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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?

What Is Queer Sexual Empowerment?

2c770-gaypride

I have been thinking about Miley Cyrus a bit lately.

I never thought I would start off a post that way — particularly one about queer sexuality and queer people.  She … I don’t even know what to call it… at MTV’s Video Music Awards a few weeks ago.  And, became the talk of the town once more, this time swinging in nude on a wrecking ball.  When I finally saw the video for that single, “Wrecking Ball,” I was so disappointed.  Such a lovely, heartfelt song; in no way had I imagined seeing her naked, especially not sexually licking other construction equipment.  It just seemed unnecessary.  And, really, unnecessarily vulgar.  Must every video be an opportunity to sell sex?

I depart there from the conversations about Miley Cyrus and her public and private sex lives.  (I’m late, anyhow.)  But, I am intrigued by the conversations that speak more broadly about sexuality, gender, and empowerment.  Yes, Miley Cyrus is just one woman in our sexist, sex-obsessed, sex-negative society — even within the music and entertainment industry that suffers from those same characteristics.  (Really, just look at Rihanna’s new video…)  Good; let’s think sociologically!

But, what troubles me is we have not walked away from these conversations with any clear answers.  Is Miley Cyrus a sexually-empowered feminist iconOr, is she yet another pawn of the music industryApparently, the line between one’s sexual objectification and one’s sexual empowerment is too thin.  Fuck.  That is a really disturbing revelation.

Queer Sexual Empowerment

In deluding myself that there is a clear distinction, I am able to come up with clear examples of women’s sexual empowerment.  It’s women who refuse to hide that they are sexual, want sex, and like sex.  Right?  It’s “girl groups” like Destiny’s Child, TLC, and Salt ‘n Pepa, right?  It’s older women artists and actors who refuse to cave to the expectations that they should cover up, stop having sex, or just disappear completely, yes?

My thought process eventually turned to queer sexuality — including, but not limited to, gay men’s sexual empowerment.  My mind drew a blank.  What would queer sexual empowerment look like?  In some ways, merely existing as queer people, especially as sexual and loving queer people, is a political act.  Fuck you homophobia.  We exist.

For some, that empowerment entails a more heightened expression of queer sexuality.  Yes, gay pride regularly reflects the very public display of queer sexuality.  We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re scantly clad.  I have to remind the prude in me that homophobes and transphobes dismiss queer people whether we are dressed in gender normative ways or donning a rainbow boa, 6-inch-heels, and 5 o’clock shadow.  So, while I do not personally embrace the joy of public queer sex and sexuality in this way, I refuse to rain on fellow queer folks’ parade.

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But, I do grow tired of the conflation of gay with gay sex.  I suppose the final straw was seeing yet another men’s sports team gone nude for a calendar to raise money for an LGBT-related cause.  First, this story implies that all of the players are cisgender and heterosexual.  It also ticks me off because — duh! — white muscular cis masculine men without disabilities are always sexy.  The pervasive sexualization of these kinds of bodies in the context of queer pride has gotten to the point that it no longer registers as empowerment, at least in my opinion.  These kinds of bodies are now used for more than sexual desire — ranging from political LGBT events, to businesses’ advertisements to LGBT communities, to any general nod that something is queer.  That’s not empowerment.

Even if that was empowerment, when do queer people like me get to be sexually empowered?  Why do brown queer bodies still serve the taboo sexual desires of white audiences?  Why are fat queer bodies only celebrated in subcultures within LGBT communities, while otherwise invisible or used to repulse or for humor?  And, what about gender expression — can I be sexy, sexually desired, and sexually empowered while defying society’s expectations for male-bodied individuals?

As an aside, I think that being sexual or having sex in public is only one way to be sexually empowered.  Yes, I do believe queer people should have the freedom to be sexual beings in their public, everyday lives without worrying about threatening cis heterosexuals.  But, not everyone wants that.  Speaking for myself, I would feel more sexually empowered if I could be a loving, whole person in public.  I hate being on guard during the few times my partner and I even hold hands in public.  I hate having to monitor how I interact with other men — especially cis heterosexual men, especially other queer men.  Even how I interact with people with whom I do not want to or actually have sex with is constrained because of the disempowering force of homophobia.

Concluding Thoughts

I suppose, like cis women’s sexual empowerment, the bounds of queer sexual empowerment are difficult to define.  For queer people, it is their sexual relationships, behaviors, and desires that are the primary targets of homophobic and biphobic hatred.  Sex is often used to evoke panic around trans* issues.  To embrace one’s sexuality as a queer person in this homo-, bi-, and transphobic society is a political act.  But, only to an extent, it seems.  We have gained political ground by convincing the cis straight dominated society that we can be in loving, monogamous relationships, and thus deserve access to marriage and other important institutions.  Don’t worry, all of that kinky public sexuality stuff is just a phase until we are ready to have real relationships.Were Just Like YouIn a way, I worry the sexual empowerment of cis heterosexual women and of queer people is not 100% on their terms.  A cis woman’s public expression of being a sexual person is valued if it gets heterosexual men off.  The flip side of that is that women’s sexuality serves as a source of power — sometimes their sole source of power in this misogynistic society of ours.  Queer people’s sexualities are acceptable to the extent that cis heterosexual people do not have to witness it.  We gain power by presenting ourselves as “Good As You.”

Empowerment on the dominant group’s terms… that’s not empowerment.  Ugh.

