Transphobic Microaggressions In Academia

Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column (here). Francis Walker (a pseudonym) is a nonbinary Ph.D. candidate at a Canadian institution.

Not more than two weeks after I started my master’s degree in English literature, the department chair sent an email to everyone, including the other graduate students, detailing my gender transition. Noting his mistake, he apologized to me minutes later, explaining that he had accidentally sent the email to the department email list. At the time, my legal name was in the process of being changed, and he was explaining to an incoming professor why there was a discrepancy on the roster.

His intent in writing the email was not malicious. But, in reality, he outed me as trans to the entire department. And the way the chair interacted with me, the way my cohort interacted with me and the language the chair used to describe my transition couldn’t be undone. It affected me for the duration of my two-year master’s degree.

This event would become the reason why I dropped my original research topic of the British author Angela Carter and, instead, examined transgender representation in media. I had already completed a minor in gender studies as an undergraduate student, but the transition — so to speak — from learning about gender in an abstract way to suddenly learning about how it impacted me, as well as my then partner (a trans woman), on a personal and professional level was alarming. I had known the department chair since my undergrad years. He is world famous for his work, and so was my supervisor. Everyone in the department knew how language and the stories we told affected culture, and yet they had completely screwed up my story in a very visceral, real and potentially dangerous way.

In my young academic mind, the only way to “correct” what had been done was to learn as much as possible about the dynamics that led up to this event. But, of course, that is part of the problem of being trans in academe. No matter what field your degree is in, you end up becoming an expert on trans studies. For example, my partner was completing her M.A. in physics, but she still had to regularly explain the differences among sex, gender and gender identity to her lab. Rather than do all the work of educating others for free, I figured I might as well get my degree in it.

Most Conditionally Accepted readers are probably already familiar with microaggressions — those brief, commonplace exchanges that do not seem harmful on the surface but, in reality, express a power imbalance and suggest the inferiority of marginalized people. Transgender theorist Julia Serano describes the culture we live in as cissexist, meaning that in the spectrum of power of cis/trans, it is cisgender people (those who identify with their sex assigned at birth) who maintain power and control. That entails cis people’s regularly committing cissexist microaggressions against trans people, and those seemingly small slights lead to much larger consequences.

One of the most common examples of a cissexist microaggression is asking a transgender person if they have had “the surgery.” The question implies that there is only one surgery (not true), that the surgery is the only way the person can be recognized as a “real” woman or man (also not true) and that the individual asking the question has the right to ask and know about the transgender person’s genitals (obviously not true). The last connotation, at its core, is the one I want to focus on in more depth here, as it can be the most harmful in one-on-one relationships, including those in academe — like the connections we have with our department chairs or supervisors.

In the department chair’s email, he explained my name discrepancy to the incoming professor by telling her exactly what I looked like, down to my “closely cropped dark hair.” His impulse was to make sure that the incoming professor knew who I was since she could not depend on knowing my name. While seemingly helpful in intent, his description of me (including my trans-masculine body) is an example of a cissexist microaggression.

There is a longstanding fascination in academe with trans people, including decades’ worth of research that has made us objects of academic inquiry. Academics want to ask questions, especially about surgery, because it is assumed to be not only a right as a cis person but also part of the job of a researcher. My department head was used to examining English literature for queerness, so when I arrived and there was a moment of difference (between my legal name and chosen name), he analyzed and determined that “apparently transgendered [sic] does mean you have changed sex but that you reject strict boundaries between sexes, hence the androgynous name” and forwarded his discoveries to new professors.

His and others’ critical examination of my gender identity and expression continued throughout the duration of my M.A. After my name change went through, the examination turned to my clothing. Did wearing a woman’s cardigan mean something? What about whom I took to the department party? At any point of difference or disagreement, examination occurred. More questions were asked.

And in order to deal, I was forced to take on the role of being the trans educator. Due to the cissexist ideology, cis people — like doctors, researchers and others in academe — assume that they have the right to ask the questions and then to meditate the responses. Being a forced educator is more than just being asked — it is knowing what the “right” answer is for cisgender people to hear and still treat you with humanity.

Although no one showed any overt physical violence toward me during my M.A., I know from my research that it is in those moments of difference — like a name not matching up or using sex-segregated bathrooms — when violence often occurs. When trans women, in particular, experience those moments, violence tends to occur more frequently, because they often experience misogyny on top of the transphobia (what Serano calls transmisogyny). The desire that inscribes those moments of bodily examination can soon turn to revulsion, and then violence, because of our culture’s already lingering disregard for feminine gender expression. The desire/revulsion dichotomy that surrounds the transgender body is not merely sexual. It is also a desire for knowledge and revulsion at potential “wrong” answers to questions that cis people ask.

