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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.

A Call For Sociology’s #MeToo Mo(ve)ment

Ahead of next week’s American Sociological Association (ASA) 2018 annual meeting in Philadelphia, PA, it seems sociology’s #MeToo moment has finally arrived. Assistant Professor Robert L. Reece (University of Texas – Austin) was accused of serial rape and abuse in March — that is, after writing a Vox essay arguing that the #MeToo movement fails to consider the “gray areas” inherent in navigating heterosexual sexual activity. ASA’s Twitter account (@ASAnews) still promotes Reece’s Vox article, which — to me — is akin to promoting Klansmen’s (and women’s) views on Black people and race relations in general, and Nazis’ views on Jewish and LGBTQ Americans. ASA essentially has amplified and tacitly endorsed an accused rapist’s view of rape while doing nothing to amplify survivors’ voices.

Two weeks later, news broke that University of Wisconsin – Madison paid out $591,000 in settlements for sexual violence cases at the university. Emeritus Professor John D. DeLamater’s name was revealed as one sexual predator whom the department and university protected:

In another, sociology professor, John DeLamater, was found to commit impermissible long-term behavior harassing graduate students with inappropriate comments and touching. He was ordered to go through extensive harassment awareness training, and was no longer allowed to have unsupervised contact with students. Delamater died while the case was pending.

Later in April, Associate Professor Matthew W. Hughey (University of Connecticut) was accused of as a rape and abuse:

On August 1, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article featuring SUNY Professor Michael S. Kimmel’s response to allegations that he has sexually harassed multiple graduate students. An anonymous Twitter account, @exposeprof, questioned why Kimmel — given his long record of perpetuating sexual violence — was selected as the 2018 winner of ASA’s Jessie Bernard career award for enlarging “the horizons of sociology to encompass fully the role of women in society.” Through his public statement, he was able to set a six-month deadline for his accusers to formally report his sexual violence to ASA. If no one comes forward (despite the limitations of ASA’s reporting system) or ASA’s Committee on Professional Ethics finds his behavior in line with guidelines for ethical behavior, he wins is prize in January. The current system of reporting sexual violence that occurs at annual meetings fails to acknowledge that few victims report sexual violence.

Beyond the award, will Kimmel still be welcome to attend ASA meetings, which many of his victims also attend? Too little consideration is given to how unsafe ASA meetings are for survivors, perhaps leading some to stop attending all together despite losing out on professional opportunities to present one’s work and to network. What justice will be served to the graduate students his sexual harassment has left traumatized? Fearful? To those whose work he has stolen and claimed as his own? Besides Kimmel, how do we address this problem in the future? There are many sexual predators whose careers continue on unaffected.

And, Emeritus Professor Martin S. Weinberg (Indiana University) is one such person. On August 3rd, I decided to break my silence about the sexual harassment I experienced as a grad student at IU at the hands of Weinberg. As far as I’ve heard, Weinberg’s sexual violence has gone unpunished by IU and its sociology department for years, if not decades. Consequently, even after the he retired, he has been accused of harassing current grad students — those who have come years after me.

These latest exposures have given birth to a #MeTooSociology thread on social media, especially on Twitter. On this thread, you’ll find:

So, now we’re talking. This is sociology’s #MeToo moment, just under a year after the #MeToo movement exploded nationally (that is, over a decade after Tarana Burke launched this movement in 2006), and eight months since The Professor Is In’s survey went viral, collecting over 2,400 entries.

Our moment… A moment isn’t long enough, in my opinion. “Sociology’s #MeToo” Moment” implies that this moment will pass. By next year’s ASA conference in NYC, sociologists will be buzzing about some other controversy. Indeed, the Sociologists Against Sexual Harassment (SASH) — later renamed the International Coalition Against Sexual Harassment (ICASH), launched in 1992, seems to have died out in the past few years. Yet, here we are in 2018…

Sociologists Against Sexual Violence (SASV)

To prevent letting this #MeTooSociology moment end, I call, instead, for a #MeTooSociology movement. Given our critical investigation of power, gender, sexuality, and organizations, sociologists are in excellent position to raise public understanding of sexual violence and to inform laws and policies to support survivors and pursue justice on their behalf. And, we have at our fingertips sociological knowledge and resources to eliminate sexual violence within our own ranks. For example:

  • See Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield’s (Sociologists for Women in Society president, Southern Sociological Society president-elect, and [in my opinion] the next president-elect of ASA) Conditionally Accepted blog post on the ways in which universities facilitate sexual violence. (Also see Dr. Bedelia Nicola Richards’s Conditionally Accepted blog post on the ways in which universities facilitate white supremacy.)
  • See Dr. Debra Guckenheimer’s suggestions for what perpetrators (like Kimmel) should do once their sexual violence has been brought to light.
  • See Dr. Hephzibah Strmic-Pawl’s suggestions for action that the discipline should take to effectively address sexual violence.
  • See my blog post arguing that when departments, universities, and professional societies fail to address sexual violence in academia, they pass the burden on to individuals to work with or around (or avoid) those perpetrators.

