Home » Activism » Does The American Sociological Association Care About Survivors Of Sexual Violence?

Does The American Sociological Association Care About Survivors Of Sexual Violence?

You have my partner to thank for the above title — the product of a compromise, softening what would have been “The American Sociological Association Doesn’t Care About Survivors Of Sexual Violence” (channeling my pre-MAGA Kanye West on former President George W. Bush’s racism). Though I desperately need to prioritize recovering from a busy, sleep-deprived five days of conferencing, while also finishing up my tenure dossier, annual report, and course prep all in a couple of weeks, I find myself writing another blog post about sexual violence in sociology.

For the first time, I’ve left an ASA annual meeting feeling angry, disappointed, and defeated. Rather than my usual practice of journaling about how great the conference was, and new heights I reached in my career and journey to self-definition as a scholar-activist, I ended up launching into a Twitterstorm about whites’ defensiveness in the face of being called out (or “called in”) for being offensive toward people of color. (I recommended, instead, that whites view this as a courageous act of patience and kindness to hold you accountable, even seeing it as a gift from a person of color who could otherwise dismiss you as hopefully racist. I don’t want to get into specifics here, but suffice it to say the ASA 2018 annual meeting’s theme of Feeling Race was ironically absent from many white conference attendees’ self-reflection during the conference.)

It is the first time I’ve left the conference seriously considering letting my ASA membership lapse and not attending next year’s conference. But, I don’t want to follow the pattern of radical, marginalized sociologists who swear off ASA because it is unwelcoming and conservative, instead attending Association of Black Sociologists, Sociologists for Women in Society, Society for the Study of Social Problems, Humanist Sociology, and/or National Women’s Studies Association conferences. While I fully understand that decision, I don’t want to give ASA the pleasure of my silence and invisibility. You can’t get rid of me that easily.

One ASA staff member asked me not to villainize the organization, which is actually staffed by “allies.” (The quotation marks here reference a direct quote, not me doubting those claims, per se.) My partner asked me to ensure that this blog post be productive — not merely another condemnation of ASA. So, to honor these requests, I want to present an investigation of the evidence — does ASA care about survivors of sexual violence, or not? — rather than jumping to any conclusions (i.e., that it doesn’t).

ASA Cares About Survivors Of Sexual Violence — The Evidence

To offer historical context, ASA meetings are notorious for instances of sexual violence. Two years ago, I found myself gifted with the trust of two survivors who disclosed to me that they had been harassed or raped during prior ASA meetings. The cis male privilege that is perpetually bestowed upon me, despite my queer sexual and gender identities, had long shielded me from recognizing that sexual violence could occur even in sociology contexts. (Just last week, I finally came to terms with the sexual harassment I endured and witnessed during graduate school.) Once I knew these women’s horrific stories, I felt an obligation to call ASA’s and the discipline’s attention to what may be an epidemic, or at least the problem of victims’ fear of reporting. (At the time, ASA’s policy was to notify sociologists accused of sexual violence of the identity of their accuser[s].) In doing so, a dozen other survivors disclosed their own experiences with sexual violence to me, ranging from being choked in the middle of a crowded conference room, to groping, to invitations to hotel rooms, etc.

In the two years since, ASA created an anti-harassment working group to improve the organization’s anti-harassment policy, host workshops on sexual violence at ASA, and provide further recommendations to ASA to better address the issue and support victims. Six scholars with expertise in sexual violence were tapped to generously volunteer their time to help ASA do this work more effectively. A few members of the anti-harassment working group released essays through the organizations Footnotes newsletter:

Every conference attendee was asked to read the new anti-harassment policy and check a box that indicated they did so and agreed to follow these guidelines during the meeting. The working group created a 2-page document that explains the new policy and what to expect if one reports sexual violence, and offers resources to support survivors during the meeting in Philly and after when they return to their own campus. And, the working group hosted two workshops: 1) Bystander Intervention for Combating Sexual Misconduct in Sociology: Everyone Can Be Part of the Solution (which was cosponsored by Sociologists for Women in Society); and 2) Sexual Harassment in Professional Associations.

In addition to receiving training in handling reports of sexual violence ahead of the conference, ASA staff also passed out copies of the aforementioned 2-page document, as well as copies of Sherry Marts’s (of S*Marts Consulting, LLC) “No Means No: How to Respond to Harassment” guide. (Also see this site and this training.) I also heard several times that “sexual harassment is all ASA has been working on lately,” or “most of ASA staff members’ time has been going to this issue.” And, two ASA staff members kindly attended the Sociologists Against Sexual Violence meeting, held late at night on the Saturday of the conference.