Academics want to know so much, and exploring critically is good. But the way in which that curiosity is expressed in relation to trans people is fundamentally unbalanced. At best, it pushes trans people (including trans academics) into the forced educator role, answering questions that cis people could have Googled themselves. At worse, the desire for knowledge puts the trans person at risk for sexual and physical violence. Trans bodies are not texts to be examined in discourse; trans people are your colleagues, friends, loved ones and students.

I took on the role of a forced educator and now have it as my career. I do not regret this decision, obviously, but as I continue on in academe, and especially when we talk about sexual violence in trans communities, it makes me think of that email. My department chair meant absolutely no harm to me, but he could have started a chain reaction, opening me up to discrimination or violence from others. Even small interactions end up meaning a lot, especially when the space given in academe to marginalized folks already seems like it is borrowed.

Campus Sexual Violence And The Adjunctification Of Higher Ed

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Alexis Henshaw is a visiting assistant professor in political science at Miami University. She is the author of Why Women Rebel: Understanding Women’s Participation in Armed Rebel Groups and conducts research on gender and armed conflict.

Adjuncts as Allies?

In the United States, a major push to deal with sexual assault on college campuses has coincided with another significant change in the higher education landscape: the adjunctification of college instruction. In 2011, a study by the American Association of University Professors estimated that 70 percent of all faculty members were contingent faculty, with over half of all instructors being part-time adjuncts.

In this environment, it is increasingly important that institutions bring non-tenure-track faculty into the fold when developing responses to sexual assault. Yet that calls into question our assumptions about the role of contingent faculty members, who are often seen as a transient presence in campus life.

I have spent 11 years teaching in contingent positions: as a graduate student, an adjunct and, most recently, a full-time visiting professor. I have also experienced sexual violence. And as someone specializing in the study of gender issues in international politics, I teach and research in areas related to gender-based violence more broadly. As such, I have noticed the conflict between an academe that is increasingly populated by term faculty and one that pledges to do better by the victims of sexual violence.

The paradox of contingency is that those of us who work in these positions often find ourselves drawn into campus life beyond the classroom, even as we are simultaneously kept at arm’s length. Contracts that emphasize that we are instructors only — without research and service obligations — belie the intertwined nature of these concepts, especially for those of us whose teaching connects with the complex social issues that our students face outside the classroom.

For me, the challenge of being contingent is not simply that I want to be an ally to students who have experienced sexual violence but also that students at times look to me to play that role. One factor that is often lost in debates about the adjunctification of higher education is that students do not distinguish between tenure-stream and non-tenure-track faculty in the same way that administrators do. This means that the go-to resource for the student who needs someone in whom to confide will probably be the person they trust — not necessarily the person with the most seniority or who has long-term job security.

For full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members especially, lines become blurred when students look to us for informal advisement. More than that, as the ranks of contingent faculty grow, some of us find ourselves counseling student groups, overseeing independent studies, even chaperoning student trips. Such responsibilities take contingent faculty above and beyond the “instructor-only” role. They also potentially place contingent faculty on the front lines, setting us up to be the authority figures that students will look to in a crisis situation.

Being an ally to students in such cases is an aspiration fraught with challenges for contingent faculty. Making non-tenure-track faculty aware of the resources on the campus for those affected by sexual violence — and keeping them updated on relevant changes to campus policies and personnel — should be essential, but this may not always happen.

To the credit of the institutions I have worked with, responses to sexual violence have always been a part of new faculty orientations that I have attended. However, that may not be the case at all colleges and universities, and especially not for adjuncts or part-time faculty members, who sometimes receive little or no formal orientation at all. Even when contingent faculty members are aware of resources for victims of sexual violence, they may not be given the full picture of campus climate. As of 2016, the U.S. Department of Education was investigating nearly 200 colleges and universities for their (mis)handling of sexual assault reports. Since higher education institutions have a vested interest in keeping such investigations low-key, faculty members who are part-time or temporary may lack valuable insight into systemic issues that contribute to the overall campus climate.

That has a potentially negative impact on students, for multiple reasons. First, surveys on campus sexual assault have generally highlighted an elevated incidence of sexual violence during the so-called red zone between the start of the fall semester and the Thanksgiving break. During this time, new women students in particular are considered vulnerable to sexual violence. At the same time, non-tenure-track faculty members increasingly teach the high-demand introductory courses that new students tend to take. If new students affected by sexual violence are not referred to proper care (including both short- and long-term care) and if they do not receive meaningful accommodations from their instructors, the result can be that victimized students feel overwhelmed, ultimately transferring or withdrawing altogether. In this sense, preparing faculty members to be allies takes on a sense of urgency.

Beyond the red zone, campus climate studies have also found that there are other high-risk periods for sexual assault that vary by institution. At some colleges, reports of sexual assault are higher during rush periods for Greek organizations or during winter terms when students take fewer classes and engage in more high-risk behaviors. These connections to student life are the type of issues that contingent faculty are likely to be unaware of, given their limited time on the campus. But having the full picture can help faculty members recognize when the student who is suddenly struggling in class could have something more urgent going on.