Yet, since news broke of then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump’s taped admission of perpetrating sexual violence against multiple women, sociologists have been noticeably absent from national discourse on sexual violence.  This silence is even more suspect now as a national movement has taken shape (#MeToo), and initiatives focusing on the issue specifically within academia have been launched (#MeTooPhD). In fact, even in the discipline as multiple perpetrators have been identified and victims have voiced their experiences, most sociologists have done little beyond discussion of this epidemic. While public statements are an important first step, sustained action is needed to dismantle the systems that facilitate sexual violence.

ASA has created a working group on harassment, tasked to develop a more stringent anti-harassment policy for ASA annual meetings.  (But, are policies and trainings enough?) The group is also hosting two workshops at the 2018 annual meeting. (See the full list of events related to sexual violence at next week’s ASA conference here.) However, a group directly affiliated with ASA is constrained in its ability to hold the organization accountable for effectively addressing sexual violence. And, I am worried that these efforts continue to view victims as subordinate-status heterosexual non-Hispanic white cisgender women without disabilities and perpetrators as senior-level heterosexual non-Hispanic white cisgender men without disabilities. We must recognize sexual violence as one manifestation of any system of oppression, including sexism, cissexism, heterosexual, racism, xenophobia, classism, ableism, fatphobia, ageism, and religious intolerance. And, more importantly, we must be attuned to sexual violence at the intersections among these systems of oppression.

In light of these issues, Dr. Shantel Gabrieal Buggs, Dr. Hephzibah Strmic-Pawl, and I propose creating an independent initiative: Sociologists Against Sexual Violence. Broadly, this group would serve to address sexual violence in and through sociology. We cannot effectively achieve our goal of using sociological insights to end sexual violence while it continues to happen within our own ranks. Ideally, we should be a model discipline for the entire profession, and be at the forefront of national discourse on this epidemic.

Some specific ideas we have for addressing sexual violence through sociology:

  1. Amplifying the work of sociologists who do work on sexual assault, rape, sexual harassment, stalking, and intimate partner violence. This can include putting experts in touch with the media, creating a database of experts, and creating a blog that features accessible blog posts on key sociological insights, new research, and sociological critiques of current events. This public sociology initiative can also include offering concrete steps for organizations to address sexual violence, for bystanders to intervene when sexual violence occurs, for victims to know what options exist for them, and for potential victims to protect themselves against the threat of sexual violence. Particular emphasis should be placed on an intersectional understanding of sexual violence.
  2. Work to create new opportunities for research on sexual violence, including conference sessions, special issues in journals, and funding opportunities.
  3. Contribute to and support the #MeToo movement.
  4. Compile and publicize research briefs on sexual violence to serve the work of non-profit organizations, activists, lawyers, and schools. For example, raise awareness about how organizations actually facilitate sexual violence.
  5. Issue amicus briefs for court cases on sexual violence.
  6. Create a public syllabus with crucial readings for the sociological, intersectional understanding of sexual violence.
  7. Create a database of resources for teaching on sexual violence.

And, some specific ideas that we have for addressing sexual violence in the discipline:

  1. Contribute to and support the #MeTooPhD initiative.
  2. Conduct a survey of survivors in the discipline to assess the pervasiveness of sexual violence in sociology, the professional and health consequences of sexual violence for victims, and the social location and professional status of perpetrators of sexual violence. One crucial question is whether survivors of sexual violence limit their participation at annual meetings, or forgo these meetings all together. (Many women attend Sociologists for Women in Society exclusively for this reason.)
  3. Host workshops on sexual violence at ASA meetings, particularly on bystander training.
  4. Create safe spaces for survivors at ASA meetings (e.g., a hospitality suite just for survivors, morning meditation/prayer for survivors).
  5. Host trainings for department chairs to address sexual violence.
  6. Conduct a survey of departments to find out whether and how sexual violence is being addressed, and the effectiveness of measures currently taken.
  7. Push ASA to improve its reporting system for sexual violence, and the measures used to hold perpetrators accountable. Assess how useful this system is for sexual violence in the discipline that does not occur at annual meetings.
  8. Protect sociologists who pursue advocacy and activism on sexual violence from professional harm and public backlash.
  9. With every initiative, devote special attention to the discipline’s most vulnerable members, including graduate students, junior faculty, contingent faculty, and those at the intersections of multiple systems of oppression (e.g., women of color).

