Sexual Harassment, Advice, and Institutional Failure


Imagine you have seen or been told of sexual harassment in your department, or experienced it yourself, and that you reported it, and that nothing happened: no one was held accountable, nothing official was said about it, nothing was done to decrease the likelihood of it happening again.

And so it happened again. And again there was no official response. And so on.

(I understand that this imaginative task will not be much of a stretch for some readers; for some it may actually be a remembering.)

In cases like this, of institutional failure, it may be that the only reasonable attitude to have is to doubt that any official action will be taken in response to sexual harassment.

If that’s the only reasonable attitude to have, and you know this, what kind of advice or support should you offer to a victim of sexual harassment when they report their experiences to you? What should you tell a junior faculty member, for example, or a graduate student, to do, if following the proper procedures will not help them (or future victims), but instead will likely just expose them to the risk of retaliation?

The question is prompted by this remarkable account of sexual harassment, institutional failure, and retaliation in the Department of International History at the London School of Economics (LSE)—a series of events which culminated in the resignation of historian Taylor Sherman.

The article also states that repeated and repeatedly unaddressed sexual harassment has been a problem in “a different LSE department,” and while it’s not named, it’s implied that it’s the Department of Philosophy. (The Department of International History wasn’t mentioned by name, either; perhaps the author of the article was advised to refrain from explicitly identifying the departments.)

The article says that, according to a philosopher who left LSE last year,

several women in a different LSE department have alleged that they were subjected to sexual misconduct by a senior staff member, but have not felt comfortable formally reporting their allegations to LSE. A former master’s student in the department said that she did not report because she had “doubts about the process” and was “pessimistic that any meaningful action would be taken.” 

Returning to the question of how to advise victims in such a context, one issue that may be relevant is libel law. In the UK, it is much riskier for individuals to publicly accuse others of wrongdoing; in the US, the person suing for libel bears the burden to prove that the claims made about them are false, but in the UK the burden of proof is borne by the one who made the allegedly libelous claims to prove the claims true (and not merely reasonably believed). (See this article on UK libel law and its “chilling effect.”)

Even where the law isn’t stacked against victims who might speak up outside of their institutions and official processes, worries about retaliation and the effects on one’s reputation and career might be enough to significantly discourage going public.

What, then, constitutes good advice or support in situations like this? Your suggestions are welcome.

NOTE: This post asks for suggestions about how to advise or support victims of sexual harassment in academia in contexts of institutional failure, and I ask that comments be limited to that. I will moderate (and if need be, edit) comments on this post accordingly. I understand that some of you may feel very strongly that you need to comment on some other aspects of this post. I get that, and if that’s really how you feel, still do not do so. At least not here. You have the rest of the internet; do it somewhere else if you must. What about if you want to say something that, while itself isn’t a suggestion about how to advise or support victims of sexual harassment, is relevant to it? Well in that case, also no. No guessing about who is or who is not harassing people. No accusations. No complaints about false accusations. No uninformed speculations masquerading as innocent questions, etc. Thank you. This note is brought to you by experience.

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Jan
Jan
1 month ago

Contentful, action-guiding advice would need to be victim-specific. For general advice, I’d suggest becoming familiar with extra-institutional options for redress and relief. In New York state, for example, our Department of Human Rights considers sexual harassment cases, as well as cases of discrimination based on any protected category. Individuals can file complaints themselves without legal representation.

https://dhr.ny.gov/complaint

Jan
Jan
Reply to  Jan
1 month ago

Ah. One more bit of general advice: Document *everything*.

Jan
Jan
Reply to  Jan
1 month ago

Here is a list of states in the US for which only one party consent is required for recording conversations.

https://wisevoter.com/state-rankings/one-party-consent-states/

Carolyn
Carolyn
1 month ago

I think it is important to realize that there are impacts for reporting sexual harassment and assault on the accused but that they tend to be small and that in some cases the institutional response to the accuser, formal and informal, is extremely damaging. Anonymous reports are both more likely to protect you and less likely to lead to results. If you are a legally mandated reporter and a woman/ally (ie more likely to be told about incidents), you will find yourself in a difficult position; that said, I have not seen any sort of punishment for those who fail to report, suppress reports, or even lie about what they know. If you are a victim, line up all the social and other resources you can if you plan to report the incident. If you are an ally, tread very carefully, and seek legal advice.