The debate over mandatory-reporter status is also particularly thorny for faculty members without the protection of tenure. In recent years, tenure-track and tenured faculty have also raised objections to the idea of making faculty members mandatory reporters — largely out of concerns for privacy, respect for the victim’s willingness to report and struggles over the ethical choices between keeping students’ trust versus carrying out an administrative mandate. While these are hard questions for all faculty members, the stakes may be particularly high for those of us without guarantees of long-term employment. What is a lecturer, visiting professor or adjunct to do when approached by a student who has experienced sexual violence but is not yet ready to report? Should they keep that student’s trust, knowing it may possibly cost them their job? It is a risk tenure-track faculty members may be more apt to take but one that could lead to termination for contingent faculty.

Adjunctification in higher education is a concern for many reasons, but the concerns associated with putting contingent faculty in the position to become mentors to students are seldom considered. That is a shame, since many of us stay in academe not just because we love publishing or standing in front of a classroom. We stay because we also want to be a positive force in the lives of our students. In my case, being an ally has meant attending a faculty reading group on sexual assault, attending events organized by student groups focused on sexual assault awareness and making many calls to administrators asking for guidance on how to deal with a student in crisis — even when I do not know the particular nature of the crisis involved. But I am aware that such efforts are above and beyond what is expected of most visiting faculty members. I also know that some contingent faculty members would struggle to take on this sort of unpaid labor at every institution where they teach.

These are the types of concerns that administrators should take seriously. A system that encourages us to demand the best of our students without also fully preparing us to be there for them in their worst moments is a flawed system. It fails to meet the needs of both faculty members and students, and in the long term, it endangers the goal of better serving students affected by sexual violence.

How To Dismantle Rape Culture In College Athletics

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). DeWitt Scott is a community college administrator, instructor at Sister Jean Hughes Adult High School in Chicago, and writer for Inside Higher Ed’s “GradHacker” blog. He also teaches personal development and civic education classes at the Cook County Jail in Chicago. You can follow DeWitt on Twitter at @dscotthighered.

Several months ago, a recording of a certain presidential candidate was released, in which he bragged about how he kisses women without their permission and can “grab them by the” genitals whenever he wants. The revelation of his admitted acts of sexual assault were followed by an equally sorry video “apology” in which he attempted to dismiss his comments as “locker room banter.” Somehow, this inadequate dismissal —  that it was just small talk between two men behind closed doors — was supposed to make his comments acceptable. (Alas, he won the election despite his negative reputation as a presidential candidate.) This philosophical failure is the essence of rape culture.

As a former Division I college basketball player, I have been in more locker rooms than the average person inside or outside the academy. I can say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I have never heard anyone speak about assaulting and violating women the way Donald Trump did on that recording. What I can say is that to refer to such comments as “locker room banter” signals a sort of indirect nod to the prevalence of rape culture and toxic masculinity in athletic spaces. That includes college student-athletes.

When I was a college athlete in the mid-2000s, I witnessed destructive, objectionable expressions of male sexual dominance in ways that fashioned women’s bodies as powerless commodities to be conquered. Ten years later, I am now a student affairs administrator who works closely with male athletes. The same corrosive cultural norms regarding sex, consent, sexual violence, sexism and the policing of women’s bodies are just as prevalent today in male student-athlete circles as they were when I was a student-athlete.

Consequently, I have begun to think about my responsibility as a former athlete and current higher education administrator in dismantling rape culture among college athletes. My work thus far has brought me to a few conclusions that may be helpful for others who either work in or are connected to college athletics.

First and foremost, I believe that it would be valuable for colleges and universities to arrange moments wherein courageous (women) sexual assault survivors from outside the institution could come and share their stories with male student-athletes. American masculinity is rooted in notions of power, dominance, control, subjugation and, most of all, selfishness. As a result, when viewing the world through a hypermasculine lens, an approach that is often rewarded in competitive men’s sports, men typically do not take stock in the emotional, psychological and spiritual damage they are inflicting on others. Forcing men student-athletes to confront and wrestle with the toll sexual assault and violence has taken on others can be a first step in reframing the way male student-athletes approach sexual encounters with others.

Secondly, male student-athletes need sexual assault seminars in which experts teach them exactly what qualifies as sexual assault. I am not referring to or excusing the serial rapists and habitual sexual predators who intentionally commit acts of sexual violence against victims consciously and brazenly. Rather, I am speaking of men who violate women’s bodies sexually but think they do not.