If you are interested in helping to launch this movement — whether it be the Sociologists Against Sexual Violence initiative or take another form — please join Dr. Buggs, Dr. Strmic-Pawl, and me during our meeting at ASA: this Saturday (August 11), 8-10pm EST in Pennsylvania Convention Center room 104. We welcome ideas for the structure this group will take, what its vision and values will be, and who will lead it. If you are unable to attend, please contact us by email either ahead of or immediately after the meeting. There are a few workshops on sexual violence at ASA that you should also check out.

On Sunday, 8/12, we ask that you wear white to help raise awareness about sexual violence in sociology.  The three of us will be handing out #MeTooPhD and Sociologists Against Sexual  Violence buttons at the ASA and Society for the Student of Social Problems conferences, and the ASA Section on Sexualities preconference this Thursday and Friday.

As Dr. Wingfield noted in her SWS statement this morning:

As many of you know, our discipline is having a public reckoning with the issue of sexual harassment and abuse. As the #MeToo movement has shown (and as many of us already know), no industries are immune from the problem of those in power abusing it to harass those in subordinate positions. This issue within the field of sociology is not a new one and there have been conversations about this for years. In fact, SWS was initially founded because of the lack of support for women and nonbinary people in ASA. It seems old issues die hard.

We are overdue for this reckoning. We are overdue in making our classrooms, departments, universities, committees, professional societies, and conferences safe, free from abuses of power, sexual violence, bias and discrimination, and other unethical behavior. We are overdue for recognizing and redressing the “brain-drain” that our discipline experiences in lost productivity, skipped conferences, terminated collaborations and mentoring relationships, and other ways in which individuals have to make difficult decisions about how to interact with (or not) perpetrators who walk around freely and continue to be rewarded and protected. We are overdue for putting this silly “activism versus academia” debate to rest and actually putting our insights to use to end this epidemic on our campuses and beyond.

#MeTooSociology – will you join us?

On Struggling To Call Myself A Survivor Of Sexual Violence

[CW: sexual violence]

Now settling down to write this after abandoning my plan to “take a break” from sexual violence, that queasy feeling is back. It’s the queasiness I first felt in publicly wrestling with the question — am I a survivor of sexual violence?  It’s the queasiness that threatened to lead to actually vomiting as I read Dr. J. E. Sumerau’s essay, “I See Monsters: The Role of Rape in My Personal, Professional, and Political Life.” It’s the queasiness I felt after publishing an essay about the sexual harassment I and fellow graduate students experienced at the hands of Martin Weinberg, esteemed (and, consequently protected) professor of sociology at Indiana University. That same queasiness that slowly grew as I went into a Twitter rage about story after story of sexual violence in sociology programs on The Professor Is In’s #MeTooPhD crowdsourced survey of sexual violence in academia.

This morning’s queasiness is, perhaps, part of the ongoing queasiness I’ve felt for two days now. In response to the #MeTooSociology social media thread to which I have contributed, Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel tweeted:

“I’m sorry, but is coming not just for Sociologists, but sex and gender academics from all fields. We need to talk about the elephant that is sexual misconduct within sex science.

I agreed, somewhat absentmindedly sharing that I had been groped by two white gay cis men at the 2008 Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality conference in Puerto Rico.

I attended the 2007 SSSS meeting in Indianapolis, just two months into my first-year of graduate school in sociology at the nearby Indiana University (in Bloomington, IN). I was fortunate to attend the next year’s meeting in PR, paid in full by the National Sexuality Resource Center (now the Center for Research & Education on Gender and Sexuality) at San Francisco State University. I was one of four graduate students selected to found and chair regional chapters of the short-lived Campus Coalition for Sexual Literacy program.

Early in my first full day at the SSSS meeting, I ran into one of my major advisors from my undergraduate training. Our mini reunion was interrupted when the two aforementioned white gay cis men approached: Christopher Fisher (then a PhD student in Health Behavior at IU) and a professor. In the decade that has passed, I cannot remember whether that professor was [Prof 1] or [Prof 2], both of whom were present during this encounter. I did not know them very well, but knew Fisher from IU’s LGBTQ grad student group (Crossroads), which I co-facilitated during my second year of grad school (2008-2009). I knew Prof 1 better than Prof 2, but Prof 2 apparently has a long-standing reputation as a sexual predator within SSSS. Since this public disclosure may spark discussion within the field of sex research, I prefer not to name either professor without clearer memory of who it was.

Fisher and the professor complemented me on my appearance, dressing nicely for the conference. Looking apparently was not enough. They began physically examining my clothing. That then became fondling me underneath my suit jacket.  Neither my undergrad advisor or the other professor said anything as they watched.  And, as quickly as the intrusion began, it ended.  I felt embarrassed, primarily because it had happened in front of my former advisor.