ASA, I will give credit where credit is due. You have stepped up your game. But, it’s not enough, especially in light of other concerning actions and messages I received or witnessed.

ASA Could Care Less About Survivors Of Sexual Violence — The Evidence

I can only imagine the beast of an undertaking it is to plan and host a conference attended by 5,000+ people in a major city. I never saw a staff member sit or stand in one place for longer than an hour before running off somewhere else. To ASA’s credit, it must be incredibly difficult to also be forced to deal with the big flaming turd that was left on their doorstep just days before the meeting: several accusations of harassment were made against gender scholar Michael Kimmel in light of his selection to win the 2018 Jessie Bernard award for enlarging the horizons of the sociological study of women. And, to their credit, I fully recognize that they (as well as the anti-harassment working group and the Jessie Bernard award committee) were left to clean up a mess made by Kimmel’s own institution. With that in mind, I think it is still fair to call out ASA’s failures, at least in hopes to see a much better approach to addressing sexual violence in the future.

Weaknesses Of ASA’s New Policy And Other Documentation

I still have little hope that the anti-harassment policy will do anything to curb the epidemic of sexual violence. The new policy is a slight improvement from the previous protocol for reporting sexual violence, which seemed to automatically reveal the identity of accusers to the accused; the new policy vaguely promises that “Information will be kept confidential to the extent possible.” It seems anonymity is still not offered. Therefore, only a few brave (or naive?) victims will bother reporting. And, it is still too early to tell how many reported cases result in sanctions for the perpetrators and/or justice for the survivors. Many in the discipline are well-versed in the research that suggests that: 1) few victims report sexual violence, 2) even fewer reports are taken seriously, 3) even fewer result in sanctions for the perpetrators, 4) the reporting process serves as a secondary form of trauma, 5) retaliations against accusers are very common. ASA’s reporting system seems to mirror other systems that we already know don’t work.

ASA’s efforts to educate potential and actual victims of sexual violence about how to avoid sexual violence falls into the old trap of placing the burden on victims to end sexual violence. Though the new anti-harassment policy explicitly identifies “unacceptable behaviors,” I do not see an attendant effort to educate potential or actual perpetrators to not rape, assault, or harass. I am worried that ASA is a bit naive in thinking having to read (or, more realistically, skip over) the new policy and checking a box will actually stop sexual predators from harming others. Indeed, I’m sure every perpetrator is aware that sexual assault and rape are illegal and punishable crimes. I am worried the organization fails to acknowledge power dynamics that facilitate sexual violence. For example, the S*Marts Consulting “No Means No” guide seems woefully ignorant of the fact that telling a more senior colleague “don’t talk to me” or “move away from me” won’t be as simple in the face of potential professional consequences or the real threat of intensified harassment or even physical violence. This guide seems to assume embarrassment will be enough to stop a predator in their tracks, or that others will do their job as bystanders to intervene.

Repeated Instances Of Ignoring What Survivors And Allies Want

In mid-July, I invited two ASA staff members to attend Saturday’s Sociologists Against Sexual Violence meeting in large part to be present in case attendees wished to report sexual violence they witnessed or experienced and/or became upset during the conversation. They accepted the invite and offered to provide copies of the aforementioned anti-harassment 2-page document and the “No Means No” guide. The email read: “Just let me know and I’ll make copies according to your preferences.” I declined both, expressing concern that these documents placed all of the burden on potential or actual victims to stop sexual violence and, worse, could be used to blame victims for not taking these actions. So, I was surprised to see that stacks of both documents were held out to me at the beginning of our meeting. “Well, they were already printed,” one staff member said to me, continuing to stare expectantly at me in hopes that my desire to be polite would override my desire to forgo engaging in victim-blaming. I caved, noting that I would hand them out with the caveat that these documents are as problematic as they are helpful. I feared the already tense relationship with ASA would become even worse. Essentially, ASA ignored my “preferences” and put me in a position to be an asshole or to override my convictions.

As the two ASA staff members left the Sociologists Against Sexual Violence meeting, I shouted to their backs that the doors to the Pennsylvania Convention Center were locked keeping some late-arriving attendees out.  “Well, they shouldn’t be locked until 11,” was their response. And, they continued walking off to their next engagement. What am I supposed to do with what should be when it wasn’t the case in reality? The next night, during the Sociologists for Trans Justice meeting, the same thing happened. Apparently this was not ASA’s problem — that conference attendees were locked out of the building during officially scheduled meetings.