M.G. Piety
1 month ago

Establish a support network outside the department in question. I was sexually harassed in grad school and a kind female colleague encouraged me to build a support network of scholars outside my department and institution. I was fortunate in that I began publishing while still a student. I doubled down on that, on scholarship and publishing and presenting at professional conferences and gradually built up a support network that was crucial once I was out on the job market. The fact that my professional future was not entirely in the hands of people in my department was a huge comfort to me. It made me feel less vulnerable and anything that does that is good. One of the worst aspects of being sexual harassed is feeling powerlessness, whether you are a student or a faculty member, you know your future is largely in the hands of others. Traditionally, colleagues in your department have a disproportionate control over that future and a harasser can trash you to colleagues without your even knowing it (or with your know knowing it only indirectly via the contemptuous manner in which you may suddenly find yourself being treated). Fortunately, your future is not entirely in the hands of people in your department and the more well-established and extensive is your professional support network, the better able you will be to deal with the horror of being the object of unwanted sexual attention.

Heidi Howkins Lockwood
Heidi Howkins Lockwood
1 month ago

I’m glad Justin pointed out that this is an act of remembering or describing rather than imagining. As a philosopher who supported survivors and advocates at more than 70 universities — mostly in the US, but one or two in the UK, in many different fields — between 2008 and 2019, I have a few thoughts.

First, some advice for advocates:  

  1. If you haven’t done so already, read Sara Ahmed’s excellent book, Complaint!, which explains why doors are often closed on those who complain and describes the power of complaint collectives.
  2. If the complainant (the person reporting to you) is the person who experienced the harassment directly, don’t tell them what to do. By directing or telling, you risk becoming part of the longer-term problem by further diminishing the complainant’s agency or autonomy. The extent to which a survivor is able to maintain or regain a sense of agency and autonomy, to make the world their own — or at least predictable — again, is a good predictor of the extent to which she, or he, or they, will be able to shift from being a “victim” to being a “survivor.” So instead of responding with an assertive “this is what you should (or should not) do,” research the options and impartially lay them out, with clear caveats about what you do and do not know.
  3. Don’t try to equate or compare the experience of the complainant with your own, or with another experience you’ve heard about. Every experience is different. And co-opting the complainant’s experience by aggregating it into your own story — or anyone else’s — can diminish the complainant’s sense of autonomy.
  4. Be prepared to do some deep listening. These experiences are often tangled with — or bring to the surface — a mess of other interconnected harms and forms of oppression. Be prepared to check all of your assumptions and simply spend time listening and repeating back what you’ve heard. If you’re not prepared to do so, for whatever reason, find someone who is.
  5. Document everything. Not just what was said, but the date and time and location you heard it, the full names and contact information for anyone else who was present, etc. Encourage the complainant to do the same. Contemporaneous records are important — not just for keeping reporting and/or legal options open, but also for helping possible future complainants.
  6. Don’t use “public” channels such as email or text or social media for communication. These can be subpoenaed. It’s better to use Skype or WhatsApp, which will allow the complainant (and you) to maintain a reasonable level of privacy. Violations of privacy can threaten autonomy.
  7. Maintain confidentiality and transparency about who you are going to talk to. Again, a sense of privacy is an important part of regaining autonomy. If you are required to relay the report — if, for example, you are a mandated reporter — clearly explain exactly who you are going to tell, what you are going to say, and why. If you want to share the report with a colleague or someone else who can help, ask permission to do so first.
  8. Check the Academic Sexual Misconduct Database to see if there are any related reports, including reports involving the same philosopher at a different university: https://academic-sexual-misconduct-database.org/ (And if you know of a publicly documented case that isn’t in this database, please send a message to [email protected].)
  9. The options for complainants will vary hugely according to university policies, the politics and norms of the geographic location, the details of the incident(s), whether there are other complainants, and the kinds of evidence. Make sure you’re familiar with the whole range of possibilities, including going to the media with an anonymous (but vetted) report.
  10. Don’t pressure the complainant to get over the problem or get back to work, but do provide systems of support. So, for example, consider inviting the complainant to a reading group, or suggesting serving as a panel moderator or co-presenting at a conference, or introducing them to a (ideally junior) philosopher at another university who can serve as a role model or source of inspiration.