Preventing Sexual Violence And Supporting Survivors Is A Community Responsibility

The title of this post sums up the position that many have taken in efforts to prevent sexual violence (e.g., rape, sexual assault, incest, stalking, sexual harassment) and to support survivors of violence.  Such a stance goes against two problematic positions, one hostile and one supportive to survivors of violence.

  1. Hostile Victim-Blaming: Unfortunately, many people lay blame for sexual violence in the hands of victims of violence themselves.  Violent acts, such as sexual assault, are seen as incidents that are preventable simply by changing one’s behavior, interactions with others, appearance, and mentality.  First, survivors of violence, especially women, face the dilemma of providing proof that they have been victimized.  Second, if they are believed, they must provide enough evidence to convince others that such violence was not somehow the result of being sexually promiscuous, dressing in revealing clothing, giving “mixed signals” in interactions (sexual and non-sexual) with one’s attacker, drinking too much, and so forth.
  2. Supportive Victim-Blaming: Indeed, many are concerned with eliminating sexual violence for good.  But, efforts to prevent violence, like the above, center on the victims of violence themselves.  As an online op-ed at Ebony magazine points out, too much sexual violence prevention work provides potential and past victims of violence suggestions to protect themselves: don’t walk alone at night in unfamiliar places, tell a friend where you are going, watch your drinks at parties, don’t go home with strangers.  While this position differs from the above in its concern for survivors of violence, it too lays responsibility for sexual violence on the victims themselves.

Sexual Violence As A Social Problem

With estimates denoting that 17-25 percent of women and 3 percent of men are survivors of violence (experiencing sexual violence at least once in their lifetimes), it is undeniable that a substantial portion of the US population is directly or indirectly affected by violence.  The numbers alone point to a larger, systemic problem that cannot be reduced to the individual motivations and actions of every instance of sexual violence.  Yet, there are many other social factors that contribute to making sexual violence a standard component of our social world, as well.

  • Myths and stereotypes: One barrier to acknowledging and addressing sexual violence and supporting victims of violence is the inaccurate, and sometimes offensive, “information” that pervades our culture regarding gender, sex, sexuality, and violence.  Sexual violence myths include assuming all victims are women, attacked by a lone stranger (a man) in a ski mask lurking in the bushes.  But, stereotypes outside of sexual violence also contribute to a false understanding of sexual violence: men with uncontrollable sexual appetites (“they can’t help themselves“), women who have or should have little interest in sex, strong and aggressive men and weak and passive women, LGBT people as sexual aggressors, etc.
  • Exclusive focus on victims: Even in prevention advocacy and research, we place so much attention on survivors of violence — who are they, what happened to them, how many are there.  Despite extreme underreporting of sexual violence because of stereotypes, the feeling that no one will believe you, fear of retaliation by one’s attacker, and so forth, we have some sense of the demographics of survivors of violence.  But, we know little about perpetrators of sexual violence, with most information coming from reports about those who have been convicted of sexual violence.  One important fact, surprising to some, is that most perpetrators of sexual violence are not men lurking in bushes at night, nor are they otherwise innocent men who got carried away once in sexual activity; perpetrators tend to be repeat offenders (of both sexual violence and non-sexual crimes) and often know the person they attack.
  • Misplaced responsibility: Too often, potential and past victims of sexual violence are burdened with the responsibility for such violence and any efforts to prevent violence.  We, as a society, generally fail to place such responsibility on the perpetrators of sexual violence.  And, when we do, we narrowly focus on them, while ignoring others’ responsibilities to prevent sexual violence and to support survivors.  Many advocates and researchers are beginning to promote the notion of bystander intervention, which calls upon others who witness violence to intervene.  And, while we must push to never see another case where bystanders stand idly by as someone is attacked, our efforts to encourage bystander intervention also include promoting ways to change the culture that condones sexual violence: challenging gender stereotypes and gender socialization in general; teaching about sexual violence; teaching about sexual violence as expressions of sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, ageism, xenophobia, ableism, and so on.
  • Exclusive focus on gender: Another barrier to comprehensively understanding sexual violence is focusing exclusively on the role of gender: men rape women.  What is missing from this narrow analysis, besides overlooking male survivors of violence, is attention to the ways that sexual violence intersects with race and ethnicity, sexual identity, gender identity, class, body size and shape, age, nativity, and ability.  Attending to these systems of oppression does not mean only documenting demographic characteristics of the survivors and perpetrators of violence.  It also means assessing how sexual violence may operate as manifestations of these systems of power, for sexual violence itself is an expression of power over another person.  For example, in many countries, lesbian, bisexual, and queer women are raped by men in an effort to “cure” them of their sexual orientation.
  • Ignoring the role of society: Given the pervasive problem of sexual violence in society, many advocates and academics have argued for thinking about sexual violence more broadly.  As noted above, we too often lay blame on individuals, especially survivors of violence, while ignoring the roles that communities, social institutions, and culture play.  Some have pointed out that we live in a culture that normalizes sexual violence — we live in a “rape culture.”  Various institutions, like colleges, the military, and the medical system, are implicated in their failure to prevent sexual violence, support survivors of violence, and punish perpetrators of violence.  Some have argued that these institutions are structured in ways that make sexual violence invisible and potentially even promote violence.

Indeed, given the complexity and multiple layers and dimensions of the problem of sexual violence, it seems like a tall task to take on.  But, in order to protect everyone from sexual violence and to support survivors of violence, we must address every aspect of the problem.  We can no longer leave the responsibility to prevent sexual violence exclusively in the hands of potential and past victims of violence.