The next day, a friend texted me about a concerning thread on the notoriously misogynistic, white supremacist, cis- and heterosexist Sociology Job Market Rumors wiki (that has since been deleted):

Mind you, these anonymous, cowardly bigots-as-colleagues have been trashing me and other scholar-activists for years (though the “Grollbaby” reference to me is new). So, this is nothing new nor is it even upsetting anymore. But, what concerns me is that someone from this cesspool of a site attended the Sociologists Against Sexual Violence meeting with the sole purpose of mocking us on the wiki. It violates our sense of trust and privacy, and went against our explicit instruction that nothing of the meeting be discussed online.

I emailed the ASA staff members who attended the meeting. I received the following response:

I am truly sorry to hear this.  It saddens me to learn of this violation of trust. Unfortunately, thought, there really isn’t anything ASA can do.  This is one of the reasons I’m not a big fan of social media.  These days we always have to be prepared for the possibility of something like this everywhere we go.

Maybe they were tired or overwhelmed or truly are pessimistic about their role in fighting sexual violence in sociology. However, I find this defeatist attitude irresponsible on their part. These two staff members sat in the meeting, faced directly with an ASA member who, through tears, said they expected much more from ASA after years of paying dues, giving up time and labor, mentoring students, etc. – what does the organization owe it its members? While I do not expect an immediate solution, I expect ASA to at least take some time to search for potential means to prevent this from occurring in the future, to signal that this behavior is abhorrent. Perhaps attending a meeting of survivors and their allies with the purpose of intimidating them online could constitute a form of harassment and, as such, should be added to the new anti-harassment policy. I cannot help but wonder whether ASA would do more if a white supremacist sociologist did something similar against race scholars of color.

I cannot help but read this is “why I’m not a fan of social media” as a feeble attempt to deflect responsibility. And, the last sentence — telling me to simply be prepared for this everywhere we go — at best reads as resignation and, at worst, reads as alluding that I should have known to expect this given the work I do.

Allusions That There Is A Right Way To Fight Sexual Violence

In light of accusations that Michael Kimmel perpetrated sexual harassment, ASA has attempted to police how survivors and witnesses come forward. Nancy Kidd, executive director of ASA, is quoted saying:

Should a complaint be filed and investigated, through us or other investigative bodies, that leads to a finding of misconduct, ASA will take appropriate action.

What we can take from this is that the anonymous @exposeprof does not warrant ASA concern. Dr. Bee Coston’s brave essay on Medium, accusing Kimmel of harassment, anti-LGBTQ bigotry, sexist discrimination, and stealing students’ work, is not of concern to ASA. Instead, ASA will take seriously reports from those who are brave/naive enough to subject themselves to a confidential-to-a-point reporting system — and, it seems, only those reports ASA deems worthy of investigation.

Through several brief interactions with ASA staff and some members of the anti-harassment working group, it became clear to me that my approach to speaking up about sexual violence in the discipline was deemed radical, perhaps radical enough to prove disruptive. Ahead of the meeting, I received a very suspicious-sounding email about the the call for conference attendees to wear white to raise awareness about sexual violence — was this to target specific members accused of sexual violence?  When I responded that we were not interested in devoting attention to any one person accused of sexual violence (when there are so many besides Michael S. Kimmel — Robert Reece, Matthew Hughey, Martin S. Weinberg, John DeLameter, Stephen M. Cohen), and asked whether they’d be willing to take part, I was told “we’ll have to see…” That was the last time we’d communicate about it.

As I noted in my opening here, one ASA staff member privately asked me not to forget that ASA is taking sexual violence seriously, and that I should recognize them as allies rather than enemies. At the time, I saw the genuine pleading behind this exchange. But, subsequently, I began revisiting the conversation as a potential threat — were they saying “don’t make an enemy out of us”?  Or, were they alluding that I am a villain here, giving ASA too little credit for what it has done so far?

