Three years on, I still feel like a vic­tim of sex­ual ha­rass­ment. Sara Ahmed has helped me ar­tic­u­late why

THE (Times Higher Education) - - OPINION - Re­becca J. S. Nice was a stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Winch­ester.

Ihave spent the past three years deal­ing with sex­ual ha­rass­ment while I was an un­der­grad­u­ate at the Uni­ver­sity of Winch­ester, from its al­most im­per­cep­ti­ble start to reg­u­lar and tan­gi­ble events. I have fi­nally had a let­ter “up­hold­ing” my com­plaint and thereby con­clud­ing the le­gal process, but it has been a trau­ma­tis­ing jour­ney. Al­though the uni­ver­sity in­ves­ti­gated my com­plaint in line with its pol­icy, that pol­icy does not pro­tect the vic­tim from institutional be­hav­iours that cause shame and doubt, and iso­late them even when their com­plaint is jus­ti­fied.

Cru­cial to my abil­ity to put into words what hap­pened to me was Sara Ahmed’s “Sex­ual Ha­rass­ment” blog post, in which she rails against the han­dling of the is­sue by Gold­smiths, Uni­ver­sity of Lon­don. The post was writ­ten about six months be­fore she re­signed from Gold­smiths over the is­sue. Adopt­ing her nomen­cla­ture, I have iden­ti­fied sev­eral themes that ex­plain how I con­tin­ued to be a vic­tim.

The first is en­ablers. My ex­pe­ri­ence of sex­ual ha­rass­ment went on for about a year, and then pe­tered out over a fur­ther six months. It con­sisted of my de­part­men­tal men­tor send­ing per­sua­sive and ma­nip­u­la­tive text mes­sages try­ing to con­vince me to have sex with him, and com­ment­ing on my be­hav­iour and ap­pear­ance in of­fi­cial uni­ver­sity set­tings. Hier­ar­chy, power, friend­ship, guilt, fear, a sense of ow­ing the per­son and of need­ing their help as a tu­tor: all th­ese ini­tially pre­vented me from speak­ing out. My first at­tempt to do so made me feel that my ex­pe­ri­ence was be­lit­tled, and this

dis­cour­aged me from tak­ing the is­sue fur­ther. I was wor­ried about caus­ing drama for my­self when I was un­der pres­sure of dead­lines – and that con­cern was re­it­er­ated by staff mem­bers I spoke to.

“Harassers are en­abled by be­ing for­given,” Ahmed writes. Col­leagues tell “stu­dents whose con­cern is bor­der­ing on dis­clo­sure: let it go; let him off”. I was told by sev­eral mem­bers of pro­fes­sional and aca­demic staff to let it go: that mak­ing an is­sue of it was not worth it, and that I should just move on. The first time that I took my com­plaint to a fac­ulty mem­ber who is known for be­ing sup­port­ive to­wards un­der­grad­u­ates, she noted that he had a rep­u­ta­tion for hav­ing a “dirty, old-fash­ioned sense of hu­mour”. Later, the same per­son also told me to “let it go”.

At this stage, I felt ter­ri­fied that the ha­rasser would find out that I had told peo­ple about his be­hav­iour. This prompted me to speak to an ad­viser at stu­dent ser­vices. They de­clined to take my com­plaint for­ward – al­though they did add that if I “feel like it’s some­thing that you re­ally want to do then you can”.

I felt that both my depart­ment and stu­dent ser­vices were only in­ter­ested in be­ing seen to do the right thing. It felt like they were wash­ing their hands of it. No one ac­cepted my of­fers to show them the mes­sages that my ha­rasser had sent me. I had to set­tle for an offthe-record ac­knowl­edge­ment and doc­u­men­ta­tion in my stu­dent ser­vices notes that I had ex­pressed con­cerns about this per­son.

“I love our dis­cus­sions: it’s like an episode of EastEn­ders,” an­other stu­dent ser­vices mem­ber told me, im­ply­ing that our ses­sion was a girly chat, rather than some­one ap­peal­ing for help with a se­ri­ous con­cern. Th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences made me feel that my fear of speak­ing out was le­git­i­mate, and made me ques­tion whether I was in­deed blow­ing my ex­pe­ri­ences out of pro­por­tion.

Ahmed writes that institutional re­sponse to al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual ha­rass­ment can take the form of dam­age lim­i­ta­tion. That was cer­tainly my ex­pe­ri­ence. I was told sev­eral times by my ha­rasser’s

Hier­ar­chy, power, friend­ship, guilt, fear, a sense of ow­ing the per­son and of need­ing their help as a tu­tor: all th­ese ini­tially pre­vented me from speak­ing out

col­leagues what a hard worker he was; how many boards he sat on; how the depart­ment re­lied on his ad­min­is­tra­tive ef­forts. All this im­plied that I would “dam­age the pro­fes­sor” – and ev­ery­one else in the depart­ment as a re­sult.

Dam­age lim­i­ta­tion makes ev­ery­one else’s jobs eas­ier, and al­lows the ac­cused to be­come the vic­tim. I was made to feel like I was some­how be­tray­ing the uni­ver­sity and the peo­ple within it.