As a former athlete, I can honestly state that a number of male athletes — and men period — wholeheartedly believe they are not rapists even though they commit acts of rape regularly. They believe that because they did not physically overpower another person, snatch off their clothes and force themselves on them, they are not rapists. Their ignorance of sexual assault has caused a lot of pain for other people. The complexity of sexual violence has never been explained to them, mainly because sexual assault in its many nuanced forms has been treated like the elephant in the room in college athletic departments. We must confront the subject head-on and educate male student-athletes on the various forms of sexual violence through classes, seminars, instruction and formalized discussions.

In addition, male student-athletes can, at times, be a stubborn population, unwelcoming of any messages directed to them about corrective behavior and attitudes. One thing that is for sure is that student-athletes reliably give attention and respect to former athletes, particularly those whom they truly respect. Many male student-athletes need people who look like them and who have walked in their shoes to drive the point home. Scholars and administrators delivering the message are great, but it can be difficult for the student-athletes to get past the exterior differences between the speaker and themselves.

Colleges and universities should bring in former athletes who can connect with student athletes culturally, speak their language and frame their words in personal experiences with which those student-athletes can relate. That will potentially increase the likelihood of the message being received and behavioral change actually occurring. Asking a current or former athlete to deliver the message can supplement the conversation with sexual assault survivors mentioned above.

As a sort of inverse to bringing in survivors to speak, it can also be beneficial to invite perpetrators of sexual violence — who have served time in prison and felt the emotional, psychological, spiritual and financial effects of committing sexual assault — to speak with male student-athletes. Those offenders can discuss the shame they experienced with families and friends, the negative stigma that comes with being a convicted rapist, and what it’s like to undergo the investigative process, a trial, sentencing and being listed on the national sex offender registry. Putting a face to the offender’s side of the experience can have a lasting effect on the student-athletes. It can make an even deeper impression if the transgressor is a former athlete himself.

Last, athletics and student affairs personnel ought to be clear that no prevention work on sexual assault, abuse or violence can be sufficiently effective without addressing and dismantling the similarly oppressive systems of white supremacy, homophobia, misogyny, transphobia, ableism, classism, heterosexism, patriarchy and xenophobia. Power, repression and superiority are foundational to each and every one of these ills. They render their targets inhuman and unworthy of respect and dignity. As long as any of these other systems are present and normalized, sexual violence and abuse will always be just around the corner. The prevalence of one system of domination provides fertile soil for all other systems to sprout.

In my current work with male athletes, I have conversations about what consent is and what their responsibilities are regarding sexual relationships. To my knowledge, my words are usually heeded, and even sought in some cases, primarily because my student-athletes know that I am a former athlete and have walked in their shoes. I help them to understand that, even if they are not committing acts of rape or sexual violence, silently standing by when they are aware that someone is engaging in sexual predation is also wrong. We discuss how putting women down verbally, catcalling on the street and making homophobic and sexist jokes are all entry steps to sexism, sexual violence and the perpetuation of rape culture. It is my aim to paint a broad picture of their moral and ethical responsibilities regarding sexual and social encounters with significant others.

These suggestions are just a start and are not intended to be perfect or exhaustive. Eradicating rape culture among college athletes is complex work that does not come with easy answers. Nevertheless, those of us who work on college campuses owe it to our students, and to sexual violence victims and survivors all over the world, to develop these solutions, put them into action and create changes in the culture. Our society needs us to step up and produce the next generation of leaders. If we fail, our 19-year-old young men will end up 70-year-olds attempting to run a country while victimizing women along the way.

Let’s make the decision that it ends now, and it ends with us.

Pursuing Tenure As A Survivor Of Sexual Assault Suffering From PTSD

Note: this essay was originally published on our career advice column featured on Inside Higher Ed (here). The anonymous author is now a tenured professor at a small liberal arts college.

Surviving Rape and PTSD in Academe

I came to my current institution as a sexual assault survivor. A newly minted Ph.D., I had undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Together, they transformed the most ordinary tasks into overwhelming obstacles.

I experienced everything that a first-year professor experiences: the daunting task of creating new classes, the dizzying dance of whether to go hard or soft on my students, the effort of forging collegial relationships and the search for friends and community in a new town. And yet I was also in pain, lost amid a whirlwind of flashbacks and panic attacks, hypervigilance and battered self-esteem.

I only confided in one friend about what was going on. The social stigma surrounding rape was such that I worried others would reject and isolate me if they knew. Certainly, the daily news was full of stories of the price women paid for naming their experience. I was also deeply afraid that I would lose my job and my colleagues would see me as a hazard, rather than as someone deserving of their support.

Being hypervigilant meant that there was no place in which I felt safe, least of on all my new campus. Raised voices — even the general, positive hubbub of students in class — led me to dissociate. Loud noises would cause me to panic. Sometimes I could not identify what triggered me but would experience sensory processing difficulties all the same. Every day was a battle: to get out the door, to prepare for class, to be the professor that my students needed me to be. I was constantly exhausted, anxious and fearful that someone would notice the cracks at the heart of my being.

