There’s No Manual for This: Surviving Rape Apologists in the Classroom

Note: This blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts, and republished on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.  The anonymous author is a sociology instructor at a public university in the United States.

When I began graduate training, I was inundated with advice about how to survive in my chosen profession. Specifically, I received tips on teaching — how to grade papers efficiently, how to foster a meaningful class discussion, how to have boundaries with students regarding grade contestations and office hours while also creating a safe space for learning. I was told to grade students’ work as uniformly and objectively as possible. I value all of this advice, yet I was left unprepared for what would happen in the future when I taught a gender course.

It was the middle of the semester, and we were covering rape culture. As any feminist instructor who has ever taught about rape culture probably knows, covering this topic is challenging for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes we encounter students who realize that they have been raped who come to office hours looking for resources. Other times, students learn that they have actually perpetrated rape and struggle to reconcile that with their images of themselves as “good people” and “not one of those (usually) guys.” And many feminist instructors, especially those who are women, know all too well what it is like to navigate the “mansplaining” of a few men students who would like to ardently deny that rape culture exists. Such students may make claims like the following, among others:

  • In response to discussions about the fact that what a woman is wearing does not give someone license to rape her, nor does the rate of sexual violence have anything to do with clothing choice: “But don’t you think what she was wearing is at least a little important?”
  • In response to conversations about the structural barriers to reporting rapes, and the estimated number of rapes that go unreported: “But why wouldn’t she report it? It’s kind of on her.”
  • In response to demonstrating the staggeringly low rates of “false reports” in contrast with the alarmingly high concern lawmakers, the media and the general public seem to have with this artificial trend: “How do you know that it’s really rape?”
  • In response to pointing out that someone is incapable of consenting if they are intoxicated: “Well, don’t you think she should have been more aware of her surroundings? Less drunk? It’s kind of her fault.”
  • In response to the fact that we live in a society that valorizes men’s violence against and dominance over women: “Boys will be boys” or “locker room talk.”

Every so often, however, men students may present a reasonable shortcoming of the prevailing rape-culture rhetoric, such as “Why don’t we talk about when men experience rape? How can we make space for that dialogue without pushing aside women’s experiences with rape and systemic inequality?”

This is a valid question, and the inquiry is on point. We need to make space for men (as well as nonbinary people) to share their experiences with rape, since the foreclosure of such space stems from the very same mechanisms of inequality that facilitate rape culture in the first place.

When I encountered a paper that began with this question in my gender course, I hoped that the student would take the paper in that direction.

He started by citing an example of a case he read in the news media in which a woman on a college campus raped a man and the institution responded poorly. However, I first felt a twinge in my spine when I looked up the source of his story and traced it back to a men’s rights advocacy group. “OK,” I thought to myself, “students use questionable sources all the time, often because they might not have the skills to distinguish objective journalism from something like an MRA group. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here and make a note of it for the next paper.”

Unfortunately, his argument quickly devolved into a tirade claiming — since he presented just one case wherein a woman raped a man — that feminism is pointless and women are complaining too much about gender inequality. He wrote that men and women experience rape culture in exactly the same way, and claimed talking about gender inequality was just an effort to make men look bad. He said that women brought these things upon themselves by making people, and specifically men, angry and annoyed via conversations about feminism and rape culture. He did not even feign a presentation of data to back up his argument after the initial example; rather, he simply ranted against feminism, women and open discussions about the sexual violence women regularly experience.

As I went over his paper, I realized that I was reading a paper that sounded word for word like something the man who raped me would say. And not only did this sound like something my rapist would say, this student fit the same demographic profile as him: white, college male, between the ages of 18 and 22.

I got up from my desk and went for a walk. I could not concentrate. I had plans to read a book later that afternoon, which were shattered by being thrown back into a pit of traumatic, fragmented memories by this student’s paper. I was furious at the fact that, as an instructor, I was expected to take his paper seriously, and scared of what he might do if he did not like his grade. Although I knew it was unlikely that this student would literally try to rape me, his words felt so familiar that I began having trouble distinguishing him from the man that did. Their words were so frighteningly similar that the rational-instructor side of my brain could not overpower the trauma-survivor side.