And… that’s it?  Now that I have written the words down, I question whether it was really that bad.  Does such a “minor” instance of nonconsexual physical contact really warrant a public statement such as this one?  It must, since the president of SSSS (Dr. Eric Walsh-Buhi) affirmed my experiences and noted that he wanted to move ahead with addressing the problem of sexual violence in the organization.

Dr. Walsh-Buhi privately messaged me to ask whether I felt comfortable sharing more than a few vague details about my experiences. In talking with Dr. Walsh-Buhi, that queasiness returned. Suddenly, I felt my body revolting at the recognition that I had, indeed, been sexually harassed. Nearly a decade after harassment by Weinberg, and 10 years since being fondled by Fisher and the professor, I am finally forced to claim the identity of survivor. I want to resist – but why?

Not another victim label. I have already been traumatized by grad school advisors in racialized, gendered, and sexualized ways. I dealt with family members’ intolerance about my queer sexual orientation which, in at least one instance, bordered on sexual violence. I resist survivor because at its root, this label also comes along with victim.

It was a long time ago. Like Dr. Manya Whitaker, it took me a decade to recognize something that, at the time, seemed inconvenient as violence. Do I have a right to speak up now?  Will Fisher even remember me since we no longer had contact after 2009?  Is it fair to “make trouble” now?  And, I never attended another SSSS conference afterward, so it’s not as though I’m even active in the field.

I thought I was just closed-minded about sex. As I noted in my recent blog post about Weinberg, I convinced myself that my discomfort about questionable sexual behaviors was simply a sign that I had not yet adapted to the sex-positive culture of the sex research field. I pushed myself to be “cool” about watching porn in Weinberg’s sexualities course, about him joking that I fisted another grad student, about him asking me to pose nude with another grad student for him. At SSSS, I tried to embrace the lively, sexually-open culture of this new subfield. I limited myself to rolling my eyes on the Bacardi Rum factory tour as the tour guide praised Christopher Columbus for “discovering” America. I politely declined another conference-goer’s invitation to attend sex dungeon party he was hosting after hours. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy myself at the pool party with free-flowing alcohol. I thought maybe groping colleagues was equivalent to a hug, or that I should be flattered that these men found me attractive enough to fondle me.

It wasn’t that bad. I don’t want to be a bother. Fisher is in a high-ranking leadership position in SSSS. If that comes into jeopardy with the publication of this blog post, I worry I’m making too much of something relatively minor. It’s not as though he raped me. It’s not as though he (professionally) held more power over me. It’s not as though it ever happened again, though he later asked me out at an LGBTQ grad student event. And, from what others have said — besides being a bit creepy, others have not come forward to report other instances of sexual violence. I have long wrestled with naming my experiences — particularly as someone who is perceived as a cisgender man — as sexual violence as though they are on par with those of rape survivors. Isn’t it self-indulgent to even write an essay like this — about me — rather than doing something to support other survivors (especially of more serious forms of sexual violence, and those who have been repeatedly victimized).

I’m aware from my research on discrimination that most victims of sexual harassment do not call their experiences that. Feminist activists have had to raise our consciousness about what constitutes unwanted sexual behaviors in order for more victims to recognize such experiences as sexual violence. They had to demand that laws be changed so that men’s sexual violence against their wives would be recognized and ultimately punished as rape. I have a little bit of knowledge about the ways in which (cis?) men struggle to admit to themselves (and others) that they have experienced sexual violence — and, there are unique challenges for queer men survivors.

So, I’m know that I’m not unique here. And, I know that I should not beat myself up for falling into these same traps. I know that what’s most important right now is prioritizing self-care as I go forward with naming a second (and third, really) person who has perpetrated sexual violence against me.

In some ways, identifying as survivor-or-not is not all that important. Shitty things happened to me. I feel queasiness when exposed to long and/or intense exposure to sexual violence, perhaps experiencing a mild form of triggering. (The first time I watched The Hunting Ground, I had to take repeated breaks to keep from throwing up.) But, in some ways, it does matter. My visibility as a survivor seems to have inspired others to share their own stories. It helps to inform my advocacy against sexual violence, particularly in supporting fellow survivors. It helps me to move past am-I-or-not to focusing on my work to end sexual violence.

To close, I’ll finally state clearly: I am a survivor of sexual violence. I owe it to my 22/23 year old self to no longer carry the silence and doubt around what others did to me against my will. I owe it to others who interact with these men to publicly name their shitty behaviors, hopefully sparing them from sexual violence. I owe it to our collective #MeToo, #MeTooPhD, #MeTooSociology, and #MeTooSexScience movements to shout “it happened to me, too.”

Thank you for reading.

Sociologists, Stop Rewarding Rapists And Harassers

 

Three years ago, I struggled to say the words, “there are rumors that he’s [Dr. Martin S. Weinberg] a sexual predator.”