An­other of Ahmed’s bug­bears is the dis­cour­age­ment that vic­tims of sex­ual ha­rass­ment of­ten re­ceive from for­mally com­plain­ing. I was dis­cour­aged from tak­ing a stand by the veil of se­crecy and si­lence cre­ated by the in­sti­tu­tion’s at­ti­tudes around it. Friends or lec­tur­ers who did agree to chat to me would only do so “off cam­pus”, or “off the record”. They felt that they were en­dan­ger­ing their jobs by even lis­ten­ing to me.

If the staff feared the im­pact that sup­port­ing me would have on their ca­reers, what of the im­pact on my stud­ies, my marks, my

rep­u­ta­tion? It was only after I had all my marks re­turned to me that I felt safe enough to think about rais­ing my com­plaint again. And I be­lieved that my con­cerns about how much power my ha­rasser had, and how he could use it, were borne out by what hap­pened around the prize for the stu­dent with the high­est marks. I was that stu­dent. But an email for­warded to me by a sym­pa­thetic staff mem­ber, marked “not for stu­dents”, an­nounced that the word­ing of the el­i­gi­bil­ity cri­te­ria had been rein­ter­preted, ren­der­ing me, as a joint-hon­ours stu­dent, in­el­i­gi­ble.

Al­liances – an­other of Ahmed’s tropes – play a role in how sex­ual ha­rass­ment is dealt with. In my case, my com­plaint was passed back and forth be­tween staff be­fore it was dealt with. It was only after I con­tacted the uni­ver­sity om­buds­man that the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of my com­plaint was fully put into ac­tion.

As I was putting my ev­i­dence to­gether, I went to my head of depart­ment. He was un­der­stand­ing and the first per­son who I felt was ac­tively sup­port­ive. He helped me to think about what out­comes I wanted if an in­ves­ti­ga­tion took place, and whether we could reach those by sav­ing me the trauma. But sub­se­quently his emails be­came less timely and more for­mal, and I sus­pected that he was avoid­ing me. I don’t know what, if any­thing, had hap­pened, but I felt em­bar­rassed and ashamed be­cause I thought that I had got him into trou­ble and come be­tween col­leagues. I felt that I was the trou­ble­maker, and I hid away spo­rad­i­cally through­out the com­plaints process.

My com­plaint was still un­re­solved when it came to grad­u­a­tion, so I avoided at­tend­ing the cer­e­mony for this half of my joint hon­ours de­gree (even though this was the one most of my friends went to). How could I shake the hand of my ha­rasser in Winch­ester Cathe­dral and sit silently un­recog­nised when I knew that I was the high­est achiever? I felt iso­lated and pun­ished for some­thing that wasn’t my fault.

I was not failed by ev­ery­one. Sa­van­nah King, pres­i­dent of the stu­dents’ union in 2015-16, sup­ported me through ev­ery step of the com­plaint and in­ves­ti­ga­tion. She was pro­fes­sional, em­pa­thetic and fear­less. The in­ter­ven­tion of a site se­cu­rity man­ager was a gamechanger. He was the only other per­son brave enough to look a look at my ha­rasser’s mes­sages, upon which he marched off to the om­buds­man.

I com­mend the uni­ver­sity for open­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, care­fully han­dled by a dean from a different fac­ulty. But sub­se­quent dis­cus­sions with the 1752 Group have sug­gested to me that there were still con­sid­er­able flaws in the process.

I am also re­lieved to learn that my ha­rasser has been sanc­tioned – even if the uni­ver­sity’s pol­icy of not re­veal­ing what the sanc­tions are makes it harder to feel cer­tain that jus­tice has been done. Such poli­cies, es­pe­cially when no apol­ogy is of­fered, fur­ther pro­tect the ha­rasser and deny the vic­tim any sense of clo­sure.

Uni­ver­si­ties need to do much more to change the cul­ture of apol­o­gism for harassers and im­plicit vic­tim-blam­ing, and I hope that my speak­ing out will help to fa­cil­i­tate that trans­for­ma­tion. Most of all, uni­ver­sity lead­ers should re­flect deeply on Ahmed’s ob­ser­va­tion that “tes­ti­fy­ing to a trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence is a trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence”. Vic­tims must be “pre­pared to be un­done” – and we are “not al­ways ready to put our­selves back to­gether again”.

Peo­ple ask: “What has set her off now? Why rake it all up again after three years?” My re­ply is this. It was the orig­i­nal sex­ual ha­rass­ment that set me off. In the long in­ter­ven­ing years, I have been pre­par­ing, re­cov­er­ing, search­ing, cry­ing, ten­ta­tively see­ing how the land lies, be­ing knocked back, reach­ing out to some­one new, be­ing warned off, print­ing off ev­i­dence, hid­ing it away in shame, blam­ing my­self, ques­tion­ing my­self, read­ing about ha­rass­ment... right up un­til this very mo­ment.

You think that this went away? It didn’t. It never does.

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