None of my training or experience prepared me for something like this, not even advice from the few feminist scholars I have had the pleasure of knowing. I was in a position where I had to take this student’s words seriously, evaluate their merit and provide a percentile score based on how well I thought they fit the parameters of the assignment.

Zero! You get a fucking zero!” I literally screamed at my computer screen. I decided that I was not ready to return to grading papers yet, so I got up and went for another walk.

I felt irritated that in two pages of (poorly written) ranting, this student was able to undercut whatever authority I thought I had as an instructor. Authority that, especially as a woman instructor, I worked hard to establish and maintain. I imagined him sitting on the other side of his computer screen laughing at my pain, joking about my distress. I imagined him being friends with my rapist (though the man who raped me is now significantly older than this student, he is frozen in the 18-22 age bracket in my mind). How, I wondered, could I possibly evaluate this student’s work in an “unbiased” fashion? Such a request would involve me living an entirely different life than the one that I have had.

I returned to my computer late that night. I pulled up his paper, took a deep breath and began to read it again. No one ever advised me how to grade a paper that sounds like something my rapist would say, so I suppose I will have to train myself. After all, I am certain that I am not the only instructor to have to navigate this dynamic, and I am sure this will not be the last time that I have to navigate it.

Include Readings By, About, And For Women On Your New Syllabus

End Patriarchy by Charlotte Cooper

Photo by Charlotte Cooper

I have lots of thoughts about Historiann’s ( recent essay, “A woman’s work is never done, part II: and even when it is, it’s not on the syllabus.”  I agree with the argument — that pieces by and about women are underrepresented on syllabi in college-level courses.  I also appreciate the suggestions provided to counter this unintentional but systematic erasure of women on instructors’ syllabi, and even in their peer-reviewed publications.  Go read Historiann’s essay first; here is the link again.

I say that I have lots of thoughts because I slipped into a Twitter rant about syllabus preparation, impostor syndrome, and social justice after sharing Historiann’s essay early this morning.  I decided these many thoughts warranted a blog post.

With each new course that I prepare, that dreaded voice of self-doubt — a symptom of impostor syndrome — gets on my internal microphone, distracting me as I develop the syllabus.  As part of the broader struggle I have with the pressure to conform (or not) to the academic status quo, I face the real temptation to teach what everyone else teaches.  I have a tendency to start syllabus preparation by downloading every syllabus on the course’s focus (and some only somewhat relevant, as well); I may even email colleagues for copies of their syllabi if they are comfortable sharing them.  (The American Sociological Association’s TRAILS archive of peer-reviewed syllabi is a wonderful tool.)  But, then, I am overloaded with data.  So, I try to hone in on repeated topics and readings.  “Ah, ok, so covering [fill in the blank] seems expected for this course.”  This approach may be a good “training wheels” way to design a course that is far outside of your expertise and/or for graduate students who are still learning their field.

However, I have learned the hard way that conforming to what seems to be the norm for that subfield — creating the syllabus I believe abstract others would approve of — creates for a miserable course.  It is boring, leaving me few opportunities to teach the things about which I am passionate.  It leaves me fumbling to teach topics I know nothing about; sometimes, it shows, and students call my expertise and competence into question on course evaluations.  (Sadly, this only sets in motion a cycle of feeling like an impostor.  “Why did I think I could teach this class in the first place?”)  And, I do my students a disservice by teaching the little more I know about the subject than they do, rather than exposing them to topics that I know well and care deeply about.  It’s just a mistake all around, makes for a miserable course with crappy student evaluations, and only reinforces my self-doubt.

So, in 2014, I first wrote a blog to encourage fellow instructors to silence the voice of self-doubt and impostorism and, instead, center the voice of authenticity, originality, and passion in designing a new course.  I have learned that I should be teaching what I know and care about rather than following what everyone else does.  I was hired for this position because of my expertise and unique perspective, and asked or allowed to teach X course for those same reasons.  (That is, unless it is one of those rare times when the department is in a bind and has to ask faculty to teach something outside of their expertise.)  So, allowing fear to steer me away from my unique approach makes no sense.  An authentic approach to teaching is more fun for my students and me.  And, it is crucial for challenging the academic status quo.  Conforming to what every one else does may actually be contributing to the systemic erasure of oppressed communities and controversial topics.  The world around us changes, and we must keep up with it; we do our students a disservice by letting tried and true approaches to teaching dictate how we continue to teach and what we teach well into the future.