Every aspect of my job proved difficult, but research most of all. Archival work required that I get in my car and drive for hours to a city far from my rural home. It required the confidence to talk to archivists and the wherewithal to be around people without feeling unsafe. It required concentration that I did not have, self-assurance that I had long since shed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my performance was affected. My pretenure review went badly.

By then, I had finally found a therapist who had delivered my diagnoses, and I decided that I should tell my colleagues and dean what was happening. When I did so, one member of my department reared back and exclaimed, “I don’t need to know that sort of thing!” I left their office frightened and ashamed. Another colleague decided my PTSD was to blame for my lack of response to their unsolicited line edit of a paper I had submitted with my file and chided me for letting my illness get the better of me. A third colleague neglected to warn me of a film’s graphic rape scene in a class we were teaching. Intensely triggered, I completely shut down for the next two days. The dean expressed sympathy about my PTSD but told me to just push on through. I could take an extra year on my tenure clock, they offered, but urged me to gather up all my willpower and do it in the original time I was allotted.

No one said, “I’m not sure what PTSD is — let me educate myself.” No one said, “I’m sorry that happened to you” or “We’re concerned about you.” No one said, “How can we help?”

It came as no surprise, then, that my institution handled student sexual assaults poorly. Stories burned through campus: the survivor who’d been told to think about how her attacker felt; the young woman who was counseled not to make a “big deal” out of things by demanding redress; the several students who were sent from one campus office to the next with their reports, no one believing it was their responsibility to deal with the situation. When one incident blew up into a campuswide issue, faculty members came together to take action. They decided that they should write a letter saying they opposed rape. I asked what the letter was intended to achieve, since no one, surely, would come out and say they advocated for rape. I didn’t get an answer.

What my colleagues did not see was that we were all complicit in the rape culture of our campus. By not demanding real change — clear policies, accountability and consequences for violent actions — we implicitly said that rape was acceptable, public letters notwithstanding. And I was struck by the fact that the same colleagues advocating for the letter were the colleagues who had refused to accommodate my disability or treat me with empathy and respect. I began telling more people that I was a survivor, naïvely believing that my colleagues’ response to sexual violence would perhaps change if they personally knew someone who had been raped. But it didn’t. If anything, it weakened my position. It would not be the first or last time gossip on the campus charged that I was acting out of victimhood and should not be indulged.

I privately contemplated suicide, although it was teaching that saved me. As I sat on a campus bench one morning, eating yogurt and tallying reasons to live or die, I realized I was close to running late for class. I went to the classroom out of a sense that it was necessary to show up, to be present, to listen to what my students had to say. By the end of class, I could see my situation clearly enough to call my therapist and admit how bad things were. I didn’t tell anyone at my university. Again, I was afraid that I would lose my job.

I got tenure on the regular tenure clock — an achievement that even now feels surreal given everything that I was battling. I was elated when I heard and when a friend said, “You did all of this with PTSD.” And then I got angry at the fact that I had had to meet not only the explicit expectations of publications, good teaching and thoughtful service but also the implicit ones: I would do so as if I were neurotypical, rather than someone with a disability protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act. I was expected to make tenure without necessary accommodations for my success, safety and well-being. An extra year on the clock would have helped. Expecting me to teach fewer new courses would have helped. Allowing me to submit documentation of my disability to the faculty in charge of tenure review would have helped. But most of all, if I had received other people’s understanding, I would have been a healthier colleague and teacher all around.

Cause for Hope

Happily, my personal recovery accelerated after finding a therapist who performed a technique that, month by month, replaced the feelings of terror associated with my traumatic memories with calm and coping. That, along with the increased security of tenure, encouraged me to out myself as a survivor to my students. By then, aided and abetted by word of mouth and an unofficial network of survivors who recognized one another, I knew too many people who had faced the withering indifference of their peers, professors and administrators when they tried to articulate the pain of having survived a sexual assault. I wanted to show my students they were not alone and that it was possible to survive and even flourish after experiencing such hurt.

A turning point arrived unexpectedly. On the campus, resistance to seeing rape culture for what it was eventually spilled out into the debate about trigger warnings. Trigger warnings coddled already spoiled students, argued some of my colleagues. No one would protect students from “real life” after college, so why should we do it now? Art was supposed to be a place where students could process their feelings, not hide from them. Science was allegedly a field in which sexual assault had no bearing on the subject of the day. As article after article about our “coddled” students made the rounds on the faculty mailing list, I stepped in to give a first-person account of what typically happened when a person with PTSD was triggered. For the first time, I had colleagues who responded positively, who heard what I was saying and took it into account as they decided where they stood on trigger warnings themselves. I was hopeful.