Some advice for those who have been harassed:

  1. You’re not alone. The 2018 NASEM study showed that over 58% of female faculty and staff members experience some form of sexual harassment during their careers. A 2019 AAU survey found that 24% of graduate and professional students reported being harassed by a faculty member or instructor. And the harassment is not limited to male faculty harassing women. A 2016 ARC3 survey found that 38% of female graduate students and 23.4% of male graduate students experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff.
  2. Some women are more male than the men. Don’t assume that just because a faculty member is female (or “feminist”) she will be an ideal confidante. Start by asking what someone’s reporting obligations are — and what their views are on sexual misconduct in academia. If you haven’t developed a healthy sense of skepticism and the habit of trying to figure out what makes other people tick — why they’re in the game, what they value, what their goals are — now is the time to start. Trust should be earned, not granted.
  3. If you haven’t done so already, read Sara Ahmed’s book, Complaint!, which explains why doors are often closed on those who complain and describes the power of complaint collectives. Don’t perpetuate the cycle of abuse by trying to control others; seek counseling and whatever else you need to do to learn to be able to develop genuine and reciprocal bonds with others.
  4. This does not need to define who you are. Being a victim, or a survivor, is a choice. You have no obligation to report and no obligation to educate others, particularly the oppressor(s). As Audre Lorde so memorably put it in a paper delivered at the Copeland Colloquium at Amherst College (reproduced in Sister Outsider), “Whenever the need for some pretense of communication arises, those who profit from our oppression call upon us to share our knowledge with them. In other words, it is the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the oppressors their mistakes… The oppressors maintain their position and evade responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.” Seek collectives, seek solidarity — especially in groups where there is no pretense of homogeneity. Lorde ended the same paper with a poem: “We have chosen each other / and the edge of each other’s battles / the war is the same / if we lose / someday women’s blood will congeal / upon a dead planet / if we win / there is no telling / we seek beyond history / for a new and more possible meeting.”
Sharon
Sharon
1 month ago

In the US, most states have community-based rape crisis centers throughout the state who provide support and advocacy for anyone impacted by sexual violence. Having someone outside the institution who is trained to help people think through their options (and provide crisis counseling) in these contexts, and who is bound to maintain confidentiality, could be useful

CHEYNEY RYAN
CHEYNEY RYAN
1 month ago

Thanks to Justin for this important discussion.

I dealt with multiple cases of sexual harassment/assault being ignored when I was at the University of Oregon. For those interested, one of the students, Laura Hanson, has written powerfully about the experience of her complaint being ignored after she was raped. Here is one of her discussions of that experience: https://eugeneweekly.com/2015/05/28/dragged-through-the-mud/

Heidi’s suggestions and those of others are all excellent. I would add a general point.

In the United States, sexual harassment/assault cases are handled by the college’s Title IX office, under its Title IX director. It is essential to understand that the principal job of this office/director is to defend the image of the institution–as distinct from the safety of students, etc. This was stressed to me by a former law student of mine, Ken Lehrman, who was Title IX director of Penn State during much of its problems. His exact words were: “The job of a Title IX director is to defend the university’s ‘brand’”—i.e. the first concern is public relations. The fate of students, the accountability of predators, etc.– all take second place to defending the “brand”. So if your complaint may end up hurting the “brand”, forget it. The system is loaded against you.

Upon finally realizing what a moral sewer the University of Oregon was, I began suggesting to complainants that they immediately speak to an attorney, and offered to help them do it. This is what happened in Laura Hanson’s case. When she sued the university, its response was to rifle through her confidential counseling records to dig up dirt on her. She eventually won, and the university was forced to change its policies on counseling records after the head of the counseling center resigned in protest.

Advocate
Advocate
1 month ago

(Speaking from my experiences as a domestic violence advocate and graduate student.)

As mentioned by Jan, the best advice will come down to the dynamics of the problem and the local/regional resources at hand. For that reason, consulting community resources can be a helpful avenue in some areas.

Giving individual support can often look quite different from pursing structural changes. Survivors want to feel genuinely safe, whatever safe means for them (ask: what would make you feel safe here?). Structural changes are good (and highly encouraged!), but they do not address the problem of the survivor in front of you.