A couple of members of the working group praised me for my radical approach.  But, I had to ask — what about my approach is so radical?  As I did the math — #MeTooPhD and Sociologists Against Sexual Violence buttons + a panel on addressing sexual violence + a meeting with survivors and their allies + wearing white to stand with survivors — I wasn’t able to compute what constituted radical activism. I trust that these individuals were being kind, even appreciative, but their compliments add to the sea of others’ opinions about my activism that I have been wading through for a couple of weeks.  Many fellow conference-goers stopped me to thank me and commend my bravery.  Yet, some leveled veiled criticisms that I was ignoring how Kimmel’s graduate students would be affected (what about the children!  what happens if we prevent an accused rapist-thief-bigot-fraud from working with the children!), or not-so-veiled accusations that I was leading mob violence.  (Wait — buttons, white clothes, and meetings that were a part of the official ASA program are “mob rule”?  Isn’t the mob all of the colleagues and students who protect people like Kimmel despite decades of harassing people?) I am once again frustrated by the extremely low bar for what constitutes activism in sociology.

At the opening of the second of two ASA’s anti-harassment group’s workshops on sexual violence, their previous workshop was described as a success while my #MeTooPhD panel was described as “interesting.” Sure, that could be a genuine read, but it was was much more successful than their workshop, with about 20 people having to sit on the floor or stand because it was so well-attended, and the panel featured not just one perspective on sexual violence but seven. Humbly, I take issue with the mere, potentially passive aggressive description of “interesting.”

Throwing Survivors Under The Bus That ASA Allowed Kimmel To Drive

Perhaps the most insulting to survivors of sexual violence is the handling of the Michael S. Kimmel debacle. Again, I give ASA a pass to the extent that accusations against Kimmel that were finally taken seriously emerged just days before the conference started. (Although I have heard ASA knew much earlier, and there are 2-3 Title IX investigations against Kimmel at SUNY already.) However, what the organization did in light of those accusations was far worse than simply carrying on with the conference as planned.

Ten days before the conference, a Chronicle of Higher Education article was published about new allegations of sexual harassment against Kimmel. In that article, a public statement issued by Kimmel, in which he deferred receiving the Jessie Bernard award by six months, was quoted. The article also notes that ASA agreed to the six-month deadline that Kimmel set for his accusers to formally report the sexual violence he committed to ASA. Interestingly, as Dr. Wendy Simonds noted on Twitter, ASA’s Committee on Professional Ethics (COPE) sets an 18-month time limit for reporting sexual violence; Dr. Simonds also aptly points out a failure of the committee’s guidelines to consider the risks inherent in coming forward against one’s perpetrator (especially without the protection of anonymity) and the power dynamics that prevent victims from doing so.

So, news broke that Kimmel would not attend the conference.  And, instead of receiving the Jessie Bernard career award, his public statement would be read during the ASA award ceremony.  What occurred, however, was a huge slap in the face to survivors at the ASA meeting.  First, as Dr. Simonds tweeted, the program for the formal awards ceremony still announced Kimmel as the award winner.

Sure, so, 10 days wasn’t a lot of time to right this wrong.  But, I firmly believe that the labor and costs required to fix this were well worth the effort to not still symbolically  give Kimmel the damn award. As with other program corrections, small slips correcting the honor could have been printed and included. Or, better yet, a black marker or stickers could have been used to cross out his name and image. (A non-binary individual can dream… just write “RAPIST” across his image.) I can’t imagine how triggering this could have been for his victims.

Oh — but, maybe someone verbally noted the allegations made against him, and that it remains up in the air whether he should be honored for his scholarly efforts to support women?  Thanks again to Dr. Simonds for tweeting video of the announcement:

Michael Kimmel has been selected as this year’s recipient Jessie Bernard award. He is unable to join us today. He asked us to read the following statement on his behalf. ‘I thank the committee and I have decided to defer accepting the award’.

Wait… wait!  “He was unable to join us today”? Did he call ASA and say, “sorry, can’t make it — turns out I’m a serial predator, bigot, and a fraud. Hit me up in February with the JB award”? There was zero reference to the allegations. As framed, it seemed he chose to defer receiving the award. Once again, he set the terms and ASA went along with them. There was zero acknowledgement of the survivors who have come forward. Do they get to say “sorry, can’t make it — sociology feels too unsafe, so I’m no longer attending ASA”? Nope. Kimmel’s celebrity remains intact. This was ASA’s biggest “Fuck You” to survivors of sexual violence.