Student activism also gave me cause for hope. Empowered by the revamped Title IX process under the Obama administration, students demanded change in our institution’s policies and procedures for reporting assault. They demanded that the campus become a friendlier place for survivors and tirelessly articulated that those who had been assaulted were not somehow to blame if they later developed symptoms of PTSD. It was this activism that gave me new language for my own situation. Such efforts allowed me to see clearly that I was not a burden on anyone unless the system that surrounded me was broken. When our workplace demands that we be something other than we are in order to carve out a place for ourselves in the academy, the problem is not us but rather the workplace itself.

I continue to heal. It is not so much that I grow stronger everyday as it is that that strength demands less active labor on my part to be realized. I have always been strong, as have all survivors. The idea that any of us are overprotected and overindulged is a lie told by individuals comfortable in their privilege — be it the privilege of never being assaulted or the privilege provided by their power and position to ignore the very real pain of those around them. There are surely people, too, who cannot yet speak up or speak out, whose indifference is a mask they must adopt to survive the effects of the trauma visited upon them. I hope they find a more welcoming academic home than I did.

Academic Departments Normalize Sexual Violence By Ignoring It

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Donovan A. Steinberg (a pseudonym) is now an assistant professor of social science.

My Professor, the Sexual Predator

Most of us have heard stories of professors who have sexually harassed or assaulted their colleagues or students. The stories covered in the news often involve senior heterosexual men professors who have finally been reprimanded, suspended or fired after years of perpetrating sexual violence — and after several victims have come forward about the violence they have experienced. It seems that the problem has to accumulate a great deal before perpetrators are punished and the rest of the world learns of it.

But these men professors are few and far between. There are countless faculty members who have not harassed or raped enough colleagues and/or students to be punished by the university or to warrant media attention. That is not to suggest that their behavior is not as bad or that their actions have been less damaging to their victims. Sexual harassment is sexual harassment, and rape is rape. The problem is that most of these perpetrators get away with their crimes, even in the rare instances when victims report it or speak publicly about it. Even in the face of clear evidence of sexual violence, it seems that academe tends to defend predators, often because of their status and intellectual reputation, especially relative to their (usually lower-status) victims.

I have enough sense that unpunished sexual violence perpetrated by faculty members is so rampant that I would venture to guess that we all know that guy — that one professor who is known to be at least a little inappropriate with his students and/or junior colleagues. He is that person women grad students and junior faculty are warned to avoid: “He’s really smart, but …” We all know it, but somehow he remains on the faculty. Other people may even defend him: “Oh, that’s just [rapist’s name] being [rapist’s name].” “Boys will be boys.” “Locker room talk.” Sexual violence is so normalized in our society, why should academe be any better about punishing perpetrators and protecting victims?

I give all of this context to justify talking about that guy in my graduate program. I chose not to mention him by name because the details of the sexual violence that he has perpetrated may distract from my larger point: that he is but one of many faculty members who are essentially given a free pass to harass and assault those around them in the department. I will call him “Uncle Rapey” for the sake of this essay.

I actually chose my graduate program because of the faculty members who specialized in my area, including Uncle Rapey. When I visited the program as a prospective graduate student, I had meetings with faculty members to learn more about the program. At the close of each meeting, that professor would walk me to the next faculty member’s office. One professor escorted me to meet with Uncle Rapey after she and I met. She teased him about being good. He retorted that he and I collectively would have at least three legs on the ground at all times. She giggled. My memory perhaps incorrectly recalls her also saying, “Oh, [Rapey].” How cool, I thought, that these professors joked about sex so openly. How naïve I was.

A few months into my first year, I attended a conference, where I reconnected with my undergrad mentor. As we parted, her face turned cold and her tone became serious. She told me, “Stay away from [Uncle Rapey] — promise me you’ll stay away from [Uncle Rapey].” She did not explain further. But I knew that they had worked together in the past, so I assumed she had good reason to warn me about him.

At this point, however, it was too late. I was well into my first (and last) course with him. Every week, I had already been subjected to his sexual jokes — once teasing me and a fellow graduate student about engaging in fisting. At the course’s end, he approached me and another grad student to request that we pose nude for him for his amateur photography (pornography?) work. I declined. And that was certainly the last time I worked with him in any professional capacity, and thereafter tried my best to avoid him. It is difficult, though, when the department keeps faculty like Uncle Rapey involved in departmental affairs. I still remember the time he greeted his genitals as he visited another class I was enrolled in.

But, I got off easy — privileged, to be more accurate. Another student in the department revealed to me the time that Uncle Rapey pushed her against the wall and forced his hand into her vagina after complimenting her on her skirt. She eventually disappeared from the program, probably never finishing her Ph.D. And I know of other women grad students whom he has harassed or assaulted, and some of them never finished their graduate training. Recently, I have heard that a new crop of graduate students is outraged with the department as he remains on faculty, unpunished, given a free pass to assault and harass students. These are only the stories of which I have heard. I can only imagine countless other victims have suffered in silence.

