive (i.e., be pro-active in creating a climate where there is a safe space). You may or may not be able to do anything about the rest of your department, but make it clear that you, at least, are a sympathetic ear and take seriously and sympathetically any experiences you are told about.Report

Student who has spoken up
Student who has spoken up
7 years ago

I think this is hard question to answer–both because so much depends on the particulars of one’s situation, experiences, and support network, but also because much depends on things outside of your control (e.g., how those who are around you will react, how good your university administration is if your experience is one that could trigger a complaint, etc.).

I am a student who has been rather vocal about equity issues. Here’s my view (with the caveat that I deeply and fully appreciate why some people are afraid; my own experience is testament to the rationality of those fears):

Speaking up can have some really awful consequences. You can make enemies. You can be labeled as a liar, as over sensitive, as as a trouble maker, and so on. You can lose friends. Your career might suffer. You may lose some community ‘peace’. But, at the end of the day, I want to be able to live with myself. I want to someday be able to look back on my life and not wonder whether my successes came at a moral or ethical cost. I want friends who I can trust, not just when life is easy, but when it really matters. I want my intellectual community to have some genuine community. I want to be able to be proud of my reputation — not because it’s fabulous, but because it’s earned, and earned for the right reasons. I don’t want someone else to suffer when there was something more I could have done. Keeping in mind these kinds of considerations makes it psychologically easier to set aside my fears, or at least act in spite of them.

None of that addresses the practical barriers, though, and there are many.Report

justinrweinberg
7 years ago

Katrina Sifferd speaks out about her experiences here.Report

ayt.
ayt.
7 years ago

I really like the concrete suggestions being made here, and I totally agree with the suggestion in Katrina Sifferd’s post about supervisors and lecturers simply *never* making sexual advances toward their students. However, I did think it’s worth pointing out that the assumption that a sexual advance entails not thinking the student is intelligent is mistaken. I do understand that it’s easy to make this assumption: Professor x shows a lot of interest in your work, but then makes an advance upon you, and that makes it seem as though his/her motivation all along was only to get you into bed. But it’s important that attraction (sexual and emotional) can arise out of intellectual respect; sometimes it’s exactly the fact that a student is so intelligent, creative, interesting, that you can talk with them in a sophisticated way about things you both find fascinating, that sparks feelings of closeness, intimacy, attraction. I agree that it’s wrong to act on those feelings, but I think those feelings themselves are often perfectly acceptable. The fact that a Professor makes an advance might reveal that she/he isn’t aware of the importance of a norm against doing so (for all the good reasons given above), might reveal that she/he is aware of it but suffers from weakness of will or a temporary lapse in judgement (perhaps brought on my consumption of alcohol…), and might reveal that she/he is a sleazy jerk. I just wanted to open up the possibility that it isn’t always the sleazy jerk explanation.Report