My anxiety was in full gear; it felt as though a bowling ball was sitting on my chest. My fear surprised me. I was in a committee meeting with fellow sexualities scholars, many strong in their advocacy against sexual violence and some even survivors themselves. And, I was saying something of which I felt others were already well-aware. But, I was new to the committee and not even past the midpoint of the tenure-track.

Another committee member rebutted: “well, we can’t just go on rumors.”

This response surprised me, for many reasons. All eyes returned back to me. Some of them demanded proof. Some knew those rumors well and secretly hoped that I could offer something more substantial. Indeed, it seemed the committee had tabled the discussion of whether to create an award in Weinberg’s honor in the previous year. Some members must have known something because they kept hinting at concerns. They tried the angle of questioning what it would mean to name yet another award in sexualities after a white cisgender man. In raising these doubts, I saw an opening, though it took great effort to move my lips.

I responded, “some of my friends were harassed by him.”

It was all I could say in that moment. I couldn’t find the words to say that I had witnessed and personally experienced sexual harassment by Weinberg. The many jokes he made about students’ sex lives in his undergraduate-graduate hybrid course, Sociology of Sexualities. I laughed off his joke that a fellow queer grad student and I were well-versed in fisting because we had done it to each other over the weekend. I politely declined his invitation to photograph me and another queer grad student together — nude.  I laughed uncomfortably when he greeted his own penis — “heyyyyy, bayyyyyy-beeee” — while visiting my first-year Professional Seminar class as part of a series of visits by faculty to learn about their research.

You see, as a budding sexualities scholar, I pushed myself to be more open-minded about his pedagogical approaches and style of interacting with students. When I visited IU sociology as a prospective graduate student, I was pleased with myself for not being uncomfortable when he joked with another professor about he and I having sex. She jokingly scolded him to be good (hinting at his reputation); he responded, “there will always be at least 3 legs on the floor at all times.” She laughed and said, “Oh, Marty…”; and, then, left me alone with him in my 22 years of naivete. Through his Sexual Attitude Reassessment (SAR) activities in his sexualities course, I prided myself on being (mostly) unaffected as we watched videos of “real” lesbians having sex, older heterosexual adults having sex, and of “water sports” and “scat play.” (NSWF: Google the latter terms at your own risk.) But, I will say that I didn’t find his joke about going to get chocolate ice cream after the scat video funny.

The burden fell on me to decide how to navigate my interactions with “Uncle Marty” (as he liked to be called by students) because the department never held him accountable for his sexual violence. After one course with him, I ultimately decided to avoid him at all costs. Indeed, at a conference in my first semester of grad school, a trusted undergrad advisor strongly warned me against working with him. Even though I had chosen IU sociology for graduate training because Weinberg and another sexualities scholar were on faculty (though she left after my second year), I assured myself it was safe to avoid him because it seemed that he didn’t have a good track record of placing students in tenure-track jobs.

I didn’t share 99% of what I knew, witnessed, and experienced with regard to Weinberg the sexual predator during that committee meeting. But, what I offered seemed to be enough to derail the conversation. If permanently honoring a white cisgender heterosexual man by naming an award after him was a concern, certainly doing so for a rapist and harasser was out of the question.

And, Now We Honor Michael S. Kimmel

Today, sociologists are wrestling with a similar question for a different perpetrator. Allegations have recently been made that renowned sociologist of gender and sexualities, Michael S. Kimmel, has perpetuated sexual violence against women graduate students. And, the anonymous Twitter account, @exposeprof, questioned why he was being honored with the American Sociological Association’s Jessie Bernard career award for contributions to the sociological study of women. In a Chronicle of Higher Education [paywall] article, Kimmel stated that he would defer receiving the award, setting a six-month deadline for his accusers to formally file a complaint with the ASA committee on professional ethics. And, ASA has honored this deadline, noting that they cannot and will not act on rumors alone. [See my Twitter rage from yesterday on this.]

The similarities I see here are that another white heterosexual cis man sociologist with a long history of perpetuating sexual violence has been protected long enough in his career to be considered for a huge honor. Since their respective departments and institutions have failed to hold Weinberg and Kimmel accountable to their victims, the burden falls to other individuals to navigate their reputations (and violence). For example, awards committees are left to wrestle with considering whether to overlook Weinberg’s and Kimmel’s sexual violence. Some want to just focus on their scholarship, as that is the major basis for these honors. And, under other circumstances, that’s how they should evaluate nominees. So, to the Jessie Bernard committee’s credit, they are forced to deal with an issue that Kimmel’s department and university and colleagues have failed to address. In protecting sexual predator academics, departments and universities are effectively “passing the buck” or, more aptly, “passing the trash.” Institutional failures breed burdens for individuals.