I would argue that when one institution fails to seek justice, it opens the doors for injustice in other institutions. Since my department failed to punish Uncle Rapey, there was little to stop him from perpetuating violence in other academic contexts. He continues to be recognized as a leader in our field, even being honored as awards are named for him.

I have chosen to speak up here because there are many Uncle Rapeys in academe. We all know one or maybe more than one. Departments normalize sexual violence when they look the other way as faculty members abuse their power in harassing or assaulting junior faculty and/or students. In some ways, they actually facilitate sexual violence — as an expression of power — by maintaining hierarchies, wherein senior faculty wield power over junior faculty, grad students, undergraduate students and staff. These professional hierarchies are further compounded by society’s hierarchies — classism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism and ageism.

In the meantime, we have to keep calling out the Uncle Rapeys of academe. Departments and universities must actually put their sexual harassment policies into practice. Victims should be able to easily and confidentially report sexual harassment and assault. And punishments for sexual violence should be blind to the perpetrator’s professional status, as that status may be the very vehicle through which they are allowed to prey on others.

Advice To Graduate Students Experiencing Sexual Violence

Note: the following was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Jen Dylan (a pseudonym) is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology. She stands in solidarity with all graduate student victims of sexual harassment.

7 Steps You Can Take

Sexual harassment comes in many forms, including physical misconduct and verbal and psychological abuse. My own experience with a tenured harasser consisted of an unsolicited kiss and thigh stroke. I eventually decided to confront him directly, stating that his behavior was completely inappropriate and must not happen again. It never did; he kept his distance from then on.

I was lucky. I am privileged in terms of my social location, I did not work in the same area as this faculty member and I had already forged strong relationships with other professors who supported me in all things. In other words, my choice to confront the perpetrator did not pose any harm to my career.

Other grad students in my department were not so lucky. One friend worked with the perpetrator and endured years of psychological abuse. Others in the department faced racist and homophobic verbal abuse or unwanted physical contact. Some endured a combination of all of the above. After a protracted battle on several fronts, our shared perpetrator, who had enjoyed a successful career and was well respected in his field, was asked to retire. Nothing more, nothing less. Those affected were disappointed that he did not face any real consequences for his actions, despite years of documented harassment.

I fear that my experiences and those of my colleagues are far too common. Over the past several years, professors have been accused or convicted of sexually harassing students at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Chicago and Yale University, among other higher education institutions. However, it is impossible to know how many graduate students have to deal with predatory professors. I am sure many, if not most, victims do not come forward with complaints.

There are several reasons for this. For one, the burden of proof when filing a complaint is often unreasonably high. It can be difficult to collect supporting evidence when the harassment occurs in private contexts. Even if a student does decide to move forward with a grievance or lawsuit, doing so comes at a high cost. If the perpetrator is their supervisor, filing a grievance may put the student’s career in jeopardy. Finding a new supervisor could set them back months, if not years. And academe is a small world. Grad students may not come forward for fear of how it will affect their professional reputation. Finally, all too often, victims of sexual harassment are not even aware of their options for dealing with faculty perpetrators.

I fell into the latter category. It took me a while to figure out how I wanted to deal with the perpetrator. With time, I discovered a network of fellow students and faculty member who had either been victimized or who were willing to take action. Their support helped to clarify the steps that I wanted to take for myself, as well as ways that I could help others. I am not an expert on sexual harassment, and I strongly urge victims to seek out expert guidance that is tailored to their individual experience.

That said, below are some suggestions for action to take that helped some of my colleagues and me through our experiences.

  • Document everything. Write. It. All. Down. Write down times, locations and whether anyone else was present. If you have text or email correspondences, save them. Even if you do not think you that want to do anything about it, you might change your mind months down the road. There is a greater likelihood that your claim will be taken seriously if the harassment or abuse is documented in detail. Or your experience might even provide crucial supporting evidence to help move someone else’s claim forward.
  • If you are privileged along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, ability and/or cultural capital, speak up. For better or worse, your voice gives credence to the experiences of marginalized students in your department. Defend your peers, especially if their complaints are met with hostility. Provide corroborating evidence if you can.
  • Find your people: no matter how well respected the perpetrator is, there is, in all likelihood, a group of faculty members and fellow grad students who are disgusted by the person’s behavior. Seek them out. They may be able to provide comfort and solidarity.
  • Provide helpful advice to younger students as well as those in your own cohort about which faculty members are safe (or not). Doing so ensures that institutional knowledge about the perpetrator gets passed down.
  • Be open yet cautious about going through formal channels when filing a complaint. Administrations may be limited either by a daunting series of legal roadblocks or a lack of will to take action (especially if your perpetrator brings in grant money and is well established in their field). Either way, the burden of proof required to take action is immense, and you may end up mired in a multiyear battle. On a positive note, pursuing a lawsuit or grievance may help you find better social support, as more people become aware of your situation. It may also inspire other victims to come forward, providing more evidence and further helping your case. And while we still have a long ways to go, faculty members in recent years have become more vocal in supporting student victims who have experienced backlash for coming forward. It can be grueling to stay the course, but support is out there.
  • Don’t just blindly follow the guidance you receive from your institution’s sexual harassment or Title IX officers. They operate at the pleasure of the university administration, and while they may be ardent advocates for students, they nevertheless work in a wider organizational context that must contend with operational budgets and public relations optics. Cross-reference their advice with that from a nonprofit or student-run organization that supports victims of sexual harassment.
  • Take the issue to your union. Those grad students lucky enough to work as teaching or research assistants in unionized work settings may be able to file a grievance on the grounds that the perpetrator contributes to a hostile work environment. Unions have resources that make taking action far less burdensome. They have staff dedicated to handling cases of sexual harassment, and they can provide the costly legal support necessary to move lawsuits along.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to dealing with perpetrators of sexual harassment in academe, and the above list is incomplete at best. LGBTQ and racialized student victims, in particular, confront additional barriers that make taking action all the more difficult. Unfortunately, while grossly unfair, any type of response on the part of victims usually comes at a cost — be it emotional, psychological or professional.