To make up for this, an email was sent from ASA council the day after the conference ended:

Harassment, exploitation, and discrimination are violations of the ASA Code of Ethics and can be fundamentally damaging to the wellbeing of our community. The ASA Council is aware of allegations that have been raised about Professor Michael Kimmel and has voted unanimously to defer delivery of the Jessie Bernard Award until more is known about those allegations. In the coming months, members of Council will be working with the ASA Working Group on Harassment (formed in 2017) to conduct a thorough review of awards policies, nomination and appointment processes, and the process for reporting and responding to ethical violations.
Too little, too late. Why hadn’t this message come before or during the conference? We all read the damn Chronicle article. And, still, I wonder what the organization will do to support survivors of sexual violence. There is lipservice to the damage that sexual violence does to our intellectual community. But, there is a failure to acknowledge the damage that fumbling this work does to survivors, their allies, and the broader sociology community. There is no apology for getting this so, soooo wrong. There is no statement about what the organization will do to support, protect, and honor survivors of sexual violence.

What Would Caring Look Like?

My partner challenged me to do one more thing: articulate suggestions for what could have been done better. He’s right and throwing a tantrum “but I don’t wannaaaaa!” would be irresponsible. So, let me at least try. But, please note I am no expert. For example, I still only have the vaguest idea of what restorative justice and transformative justice are. And, I still roll my eyes when I begrudgingly add “alleged” or “accused” before calling out perpetrators of sexual violence — you know, to avoid being sued and what not.

One thing that has been on my mind is for ASA to take stock of what damage sexual violence has done to the discipline. How many people begrudgingly attend ASA despite feeling unsafe — fearing seeing one’s perpetrator, being victimized (again), investing money, time, and emotional energy in to avoiding sexual violence? How many are extremely selective about when they will attend ASA conferences, and for how long? How many stopped attending ASA because it is simply too unsafe or triggering? And/or attend SWS, NWSA, or other conferences that are more hospitable to survivors? How many will not be attending the ASA 2019 annual meeting after this year’s shit-show? How many have left academia, or at least sociology? How many survivors have left tenure-track positions, contingent positions, or graduate programs? What have been the professional, interpersonal, and personal costs to survivors and their allies? How many sexual predators have gotten away with their crimes without being held accountable?

I’d like to see ASA take seriously survivors’ disclosure that they DO NOT feel safe at ASA meetings. I witnessed one survivor do so — they cannot feign ignorance. Meetings should be restructured accordingly. ASA could create a hospitality suite for survivors for upcoming meetings, hiring rape crisis counselors who are easily identifiable with a button or hat or badge ribbon during ASA annual meetings. ASA could provide a block of hotel rooms at a nearby hotel that won’t be home to conference events and/or a small fund for travel should survivors wish to stay even further away.

Perhaps those accused of sexual violence should be asked to skip the next meeting, especially if the accusers will attend.  Or, at a minimum, bar them from staying at the conference hotel.  Sure, innocent until proven guilty and all that jazz, but we have to recognize how few survivors are brave enough to come forward and how exceedingly rare it is for such reports to be false.  It means those “convicted” should be barred from the meetings indefinitely or at least for some productive length of time, at which point they should be forced to undergo some sort of training for sexual predators.  ASA should be sure that the institutions of those accused are aware, perhaps even partnering with them to go beyond addressing sexual violence that occurs during the four days of ASA’s annual conferences.

Frankly, bystander intervention training should be mandatory. Block out one session for all attendees at the 2019 meeting, the 2020 meeting, the 2021 meeting, and so on. Once is not enough for this to sink in. And, bystander intervention methods change and improve over time. Department chairs, administrators, and anyone who serves as a mentor and instructor should be required to attend such training.

Moving forward, I’d like to see ASA amplify the voice and power of survivors not perpetrators. What we saw this year is that the organization gave more space and recognition to Kimmel after a series of allegations were made against him. We saw a refusal for the organization to delete a tweet celebrating an Vox essay by Robert Reece, who called for attending to “gray areas” in obtaining consent for sexual activity and was later outed as a serial rapist and abuser. Meanwhile, ASA never engaged with his accusers on Twitter. And, I’ve yet to see any action or statements released from ASA about Matthew Hughey, John DeLameter, Martin S. Weinberg, or Stephen M. Cohen — either from/about them or from/about those who accused these men of sexual violence.

There are so many experts on sexual violence, gender and violence, sexualities, policy, and organizations within the discipline — ASA could tap more than six people to do this work.  (Compare that to the number of people on the ASA Task Force on public sociology.) Maybe it’s worth creating an ASA staff position exclusively for addressing sexual violence. And, surely, it is ASA’s job to look to other models of organizational responses to sexual violence.

That’s it for now. I’m tired, y’all. But, I refuse to give up.

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