The failure of academic institutions to effectively address sexual violence also places the burden on victims and bystanders. For students, it means deciding whether to take a course with, collaborate with, and/or work for professors about whom they’ve been warned. If hearing the rumors after already establishing a professional relationship, it means deciding whether to continue on or end the relationship, with either decision greatly impacting one’s professional career. For junior scholars who are harassed or assaulted, it can mean much more, including weighing whether to even continue in the program/one’s academic career. Survivors must decide whether to report perpetrators or spread word through the “whisper network,” and whether to tell one’s story publicly (given the risks of legal action, retaliation, professional harm, and not being believed or even blamed).

What frustrates me most is that the question here is whether Kimmel should be denied a lifetime achievement award — nothing more. It was whether to name an award after Weinberg — nothing more. Fellow renowned sociology of sexualities scholar, the late John DeLamater, was protected by his department and the University of Wisconsin until the day he died. It’s too soon to tell whether fellow perpetrators Matthew Hughey and Robert Reece will lose out professionally; but, the former is still slotted to participate in the upcoming ASA conference as usual. (So, again, survivors and other potential victims are left to figure out how to navigate interactions with a sexual predator.)

Meanwhile, the scholars who have been victimized by these men have likely lost so much more: compromised mental, physical, sexual, and spiritual well-being; retaliation and backlash for speaking out; taking a “hit” professionally in severing ties with their perpetrators (e.g., ending collaborations); having to avoid conferences where their perpetrator may be; having to limit conference attendance to meetings at which they can stay away from the main conference hotel, possibly staying with family and friends as support; lost productivity due to the emotional and physical drain of planning to and actually running into their perpetrator in the department, on campus, and/or at conferences; loss of professional ties by colleagues who defend the perpetrators and/or victim-blame or doubt the victim’s story; etc, etc, etc. Their loss is a loss to the entire discipline because otherwise thriving professional careers are hindered by sexual violence.

I also think about the professional, social, emotional, intellectual, and financial loss to those who have to protect themselves against potential sexual violence. How many women, for example, avoid professional “happy hours” because the introduction of alcohol and casual interactions creates greater risk for sexual violence? How many avoid conferences because they are prime “hot spots” for sexual harassment in the discipline? How many skip out on attending ASA, instead finding Sociologists for Women in Society or National Women’s Studies Association conferences to be safer? How many avoid taking a position at a particular school because of one or more faculty members’ reputations as predators? How many forgo a career in sociology, either leaving academia all together or going into seemingly safer disciplines like gender studies? And, given these difficult decisions, what are the consequences for their careers and well-being?

As sociologists, we have the tools to effectively hold sexual perpetrators accountable and support survivors of such violence. We know that universities and departments facilitate sexual violence, in large part because these racialized and gendered organizations are designed to make some vulnerable and some powerful. We know that bureaucratic reporting systems systemically fail survivors, breeding distrust in the system that scares most away from bothering to report. We know that the privileged have more cultural capital necessary to effectively navigate bureaucratic institutions and are more likely to have their reports taken seriously. We know that these institutions were created by and for white heterosexual cisgender men without disabilities, and yet are stubborn in our believe that these institutions give a damn about queer people, cis and trans women, and others who are disproportionately affected by sexual violence. We know that those in power designed policies and systems to protect the institution first and foremost, and possibly perpetrators second.

Despite the existing and potential sociological insights about sexual violence, we are embarrassingly unreflective about the epidemic in our discipline. In the midst of the #MeToo era and the attendant #MeTooPhD project, we’re merely debating whether to award one scholar with a long history of violence against women for enlarging “the horizons of sociology to encompass fully the role of women in society.” And, if no survivor is brave and savvy enough (or naive enough?) to bother reporting Kimmel to ASA, he receives his prize at the end of the six months’ deadline he imposed and that ASA followed.

This must stop.

#MeTooSociology

Update (08/06/18): Current IU sociology PhD student, Katie Beardall, tweeted that she, too, has been sexually harassed by Weinberg.

A Response To My University President’s Essay On Free Speech

Dear University of Richmond President Ronald A. Crutcher,

The following serves as an open letter to you in response to your July 10 opinion piece on The Hetchinger Report entitled, “Defending the ‘right to be here’ on campus.” My hands shake from the building anxiety as I write this public statement of dissent while I should be continuing my pattern of 12-hour days to prepare my tenure dossier.

In your essay, you argue:

Colleges and universities are uniquely positioned, and have an explicit responsibility, to model substantive disagreement and dialogue that foster change — to give students information they can take into the classroom, living room, workplace and voting booth.