The most important takeaway for victims is this: do you. If you have experienced sexual harassment, do whatever you need to do to get by.

When A Professor Is Sexually Harassed By A Student

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). To avoid retaliation or further violence, the author has chosen to remain anonymous. She is an adjunct professor at a public university

In recent years, we have seen college administrators attempt to raise students’ awareness about sexual assault on their campuses, including what to do if it happens to them. The push we are seeing is often the result of universities trying to comply with Title IX — a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual assault at any federally funded education program or activity. In other words, this raised awareness is not necessarily the result of administrators’ genuine concern about the well-being of their students but often because institutions are scared of losing their federal funding.

Moreover, as colleges and universities step up to the plate, rushing to create pretty landing pages, handouts and online trainings, some miscommunication and misunderstanding about whom those laws protect remains. For example, efforts to increase awareness are focused on students, while faculty members are often overlooked. When the tables are turned and it is a faculty member who is assaulted or harassed, standing face-to-face with an attacker, what should be done?

Further, the public often hears about superiors showing dominance over a worker and using their authority to keep the victim in a state of oppression. But this model does not reflect incidents when it works the other way: when students sexually harass their professors. What does a faculty member do when they find themselves at the mercy of a student who has no regard for boundaries or authority, and who doesn’t understand that no means no?

Early in my career, at a campus where I no longer work, I was stalked and sexually harassed by a male student. At one point, he locked me in my own office and tried to proposition me. In the aftermath, I experienced firsthand how little the administration at my institution seemed to know about sexual assault and harassment, as well as how few concrete procedures were in place to help me and others in my position to deal with being assaulted or harassed.

The institution’s webpage was not very helpful at all when it came to providing information and whom to contact for help. And when I reached out to my colleagues in the administration and on the faculty, for the most part, they also turned a blind eye to my situation. Meanwhile, the harassment did not stop. I felt alone, scared and unprotected.

In the face of all that, I could have easily given up. When standing in the face of adversity, sometimes we tend to shrink. But I refused to give up; instead, I chose to rise. I spoke out to my institution about my experience and its lack of support. And I’ve continued to work to bring awareness about the issue, to fight for what I believe is right and to try to help others in my situation.

What to Do if It Happens to You

So, fellow professors and instructors, what should you do if this happens to you? What steps should you take if you find yourself standing in the middle of a sexual assault or harassment case as a victim on a college campus? Here are a few tips that I found helpful as a faculty member.

  • Make sure that all of your communication is in writing via email. This serves as both a date and time stamp that can never be erased.
  • Follow the policies and procedures that are outlined by your university. If the institution doesn’t provide a landing page on its website about preventing and dealing with sexual violence, go to the search area and type in “Title IX.” Unfortunately, this information can sometimes be hidden beneath a layer of nobody cares.
  • Remember that you do not have to allow yourself to be revictimized. You do not have to continue to sit in meetings telling your story over and over again.
  • You do have the right to legal counsel.
  • File a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office in your state if you feel your case has not been handled appropriately by your employer.
  • Seek out mental-health treatment because — believe it or not — no matter how strong you may think you are, you are never mentally prepared to deal with a situation like this. I myself was diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety and depression, and have worked with a therapist.
  • Most important, take some time to heal.

There is a bright side to this story. Because of my refusal to remain silent, the institution where I used to work has adopted much clearer policies on sexual assault. It has also significantly improved the information it provides people on the campus about the issue — including anyone on the faculty who might be a victim — and how to deal with it. As for me, it is my hope that by sharing a bit of advice, I can also help other faculty members who find themselves having to cope with similar experiences.