So, Historiann’s plea for gender inclusion in course syllabi resonates with thoughts I have wrestled with for some time.  As a mere matter of science, it is shameful that we are having to convince our colleagues that they should take the time to include works by and about women on their syllabi.  Excluding women — whether knowningly or unknowingly — is bad science; you can’t name a single field or discipline that is entirely devoid of women scholars and scholarship on women, not even the fields that are dominated by men.  So, if your default approach to syllabus preparation yields lots of pieces by and about men, you’re doing it wrong — and you probably need to assess where this sexist bias is coming from.  It may just be a matter of laziness and comfort — that you don’t want to take the extra time to track down women authors (as though they are hard to find) or to read pieces you haven’t read a million times before and thus keep assigning to save time.  Whatever your personal decision-making process, you may very well be contributing to the systemic invisibility of women in the academy.  If you’re not proactively including women, you are part of academia’s patriarchy problem.

I suspect that some want to take a feminist approach to designing and teaching their courses — here, using feminism in the most moderate terms, of seeing women as people (too) — but, worry about a backlash from students in their formal course evaluations, on sites like RateMyProfessor.com, and maybe even being challenged in class and/or by email.  You’re probably a privileged white heterosexual cis dude currently without disabilities if these are not concerns you have on a regular basis.  These are realistic worries for marginalized faculty, especially those who have the audacity (channeling conservative privileged students here) to teach about their marginalized community.  I share this worry, which is why conformity has been so tempting as my shield — the suits, the delaying of new piercings and tattoos, the fretting over my blogging, the politically tepid syllabi, and so forth.

I’ve got a few responses to these concerns, the first and most pessimistic being that you’ll face backlash no matter what (so, fuck it — teach to your feminist heart’s content).  I acknowledge that this is hard, and encourage you to only push students when you feel ready and have the capacity and support available to weather their (potential) backlash.  But, we only exacerbate the problem of sexism in academia if we repeatedly run to conformity out of fear.  And, I want to remind you that our job is to educate students, which sometimes includes making them uncomfortable; we do them and society writ large a disservice if we only tell them what they (think they) want to hear.  I would say we do our marginalized students even more harm by caving to privileged students’ demand for the expected — biased content that excludes women and centers men’s voices and writing.  They aren’t seeing themselves, hearing people like themselves, and are losing out on having their consciousnesses raised.  I can’t help but wonder why the majority of college-educated white women voted for a known rapist over a woman for US president; yes, their racism played a role — something that also should be better addressed in the classroom — but it scares me that they weren’t moved by a feminist consciousness to vote in a way that would advance their status rather than set them back by a century.  But, I digress…

I imagine that another reason some instructors will hesitate to intentionally insure the inclusion of women on their course syllabi is being turned off by what seems like an effort to push a feminist agenda.  Maybe you’re in the STEM fields and social issues like gender equality seem less relevant to your subject.  Or, you feel you’re just teaching to educate, not to indoctrinate.  But, as I’ve already said, contributing to the broader pattern of centering men’s voices over women’s in your courses is bad science and pedagogy.  You are perhaps failing to apply a critical lens to what pieces are seen as fundamental to your field, to what pieces are considered “classic” texts, to which authors and what topics are published in the top journals of your field, and to whom is awarded grants to carry out their research.  You may not want to advance the political project of feminism by taking the time to include pieces by, about, and for women on your syllabus; but, in doing so, you are actually advancing the political project of patriarchy.  You can’t me neutral on the issue of gender equity; either you are intentionally promoting the work of women, or you are complicit in their invisibility.  What will you chose?  (It had better be feminism, damnit.)

So, I leave you with Historiann’s request: take the time to include scholarship by, about, and for women on your course syllabi.  Failing to do so is bad science, bad for our students and our society, and only perpetuates sexism.

On Finally Finding My Feminist Academic Community In Sociology

Note: this was originally published on Feminist Reflections blog.

About a month ago, I found myself embarrassed to sit as the sole faculty member at a table of new members of Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) – that is, aside from Dr. Mary Bernstein, outgoing SWS president, who led the new member orientation. I was excited to attend my first SWS winter meeting (really, first of anything hosted by SWS), but also embarrassed that I was new already half way to tenure and still “new.” No disrespect meant to the graduate students in that room, but I felt as though I was sitting at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving dinner. And, when it came my turn to introduce myself, I felt as though I was at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: “Hi, my name is Eric Grollman, and this is my first SWS meeting.” “Hi Eric,” my fellow newbies didn’t actually say, but I could hear in my imaginative and anxious mind.

No Support To Attend SWS Meetings

I went through all six years of graduate school, and then two years in my current position, without ever attending an SWS function. Some years I was a dues-paying member, and some years not. I justified the distance from SWS by identifying as more of a health scholar, and secondly a sexualities scholar – that gender was only tangentially related to my research. It took an encouraging email from SWS Executive Officer, Dr. Joey Sprague, to finally get serious about becoming involved in SWS. Recently, my work as an intellectual activist – particularly on my blog, Conditionally Accepted – has focused on protecting fellow intellectual activists from public backlash and professional harm. As many of those who have been attacked are women of color, it was clear that my efforts were in line with SWS’s mission and many of its initiatives. You-should-get-involved became you-should-attend-the-winter-meeting, which became you-should-organize-a-session-on-this-topic. This was quite a break from what feels like eagerly awaiting opportunities for leadership in other academic organizations!

I’ve studied sexuality and gender, as well as their intersections with race, since I officially declared my major in sociology and minor in gender studies in college. And, I’ve been an activist of sorts since kindergarten, focusing heavily on LGBTQ and gender issues beginning in college. Why did it take me so long to get involved with SWS – a feminist sociologist organization?

Elizabeth Salisbury, Drs. Jodi Kelber-Kaye, Ilsa Lottes, Fred Pincus, Michelle Scott, Carole McCann, and Susan McCully, among others. These aren’t names that are known nationwide (not yet, at least), but they are forever a part of my life. These are professors who were fundamental in the raising of my feminist consciousness, and in feeding my budding activist spirit. They introduced me to Black feminist theory (among other theoretical perspectives), feminist and queer critiques of the media, womanist accounts of herstory, and social justice-oriented research methods. Clearly, I still feel nostalgia for those days of self-exploration, advocacy, and community-building.

Graduate school, unfortunately, was a hard right-turn from my undergraduate training. I chose to pursue a PhD in sociology, assuming it would be easier to get into the fields of gender studies, sexuality studies, or even student affairs with that degree than the other way around. I won’t waste my energy on regretting the decision, but I recognize that it was the first of many compromises I would make to advance my career. Dreams of a joint PhD with gender studies were dashed due to “advice” that I would not be employable. I was discouraged from my fallback plan of a graduate minor in gender studies or sexuality studies because, I was told, one can “read a book” to learn everything there is to know about gender. By the time I selected the topic for my qualifying exam, I knew to select the more mainstream area of social psychology rather than the more desirable areas of sexualities, gender, or race/class/gender/sexualities. Still, I was reminded again that my interests in gender, sexualities, and race were not “marketable” when I proposed a dissertation on trans health. I was mostly obedient as a student. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised by my friends’ surprise that I had been offered a tenure-track position in sociology with a focus on gender and health. I entered grad school open to interdisciplinary study on queer, feminist, and anti-racist issues, utilizing qualitative methods, and tying my research to my advocacy; I left a mainstream quantitative medical sociologist who viewed writing blog posts as a “radical” forms of advocacy.

Would it surprise you that I wasn’t encouraged to attend an SWS meeting in graduate school? Those who were actually involved in SWS did so on their own volition. We were otherwise expected and encouraged to attend the mainstream organization – the American Sociological Association – and perhaps the regional sociology conference as a starting point to “nationals.” It wasn’t encouraged, it wasn’t the norm; and, on the limited funds of a graduate student, I had to be pragmatic about which conferences I attended. ASA won out all through grad school and beyond.

Finally Finding My Feminist Sociology Community

Tressie Me Perry DawnSo, back to my first SWS winter meeting. It was amazing, of course. I felt like an academic celebrity, having many people – some whom I knew, many whom I did not – express their appreciation for my blog, Conditionally Accepted. Admittedly, with such visibility as an intellectual activist, there is a lingering twinge of the mentality I was forced to adopt in grad school: “what about my research?” I thought privately. Obviously, these colleagues care about my research, as well. But, I found that the meeting, unlike other conferences I’ve attended, was just as much about research as it was about feminism, activism, and building a community. At what other conference would I feel torn between attending a session on feminist public sociology (hosted by the fine folks at Feminist Reflections) and another on campus anti-racist activism? Certainly not the conferences I’ve been attending over the years.

In hindsight, I realize how easy the meeting was emotionally, socially, and professionally. I saw an occasional glance at my nametag, but never followed by averted eyes. I sensed genuine curiosity in meeting others, not the elitist-driven networking to which I’ve grown accustomed at academic conferences. There was even a banquet, featuring a silent auction, a dance party, and delicious food, on the final night of the meeting. Feminist sociologists know how to party after a busy day of talking research and advocacy!

Needless to say, SWS meetings will be one of the regulars on my yearly conference circuit. I am left wondering how different my career and life would be thus far had I attended SWS from the start. Would I have had an easier time finding support for my research and advocacy knowing that I would at least have a network of social justice-minded colleagues in SWS? Would I be in some sort of leadership position within SWS by now? I even saw half a dozen current grad students from my graduate program at the meeting. What do they know that I didn’t?

I can’t speak to paths I did not take, and why others do what they do (or don’t do). I made the decision to focus on becoming involved in mainstream sociology spaces to increase my visibility, widen my professional networks, and enhance my job prospects. SWS did not seem like a feasible opportunity for me because it was not seen as a central in my graduate program. I suffered to a great extent in attempting to navigate the powerful mainstream expectations of my graduate training and my own goals to make a difference in the world. I don’t know that I could have handled being marginal anymore than I already was as a Black queer intellectual activist who studies race, sexualities, and gender.

Find Your Own Feminist Academic Community

Adia Ray MeWhat I take from life’s lessons is that one can really benefit from looking just a little bit further to find what one needs. My program devalued research on my communities – Black and LGBTQ. But, had I attended just one SWS conference, I would have found that there exists an academic space where that work is valued without question. My program sought to “beat the activist” out of me; but, in SWS, I would have found regular, open discussions about feminism, activism, and social justice. I know now that if I cannot find support for my goals, my identities, my politics in my immediate context, I am certain I can find support elsewhere. And, if not, there are likely a few others who are willing to join together to build a community that would offer such support. “If you build it, they will come,” or something along those lines. So, no matter how alone we might feel in a specific program, department, university, field, organization, etc., we have to remember that the universe is vast – there is someone or some group out there in which we can find home.

I don’t want to end by beating myself up, though. I’ve done too much of that in trying to make sense of the traumatic experience of grad school. Rather, I want to end by encouraging those who are in supportive networks to reach out to fellow colleagues and students who you know will benefit from access to such networks. I want to encourage those with power, money, and other resources to share them with someone who may not be able to afford attending a conference that might be transformative for them – but their department won’t support or encourage. I encourage faculty to emphasize to their students how amazing SWS is, or at least having other options besides ASA. Departments and universities can also consider setting aside money and resources to help students attend SWS, the Association of Black Sociologists, Humanist Sociologists, Society for the Study of Social Problems, regional sociology meetings, and those outside of sociology (e.g., National Women’s Studies Association). We do not advance our field by reproducing mainstream and traditional work; we do it by taking risks and thinking outside of the box. We do not benefit from young, aspiring feminist sociologists trudging through their careers thinking that their feminist politics are at odds with success in sociology, nor having them drop out of their programs or leave sociology for more supportive fields. We benefit from supporting the creativity and bravery of the next generation of scholars.

So, I hope to see you at the next SWS meeting. I’ll be the one attendee with the big grin on my face – well, at least one of the many.