The true test of your publicly espoused beliefs about protecting free speech will be whether I am denied tenure in the next few months because of this blog post. Or, when I recently sparked a heated discussion on UR’s faculty listserv about institutionalized racism in higher education (including UR) after innocently sharing our colleague Dr. Bedelia Richard’s blog post on Conditionally Accepted (IHE). Or, in 2016, when I publicly criticized the university for failing to serve UR alumni CC Carreras and Whitney Ralston, who were raped by fellow students, and then blamed by university administration for the sexual violence perpetrated against them. Or even my 2014 blog post criticizing UR trustee Paul Queally for sexist and homophobic remarks that became public news and the university’s failure to distance themselves from such bigotry; since then, Queally has now been elected Rector of the Board of Trustees, and two additional buildings have been named after him. I acknowledge that some will read this blog post — coming after the president and the head of the trustees — might as well be a death-wish.

But, as Black lesbian feminist scholar-activist Audre Lorde aptly penned, “your silence will not protect you.” I see your continued campaign for your vision of free speech to be a threat to my free speech, my safety, and my career. So, writing this essay (and all of the others before it) is a risk — but so, too, is keeping my mouth shut as a good little pre-tenure professor is expected to.

Power And Oppression Are Missing From Your Analysis

Dr. Crutcher, the way that you write and talk about “free speech” treats “both sides” (to quote our nation’s president) as peers, equal in power and status. To you, it seems the Right and the Left, conservatives and liberals have equally valid points and perspectives — and each should be heard. But, all too often, what one “side” (the one on the right) has to say is not simply in opposition to what the other “side” has to say; frequently, conservatives and bigots espouse beliefs that undermine the humanity and safety of marginalized groups. By protecting the “free speech” of people like Charles Murray, you have invited a person whose perspective literally argues that Black people are biologically inferior to whites. This is not productive dialogue, or even disagreement; this is racial violence. Son of Baldwin has a very fitting view here: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

You miss the important question of who even has the right and ability to speak in the first place. Your note about the practice of disinviting controversial or even offensive speakers fails to acknowledge that marginalized populations are woefully underrepresented among those who have access to a big enough platform to be invited by a college to speak.  Certain ways of speaking and types of scholarship are systematically privileged over others.  Even in the rare moments that our own university has invited marginalized speakers — like Alicia Garza of #BlackLivesMatter, actress and activist Laverne Cox,  and Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas — these individuals have achieved an almost impossible level of visibility for others like them.

You fail to acknowledge the way in which you and UR have privileged the free speech of some over others. In the 2017-2018 speaker series on “Free Speech, Immigration, and Identity,” 4 white cisgender men and 1 Latino cisgender man were featured. This signals to the university that we only value what cis men (especially white cis men) have to say. Apparently what trans women and men, cis women, non-binary and agender folx, and people of color have to say is worthless. If the views of marginalized groups are equally valued, that is not currently reflected in the university’s practices.  I’ll go one step further to say that our views should be valued even more to challenge the systemic ways in which our scholarship, creative works, speeches, and communities are devalued, dismissed, or destroyed.

Speech Isn’t Free For People Like Me

In the wake of intensified right-wing assaults on public scholars (particularly women of color), I am shocked that you — as a Black man who wields great power — are currently campaigning to make more space for conservative view points.

As a university president, I expect that you are well-versed in the literature on attacks on scholars by conservatives. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) created an entire site devoted just to the issue of targeted harassment against scholars. The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed have featured multiple essays on the “outrage machine” — a network of conservative journalists who intentionally and systematically spark assaults against public scholars. Scholars (especially those from one or more marginalized communities) who do work on racism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, climate change, gun control, abortion, etc. are vulnerable to this manufactured outrage, which then leads to harassment, hate-mail, calls for their termination, bomb-threats, rape-threats, and death-threats. Former Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) President Abby Ferber recently published an essay on the issue: “‘Are You Willing to Die for This Work?’ Public Targeted Online Harassment in Higher Education.”

Her question isn’t an exaggeration. It is literally a question scholars must ask themselves before engaging with the public.  The harassment I have endured for a year now recently intensified to the level of threats of violence. I’ve been trolled and mocked by white supremacists and fellow sociologists alike. Our colleague, Dr. Bedelia Richards, received hostility after penning her blog post on institutionalized racism.  (She’s fortunate that the “outrage machine” didn’t come for her; it seems the major conservative outlets like Fox News and Washington Times didn’t catch wind of what the conservative student journalists had to say.) Assuming we continue our public writing, this will not be the last time that our “free” speech comes at a cost.

I pray we are never faced with Dr. Ferber’s question.  But, at the moment, it seems all that Dr. Richards and I have is prayer because the university is ill-equipped to protect us.  You see, as you are demanding free speech for all, you are ignoring that there is a systemic effort to silence us or worse. In order to do more than say you value free speech, you must act to protect free speech.  And, increasingly, that means protecting marginalized scholars and students from the hostility we endure when we dare to speak.  What will you do to ensure that we live long enough to fully enjoy the right to free speech?