For that person—faculty, student, etc—it can be helpful to provide honest information, point to relevant resources, and *be* a person who the survivor can maintain a connection with. If the institution has a history of ignoring/dismissing such claims, tell them. Do not let them get their hopes up that the institution will be a bastion of safety when, historically, that’s not been the case.

It might feel like most of the options, depending on location, are defensive and preventative for the survivor, not steps against the abuser. That’s actually just what institutional failure is. Part of the empowerment of survivor advocacy is in providing
information so they can exercise broader and stronger autonomy. In the face of institutional failure, it might be free choice among bad options, but assuming that major reform is not going to happen this week then we might at least affirm and empower their choices and save their time.

In my experience, survivors prefer to be informed of the options, given honest expectations, and listened to in the moment—as opposed to being redirected, misled, and nodded at. If you are feeling unsure of the options or reasonable expectations, reach out to a local crisis center, or even a national hotline. They do speculative consults all the time.

Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
30 days ago

Have you been victimized? Are you a victim/survivor? If so, put yourself first and prioritize what you need to do to keep it together and get through this moment of your life which may seem like an unending nightmare. With respect to the situation that you find yourself in now, you don’t owe anything to anyone. You don’t owe it to anyone to report. You aren’t obligated to demand that your harasser/assailant/institution provide an apology, offer acknowledgment of harm done, or compensate you. You certainly owe nothing to the institution, which will want you gone. Nor do you owe anything to philosophy and other philosophers. Under neoliberalism, taking space and time for yourself can be a radical political act.
 
If you do report, it is likely to go badly for you (take it from me). When this happens, and if you feel as if your life has fallen/is falling apart around you, it may well be the case that it has/is and you will need to find ways to deal with that; that is, you may very well be on your own with respect to how to resurrect your career; how to restore your self-esteem, your sense of self-worth, and your confidence in the importance of your contributions to philosophy; as well as how to endure living on a low(er) income/in poverty if you lost your job. Perhaps you will need to relocate to a different city, move to a smaller residence, or move in with family or friends. Hold your head high. You can do whatever you must. Feel no shame or embarrassment. Don’t give your harasser/assailant/institution more control over you than they have already taken. But, also, don’t expect anyone in the field/profession to help you. Don’t expect unconditional support from your colleagues, teachers, or fellow students. You are unlikely to receive it, especially if you are (for example) disabled, “uppity,” not deferential enough, don’t have a prestigious educational background, are working class, aren’t unambiguously heterosexual, or have expressed unpopular opinions in a public forum.
 
Myself, I have found relief and recovery in writing, blogging, journaling, building a community of disabled philosophers, solitude, one-on-one counseling, and even mundane tasks that provide distraction, such as laundry. Thus, consider making an appointment with a counsellor or therapist, ideally someone with a feminist analysis of the events and trauma with which you may be grappling. If you don’t have the salary and health insurance coverage of a fulltime faculty member, doing so may require considerable investigative effort on your part. Consult your city’s sexual assault/rape crisis centre, local feminist/women’s resource centre and health clinics, and your GP (if you have one) for referrals or onsite arrangements. Many feminist and other left-leaning therapists and counsellors have sliding scales for payment (i.e., you negotiate the fee; you pay what you can) for at least a certain period of time. Even if you hold certain beliefs (as I do) that urge you to avoid subjectifying yourself in a confessional mode, as Foucault would put it, you may find it a reprieve that there is a safe place where you can go to talk, yell, cry, or sit in silence.
 
Yours in solidarity and struggle.

it happened to me
30 days ago

1) If you think you may have been victimized, seek legal advice as soon as possible. Your department or Title IX office may be misrepresenting your rights and options to you. It might not feel like a big enough deal to seek legal advice. Do it anyway. There is no harm to being informed, and it doesn’t commit you to litigating. I cannot stress enough that I am only still in this profession because I sought out legal advice.

2) If you have been victimized or if you are supporting someone who has been, don’t make any hasty assumptions about who is likely to be a good ally. In my own limited experience, I found that people’s stated politics and research interests were an poor predictor of whether they were likely to help or, at least, not do further harm.

3) I reported. It went pretty badly. I have also never regretted reporting. These decisions involve deeply personal moral and prudential calculations.

