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