What will you do to prevent students from filming our classes without our knowledge or consent, creating fodder for right-wing attacks?  (There is literally a website devoted to shaming and ultimately targeting professors deemed too liberal.)  What will you do to end the university’s reliance on student evaluations for tenure and promotion decisions and merit reviews in light of the mounting evidence that these forms really only measure students’ racist, sexist, transphobic, homo- and biphobic, and fatphobic biases?  From personal experience, I estimate that the accusations that I am promoting a political agenda, or even a “gay agenda,” in my classes are greatest when I am the least reticent to teach material on which I am an expert. This is an example of university policy that actually emboldens bias and hate speech and silences marginalized individuals.  I lose out, and then my marginalized students lose out even more because I still end up centering my classes around what privileged students will object to the least.

As a Black queer non-binary tenure-track professor, I have repeatedly had to choose between my tenureability and my survival.  Your campaign for free speech has no bearing on my life when I may lose my job, or even my life, in daring to speak in an institution and a society that demands my silence, invisibility, and conformity.  Once again, you cannot continue to peddle these color-, gender-, sexuality-, and class-blind calls for free speech.

Privileged Speech Isn’t Under Threat, But Higher Education Is

What I see from your free speech campaign is a Black, presumably politically liberal university president who is playing into the Right’s efforts to demolish higher education in the US.  The very thing you call for — “free speech” — has been turned into a weapon.  Dr. Victor Ray (now editor of Conditionally Accepted after I stepped down) wrote an excellent blog post on the topic., “Weaponizing Free Speech”:

This basic pattern has been playing out across colleges and universities recently, as a cottage industry of white liberal columnists regularly castigate undergraduates for interrupting conservative speakers like Charles Murray or Ann Coulter, casting students as unruly, childish and nearly incapable of reason. Thus, the right ends up enlisting liberal commentators to advance their illiberal agenda.

Yet those free speech warriors are nowhere to be found when faculty of color, or those speaking out against racism, are the targets. Typically, here, critics of my position will resort to a “both sides” argument, saying that the left also stifles free speech. At times, this is true. But, to my knowledge, the left has no coordinated national apparatus that specifically and systematically targets individual professors.

Dr. Ray concludes:

It is time to stop assuming good faith in the free speech debate. The right has weaponized free speech, framing campus debates in a way that resonates with liberals to destroy the very things liberals purport to care about. By capitulating to the demands of those who threaten violence against professors, colleges and universities undermine one of their central functions as refuges for debating controversial ideas.

Beyond higher education, the Right is becoming more and more successful in using the First Amendment to legalize discrimination and fuel efforts to demolish unions.

It seems you are playing right into the hands of the Right.  But why?  Whose right to speech has been denied on UR’s campus?  Well, as I noted above, it seems to be Black public scholars like Dr. Richards and me. It seems to be students like CC who point out the persistence of rape culture at UR.  It’s others who are not wealthy white cishet men without disabilities — whether student or faculty.  I’m sure, given the constraints of being a Black president of a historically white university, it’s you, too.

As the US political climate grows increasingly xenophobic, misogynistic, transphobic, bi- and homophobic, I charge you to prioritize the speech of those of us whose lives are literally at stake for daring to speak our truths.  Please stop making a case for conservatives to be heard on campus; they are not a minority simply because their closed-minded views are debunked by rigorous empirical research.  As you allude in your title, it is not whites, men, cis people, the wealthy, people without disabilities, and heterosexuals who don’t have a “right to be here” on campus.  It is those treated as the Other who are regularly reminded that we are lucky to even be allowed to step foot on campus or, as you alluded in your USA Today opinion piece, that we are simply invited because it’s good for the business. As a condition of the generous gift of no longer being legally barred or slipping through systematic exclusion, we must keep quiet about the microaggressions, discrimination, sexual violence, and harassment we experience at UR.

Your call for free speech threatens to only welcome even more hate-speech and violence without recourse.  Oppression is counter to UR’s liberal arts mission and values; as such, the university must create platforms for marginalized students, staff, and faculty to speak without the threat of dismissal or violence. You have got a lot of work to do if you will make a genuine effort to ensure that everyone has a protected right to free speech.  I hope you will hear my disagreement with an open-mind, and that you will stand up for me (even if you disagree with my views) when the inevitable backlash comes my way.

Update, 7/29/2018 3:15pm EST:

Note that free speech should be distinguished from academic freedom, where the latter refers to the freedom to share one’s empirically-grounded perspective — freedom from professional consequences or attacks from the public. See Dr. Fulhana Sultana’s insightful 2018 essay on this distinction: “The False Equivalence of Academic Freedom and Free Speech,” in ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 17(2): 228-257.  (Download the essay for free here.)