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