4) If you’re a victim, a lot of people, including self-identified feminists and other activists, may put a lot of pressure on you to be “perfect.” If you’re doing the hard work of supporting someone through their victimization, other people who aren’t doing that work may also put you under excessive pressure to be perfect or have a lot to offer in the way of criticisms and rebukes. Lots of people who are doing nothing themselves to fix the problem will nonetheless have lots of opinions about why *you* are going about things the wrong way.

Understand this as yet another way in which this society is horrible to victims and the people who support them. No one is perfect. It’s not your responsibility to solve every single injustice in the world because this happened to you or because you support and love someone to whom this happened. Do the best you can, and give yourself grace.

Jan
Jan
Reply to  it happened to me
30 days ago

Underscoring the importance of knowing your legal options–states have statutes of limitation on redressing complaints of sexual harassment and also for harassment on the basis of other protected categories. As others have mentioned, institutions should be presumed to be first and foremost protecting their brand. This gives them an incentive to run out the statute clock with investigations that won’t produce positive results. Even if you now think there is no way you could bring yourself to seek legal redress, know that as you may change your mind. Inform yourself of the statutory deadlines that govern your legal options.

CHEYNEY RYAN
CHEYNEY RYAN
Reply to  Jan
30 days ago

Jan’s point about statutes of limitations is absolutely crucial. It bears on a larger problem. Institutions do almost nothing to inform students of their rights and procedures, with the upshot that when students complain it is often well past the statute of limitations. This allows Title IX offices to reject them as formal complaints, though they may push them into an “informal” process – – in which students have basically no rights. In other words, the system is aimed at preventing complaints from being brought in a timely manner. Again, this is what happened when I was in the philosophy department at the University of Oregon; it allowed the university/department to proclaim “There are no formal complaints!” when there were just lots of informal ones. One practical thing that faculty can do is take up time themselves in their courses to briefly cover what the institutions complaint process is, the importance of timeliness, etc. But this means that all of us concerned about this issue need to be fully educated about such matters. 

Too informal
Too informal
Reply to  CHEYNEY RYAN
30 days ago

Absolutely. I was tricked into agreeing to an “informal process” when I reported. The first sit down I had with my title IX officer, her first question was a casual.. “Can we keep this informal?” And I thought she was referring to a conversation style for that particular meeting. She never explained the difference between an informal and formal process. Nor did she indicate in any way that was what she was asking about and agreeing to. And after you go through all the blowback of reporting… to find out it was just informal.. it takes a lot of strength, strength I didn’t have, to do it again “formally.”

Matthew Murphy
Matthew Murphy
27 days ago

This post and these comments are extremely important for men to read. There aren’t the same resources available and sometimes accusations aren’t taken as seriously. Title IX hearings have been (predictably) atrocious at finding the truth. If you are being mistreated, tell somebody!

stay tough
stay tough
24 days ago

Several others have encouraged victims and survivors to seek legal counsel. That’s good advice, but let me add that you should seek counsel from *multiple* attorneys, and be wary of any lawyer who puts pressure on you to sign a retainer. You may encounter lawyers who talk a big game, but who might leave you high and dry if your experience turns out to be insufficiently lucrative for them.

Indeed, be wary of anyone who urges you to action, one way or another. Make your decisions in your own time. What happened to you, happened to you. It is yours to process and deal with in the manner befitting your interests. Even well meaning people, who sincerely regard themselves as expert-advocates for those in situations like your own might, unwittingly or not, be invested in a particular outcome for you.

If your institution is pressuring you to come forward (e.g., so they can say that they have investigated all suspected misconduct), and if they promise to indemnify you, remember that any lawyer they are paying is working for them, not you.

So, too, your Title IX officer.

As ever, what Jan said: document everything.

In the US, if you’re considering pursuing any kind of formal remedy, or complaint process, you may want to know whether you’re in an anti-SLAPP state.

If possible, try to find community with other survivors. There is a modestly effective whisper network of folks who can put you in touch with people who have had relevantly similar experiences, who can offer you a knowing ear, make you feel a little less insane, isolated, etc.

If you are supporting a victim or survivor, you might collect letters of support for them without disclosing any identifying information (or any additionally identifying information, if their experience has already garnered some attention).

Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
18 days ago

I wrote a post at BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY about the prestige bias that conditions and constrains adequately addressing (sexual) harassment/assault in philosophy (and likely academia more widely). You can find the post here:

Sexual Harassment, Departmental Closings, and Two Kinds of Response to Institutional Failure – BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY