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.

Transphobia On The Job Market

alex-hannaNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Alex Hanna is an assistant professor in the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology and the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on how new and social media have changed social movement mobilization and political participation more generally. Methodologically, she is interested in computational social science, textual analysis and social network analysis. This article will also appear in Reflections on Academic Lives: Identities, Struggles and Triumphs in Graduate School and Beyond, a collection of essays to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2017.

In September 2016, Alex was interviewed on Feminist Killjoys PhD podcast about her experiences on the academic job market as a trans woman.

Being Transgender on the Job Market

Being on the academic job market can be traumatizing for a job candidate. With the current disparity between Ph.D. holders and available jobs, the casualization of academic labor, and the shrinking of public university budgets, what was once a field of possibility has become one of rabid competition.

An ideal job candidate is supposed to have a track record of publishing in top academic journals, a broad range of teaching experience and a commitment to university service. And in a field with so many candidates, it is — as Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In said in her self-titled 2015 book — a buyer’s market. Any slight edge may mean the difference between getting a campus visit or never hearing back. The uncertainty of a highly competitive market makes anxiety, depression, stress and other mental and physical health problems commonplace for job candidates.

Transgender people on the market have to negotiate a host of additional difficulties, even before getting a campus visit and interview. Obviously, I cannot speak for all transgender folks — I identify as transfeminine and a trans woman, am a person of color, and transitioned during graduate school. As a whole, transgender people are drastically underrepresented within academe — a fact that was apparent to me during the last meeting of the American Sociological Association. Although the theme of the conference was “Sexualities,” only a handful of transgender people were in attendance, mostly transmasculine and trans men. In fact, as far as I could tell, I was the only transfeminine person or trans woman in attendance. I had an overall positive experience, but in disciplines that don’t talk about gender explicitly, the lack of transgender representation may be an even starker problem.

The difficulties of applying to academic jobs as a transgender person begin before submitting any applications. The first question is whether you should even disclose your transgender status. Parts of your application may need to be explained, such as the disparity between the name that you use on an application and the name under which you have published. Outing yourself may lead to subtle or even outright discrimination, but because those negotiations are made behind closed doors, you have no way of knowing for sure. If you do choose to disclose your transness, you have to decide how to do it. There aren’t many places on the cover letter to talk about gender and sexuality. A supportive adviser can do so in recommendation letters, but an unsupportive adviser may misgender you just the same. Recommenders also have to use the correct pronouns, and therefore you can be at the mercy of ignorant or hostile writers.

The experience of being transgender on a campus visit can go south quickly. Such a visit requires you to be professional at all times, and keeping up your emotional guard to gender issues makes it doubly trying. Bathrooms pose a glaring problem — although this is improving, it is still fairly rare for academic buildings to have unisex or gender-neutral facilities. Professional clothing can be a problem for more clearly expressing gender, and the process of getting those clothes can be stressful in itself. In all interpersonal interactions, misgendering is continual fear, including one-on-ones, a group meal or, in the worse case, when a senior faculty member introduces you to a room full of people with the wrong pronouns.

I recently had a nightmare interview in a sociology department at a college in a major metropolitan city in the Northeast. At the job talk, the (older, white male) search chair — let’s call him George — introduced me with the wrong pronouns, which meant the rest of the audience took his lead. He knew my correct pronouns, but he didn’t seem to be able to get them right at all. The situation came to a head at dinner, attended by George and three women faculty members. His misgendering was constant, and the other faculty members were repeating it. It annoyed me less that he was consistent in doing it but that the other faculty members were acquiescent in it. I remember at one point, he said something to which he wanted to engender a big response or laugh but managed to misgender me in the statement. While everyone else laughed, I just looked down and felt humiliated.

I considered not returning to the second day of the interview, but decided to soldier on. That evening I wrote an email to one of the faculty members at the dinner, with whom I felt more free to speak — let’s call her Charlie — about all the misgendering, and how it was disrespectful and degrading. The next morning, Charlie, George and I sat in George’s office, where he offered an apology and said something about needing training on transgender issues. George and I then went to another meeting with the head of another department. Upon entry, that person asked, “How’s the visit going?” to which George responded, “Oh, not too well,” and then we had to rehash all that had happened.

At that point, it just felt like the obsession with my transness and George’s inability to get my pronouns right had become the focal point of my visit. After George came back from taking a phone call, I turned to him and said I couldn’t continue the interview and wanted to go back to the hotel. Although this is a worst-case scenario, it displays many of the tensions and emotional exhaustions of being transgender on the market.

How does this get better? A tenure-track faculty interview, even though potentially anxiety producing and traumatic, is still a relatively privileged situation. Before getting there, there are significant barriers to entering the higher education pipeline, including proper K-12 education, parental well-being and income, and adequate housing. According to a survey of transgender people commissioned by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 78 percent of respondents had been harassed in K-12 settings, 57 percent had experienced significant family rejection and 19 percent had been reported experiencing homelessness at some point in their lives because of their gender identity. In addition, 41 percent of respondents have attempted suicide. Nearly all those numbers are worse when considering people of color, especially black transgender people. So things for transgender folks in academe will probably get better along with larger movements for racial, educational and housing justice.

For transgender people currently in academe, strategies for coping in other spheres of life go double when it comes to the job market. Having a good support system is vital. Find other queer and trans academics going through the job-seeking process. In addition, be mentally prepared for worst-case situations. Finally, try to find allies among the faculty and on the search committee. As a last resort, it’s OK to just leave. Seriously — if the environment is toxic at a two-day campus visit, then it’s no place you want to work.

Gender And Class Shape How Researchers See Your Race

Sociologists Andrew M. Penner and Aliya Saperstein have published yet another study that demonstrates how we categorize others in terms of race — not just racial stereotypes, but even racial identity — is dependent upon their other characteristicsIn their most recent, published in the June 2013 issue of Gender & Society, the researchers found that individuals’ socioeconomic position and gender predicted whether their race would be recorded by interviewers as Black, white, or other:

Researchers study what shapes racial classification. In a novel study that looked back at how survey interviewers racially classify people over the course of their adult lives, sociologists Andrew Penner and Aliya Saperstein discovered that from one year to the next some people’s race appeared to change. This change occurred when the interviewer in one year wrote down one race, but in the next year the interviewer wrote down a different race. Penner and Saperstein call these changes in classification “racial fluidity,” and the researchers wanted to know what affected how a person’s race was perceived.

Though they found general factors that seemed to determine respondents’ racial classification, some were gender-specific:

The study found that men and women had similar levels of racial fluidity overall, and some factors, such as where the people lived, resulted in similar changes for both women and men. All else being equal, people were more likely to be classified as white and less likely to be classified as black if they lived in the suburbs, while the opposite was true for people living in the inner city.

However, other factors that triggered changes in racial classification differed by gender. In particular, poverty made men and women less likely to be classified as white, but the effect was stronger for men. Penner explains, “This is consistent with traditional gender roles that emphasize men’s responsibility as breadwinners, so that poverty changes how men are seen more than how women are seen.”

On the other hand, women, but not men, who have received welfare benefits are less likely to be seen as white and more likely to be seen as black, even though the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that in 2010 70% of welfare recipients are not black. Penner continues, “This result speaks to deeply entrenched stereotypes of ‘welfare queens’ originally made popular by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Knowing that a women is on welfare triggers a racial stereotype that isn’t triggered for men.”

Consistent with other widespread stereotypes, being a single parent affected a woman’s likelihood of being classified as white more than a man’s, while having been in prison affected whether men were classified as white but not women.

Some Additional Thoughts

This study, and their larger research project on racial fluidity, is a major contribution to the sociological understanding of race.  Put bluntly, their work provides further evidence that race is socially constructed.  It is not fixed (i.e., unchanging) nor universal.  Rather, race is contextual, fluid, and, most importantly, an arbitrary way of classifying people.

It is also a commendable extension of intersectionality, wherein the researchers highlight the intersections of gender and social class in racial classifications.  How we view others in terms of race is contingent upon their socioeconomic standing and gender.  To study race separate from other important social characteristics is to paint an incomplete picture.  I particularly appreciate their detailed discussion of doing intersectionality (i.e., applying an intersectional framework) in quantitative research — a practice that remains contentious among (and even antithetical to some) intersectionality scholars.

Lingering Questions

One question that lingers in my mind is the perceivers’ background.  That is, do these dynamics play out the same way for all interviewers?  Are they unique to interviewers of a particular background?  Heck, let me just say what I really mean — is it just white interviewers whose racial classifications appear to be contingent on classed and gendered notions of whiteness and Blackness?  The researchers accounted for various characteristics of the interviewers, including gender, level of education, and age — none of which effected racial categorization.  But, interviewers’ self-identified race did.

In particular, respondents were significantly more likely to be coded as white if the interviewer was white (at least compared to Black interviewers); the reverse was true for coding respondents as Black.  (Maybe these dynamics would reflect other race interviewers’ racial classifications if the survey was more racially inclusive than Black, white, and “other.”)  Since this was merely background noise for the researchers’ primary analyses, they did not dig deeper into this.  Why are white interviewers more likely to see respondents as white, and Black interviewers more likely to see respondents as Black?

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I suppose from my own experience — notably, as someone who is racially ambiguous — there tends to be just as much racial inclusion as there is racial “Othering.”  Some whites and Blacks have seen me as “one of their own,” while others see me as belonging to some other racial group.  So, I am surprised by this bias of categorizing others as one’s own race.  Certainly more research is needed to better understand these dynamics.

A Clarification

A point that seems lost in the academic press releases, commenting on “how others see your race,” is that those “others” are NLYS interviewers.  Certainly, interviewers and researchers are mere humans; thus, it would be inappropriate to expect them to be totally free of society’s influences (including stereotypes and biases).  I could make an issue of the supposed generalizability of the study — that we cannot assume trained interviewers’ racial classifications reflect those of laypeople.  But, their other work makes this concern unnecessary.

One article about the study noted:

These changes were not random, as one might expect if the interviewers were just hurrying to finish up or if the data-entry clerks were making mistakes. The racial classifications changed systematically, in response to what had happened to the respondent since the previous interview.

Interviewer error is inevitable.  But, this kind of systematic racial misclassification raises some cause for concern.  These “mistakes,” to some unknown degree, biased research based on the NLYS data.  In particular, it may have produced inaccurate estimates of racial differences on some outcome (e.g., health).

Fortunately, NLYS along with many other widely used surveys (and the US Census) have ceased interviewer-imposed race and ethnicity.  Now, respondents themselves provide their self-identified race and ethnicity.  While this eliminates interviewer bias, this approach is still imperfect for the fluidity and complexity of race.  In another study by Saperstein and Penner, individuals’ racial self-identification depended upon prior incarceration.  While this may appear to be evidence that respondents lie about their race (which is possible), it actually suggests that even how individuals see their own race depends upon their experiences and status.  Arguably, these contingent self-identified racial categorizations may reflect how others see them.

In other ways, researchers and interviewers may continue to impose their perceptions on respondents.  I have witnessed first hand the imputing of respondents’ gender.  The rationale given against explicitly asking respondents their gender was to avoid offending them: “can’t you tell by my voice that I’m a man!”  I am confident that most people were accurately classified by their self-identified gender.  But, I worry about the unknowable number of people who were misclassified.  I wondered why, when asking about personal opinions and intimate details of strangers’ lives, there was fear of offending them by asking about something so readily volunteered, constantly provided on official forms.

Concluding Thoughts

Although our openness as researchers introduces messiness and complexity, I feel we owe it to the people we study to willingly capture the messy, complicated details of their lives and identities.  I fear we too often choose the convenience of easily contained categories and quantifiable experiences over the rich complexity and diversity of our social world.  Though barely mentioned in the press for the article, Penner and Saperstein’s study reminds us just how complicated and messy that world is.

What Is Sexual Harassment? A Different Perspective


Note: this was originally published on Kinsey Confidential.

Think about this story for a moment:

In November [2009], … the Cheesecake Factory restaurant chain agreed to pay $345,000 to six male employees who claimed they were repeatedly sexually assaulted by a group of male kitchen staffers at a Phoenix-area restaurant.

Okay, now let me share another story with you:

…but one thing I noticed about him was that he feels up every woman he meets.

The first story came from an MSNBC article about the rising number of men filing formal claims of sexual harassment in the workplace.  The second story is a critique of a character on “The Real Housewives of Atlanta”, who is a gay man: can gay men sexually harass straight women?  I bet that there is a good chance that after reading the first story, you thought to yourself, “oh, the male perpetrators must be gay!”  And, after reading the second, you might have caught yourself questioning how a gay man could sexually harass a woman – why would he want to?

The point of this exercise is to highlight that many of us assume, even subconsciously, that sexual harassment entails some unwanted and harassing behaviors motivated by sexual desire.  So, some might find it confusing that a heterosexual person would harass someone of their same gender, or that a gay man might harass a woman.  But, what underlies sexual harassment is an expression of power – not desire.

The Traditional Definition Of Sexual Harassment

Beginning with the US Civil Rights Act of 1964, the dominant, legal definition of sexual harassment that has evolved overtime is one of harassing behaviors or differential treatment that are sexual in nature.  This includes unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and creating a hostile environment.  While it is understood that men can also be the victims of sexual harassment, men as harassers and women as targets of harassment is central to our common understanding of sexual harassment.  In fact, sexual harassment is commonly defined as a form of gender-based discrimination (against women).

Sexual Harassment As A Gendered Expression Of Power

There is a great deal of work, particularly in the social sciences, women and gender studies, and sexuality studies that demonstrates that sexual harassment is an expression of power, especially along the lines of gender.  For example, three sociologists recently published a study in which they found that women who hold supervisor-level positions are more likely than women who do not to experience sexual harassment.  These experiences for women supervisors largely serve to put them “in their place,” signaling that they are unwelcome in a position of power as women.  Unfortunately, factors beyond interactions among individuals appear to place women at greater risk for harassment: working in male-dominated fields, and being physical and socially isolated from other women.

Sexual Harassment Is Not (Only) About Gender

Indeed, women are not alone in being targets of sexual harassment.  Though less common, some men are victims of these experiences, as well.  In another sociological study on sexual harassment, a number of men reported experiencing sexually harassing behaviors; however, men are much more apprehensive to define these experiences as sexual harassment, probably because the common understanding limits these experiences to women.  This study also pointed out two interesting dynamics: adolescent males and men who are financially vulnerable (i.e., feel they do not have control over their financial situation) are more frequently targets of sexual harassment.

Indeed, sexual harassment is not merely a gendered phenomenon.  For example, there has been a great deal of attention in research to racial differences in women’s experiences of sexual harassment.  This work has explored whether women of color are more often targeted than white women, there are racial differences in defining one’s experiences as harassment, and whether women of color experience sexual harassment differently than white women.  Some Black feminist scholars like Drs. Patricia Hill Collins and Angela Y. Davis have noted that sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence are manifestations of sexism, as well as racism and classism.

But, I wish to push this perspective one step further — sexual harassment is the sexual-based expression of any system of oppression, be it sexism, racism, homophobia or heterosexism, transphobia, classism, ableism, ageism, fatphobia, or xenophobia.  A few examples come to mind:

  • A white heterosexual man jokes with his Black heterosexual male coworker that he must have large penis (because he’s Black).
  • A heterosexual woman doctor asks a lesbian patient about the particular sexual activities in which she engages with her female sexual partners to make sense of why the patient does not regularly use (male) condoms or other forms of birth control.
  • A girl from a working-class background is teased frequently by boys at her school that she provides oral sex in the school bathroom to make money.
  • A cisgender man repeatedly asks his neighbor, a trans man, about parts of his body and his sex life.

A Different Perspective

So, two related points come from this perspective on sexual harassment.  Sexual harassment is not limited to the unwanted and harassing behaviors that are sexual in nature by (heterosexual) men targeted toward (heterosexual).  To focus just on gender and, specifically on men as harassers and women as victims, forces us to overlook the other various ways in which sexual harassment occurs.  As a consequence, many people whose experiences fall outside of this traditional view may fail to define their experiences as sexual harassment, leading them to forgo seeking legal recourse or protection, or any actions to end the harassment in general.

The other related point is that this male-harasser-female-victim perspective is somewhat heterosexist; that is, it presumes that all parties involved are heterosexual.  By extension, this means that heterosexual desire must be present — one that entails a sexually aggressive heterosexual man and a sexually-disinterested heterosexual woman.  I must state this clearly, here: sexual harassment is not an expression of desire.  As such, one individual may repeatedly sexually harass another individual whom they do not find sexually desirable.  (In the case of sexual harassment between men, for example, it is probably the case that that heterosexual men sexual harass gay men much more frequently than the reverse.)

Now that US laws have shifted to reflect the reality that some men are survivors of sexual violence, it may be time to broaden how we define sexual harassment.  Indeed, we are beginning to acknowledge that men, too, are targets of sexual harassment.  But, it may be necessary that we recognize that sexual harassment may be an expression of racism, heterosexism, sexism, transphobia, classism, or any other form of oppression – as well as the intersections among them.