More news on CU Boulder October 20, 2014
It is not a secret that colleges and universities have been plagued by cases of sexual assault and sexual harassment. Too often, students find themselves victimized by members of their own communities, and we as faculty who are committed to fostering a safe and supportive learning and working environment must find constructive ways to respond.
Why there are these problems, and why they seem to occur with frequency in the academic world, are deep, important questions that I hope we will continue to have conversations about. But what I want to do here is to suggest two concrete proposals for moving forward.
Being sexually assaulted or harassed is a traumatizing and isolating experience, and students who suffer at the hands of members of their own communities often face a further traumatizing choice: be quiet and continue to share classrooms, colloquia, and departmental parties with those who have victimized them, or come forward and face a myriad of possible consequences, ranging from having their private lives subjected to public scrutiny to outright rejection by their peers.
Despite the risks, some students do report the crimes to officials at their institutions, and some do so precisely because they believe that it is the morally right thing to do. Reporting such incidents is a courageous step in protecting oneself and others from being harmed. There is, however, one possible consequence of coming forward that is particularly pernicious: this very act of seeking justice and fostering safety might itself result in further harm to victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment, by rendering them vulnerable to lawsuits brought against them by the people who have already victimized them.
Faculty members are employees of colleges and universities and, so long as they are acting within the scope of their employment, they are indemnified by their employers—that is, their employers will cover legal expenses and damages that may arise in the course of their fulfilling their professional obligations. However, students, both undergraduate and graduate, are not employees and may not automatically enjoy this protection. While some institutions readily agree to defend and indemnify students who face legal action against them, absent such indemnification, a student may face significant legal expenses in defending against a lawsuit filed by someone who typically has greater financial resources. This very possibility can have a chilling impact on our communities, for it provides an extremely effective means of silencing victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment.
Here is where my first proposal comes in: should a student report to you that she has been victimized by one of your students or colleagues, fight aggressively on her behalf for the college or university to indemnify her.* You are in a far more powerful position than she is in, and you have far more resources to appeal to in negotiating and advocating on her behalf. Tell your institution how it is in its own interest in the long run to cultivate an environment in which students can seek justice and safety for themselves and others without the added risk of financial ruin. You can assure them that indemnifying students in this way is not without precedent.
In addition to the issue of indemnification, it is also important to recognize that lawsuits often force the defendant into silence. This silence, and the social isolation that comes with it, can be emotionally devastating. My second proposal, then, is that we, as members of the academic community, reach out to victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment, to let them know that they do not stand alone and that their position in our profession is secure. If you believe a victim, tell her that you do. If you feel that she suffered an appalling violation, convey this to her. If you know of a professional opportunity for which she is well-suited, invite her. Send her an e-mail, post a collective letter of public support, include her in academic discussions and gatherings. In caring for those who have already taken the courageous step of standing up for justice, we will not only make it easier for future victims to find their voices, we will also foster a community in which our most vulnerable members can flourish.
* Although I use the feminine pronoun here, these issues apply to all victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment.
Please note: Comments are being pre-moderated. We will be exceptionally strict about which comments we let through. In particular, we will not allow any comments revealing specifics about cases or individuals, or speculating about motivations. We will also not allow anything which could serve to support a culture of victim-blaming. We will also err on the side of caution, so I’d expect that some perfectly well-intentioned comments won’t be let through. Please don’t be offended by this– we are fallible humans with day jobs, and we’re doing the best we can. Finally, we won’t be allowing any discussion of our commenting policies. We’re just one blog: if you don’t like our commenting policies, I’m sure you can find a place more congenial to you elsewhere.
Clarifying ‘sexual violence’ September 26, 2014
There are many forms of sexual and gender based violence. Some of them have only come to light in more recent history, and some we still tend, collectively, to fail to understand. However, the University of Michigan’s (otherwise seemingly wonderful) initiative to prevent and more effectively respond to domestic and intimate partner violence, has offered a very worrying example of sexual violence. The site reads:
Examples of sexual violence include: discounting the partner’s feelings regarding sex; criticizing the partner sexually; touching the partner sexually in inappropriate and uncomfortable ways; withholding sex and affection; always demanding sex; forcing partner to strip as a form of humiliation (maybe in front of children), to witness sexual acts, to participate in uncomfortable sex or sex after an episode of violence, to have sex with other people; and using objects and/or weapons to hurt during sex or threats to back up demands for sex.
Withholding sex and affection is not a form of sexual violence. Rather, too often, claims of failing to be sexually available and affectionate enough have historically been used to justify mistreatment of (and sometimes violence towards) partners–just think of the offensive (and mythical) stereotype of the ‘frigid wife,’ and the various ways in which it has been employed.
Mattress Performance September 5, 2014
23 students have complained that Columbia University fails to take proper action when students file complaint about sexual assault. They include the senior art student, who says she was raped in her sophomore year. She has created a performance art work, which consists in her carrying around the mattress on which she was raped.
Readers may well have seen posts about this situation on Facebook. But there are features of the story that are worth highlighting. Because I want to get this up reasonably soon, I am making really pretty obvious observations. Please add in if you want.
One thing to notice is that the situation offers the victim no good resolution. Emma Sulkowicz experiences a conflict between self-care and persistence in prosecuting her rapist, and she has dropped the latter. Such a reaction is very common. It has long seemed to me a mark of abuse that it leaves one with no good alternatives, but in saying this I am envisaging having to act pretty much alone, as is so often the case. And is the case here. Maybe close friends believe a victim, but a lot of people don’t. And who wants to go up against such an institution on a friend’s say-so? Because we still can’t count on institutions to act on the preponderance of evidence.
The preponderance of evidence seems clear here. Two other young women have accused the same man.
Another pretty awful feature is how some people react. If you can bear it, read the comments to see what you can expect.
Yes means yes bill in California August 31, 2014
On Thursday, the California state legislature voted to replace the “no means no” standard for sexual consent on college campuses with the affirmative “yes means yes” definition. Under this standard, silence or lack of resistance is not considered a legally acceptable way to convey consent. Inebriation will also not be considered an acceptable defense. Gov. Jerry Brown has until September 30 to sign the bill. If he does, all colleges receiving state funding would have to adhere to “yes means yes.” Campus assault advocates have been pushing for such reform, arguing that “ no means no” unfairly burdens victims. However, many worry that “yes means yes” is a vague standard.
Rapist sentenced 361 days in order to avoid trial August 12, 2014
From the Star Tribune, man who confessed to raping two girls, 13 and 15, was giving a plea-deal with a sentence of the time he had already served — 361 days. The county attorney, James Backstrom, said this will allow for avoiding potentially traumatizing the victims by requiring them to testify.
Eric Schliesser on the Boulder situation August 8, 2014
As usual, Eric has many thoughtful things to say. Here are just a couple of them.
It is encouraging that after the settlement, the victim has decided to stay in the profession and at Boulder; this suggests to me that there is reason that the majority of our peers at Boulder are, in fact, already (quoting Curtis) “making progress.” Our colleagues at Boulder deserve our respect and support in doing so. It’s not impossible that in doing so they are, in fact, showing the way forward to the rest of us…
As I claimed a few month’s ago, victims’s lawsuits “and the harsh light of publicity are the best means to destroy the culture of silence in the profession and to give everybody incentives to do the right thing (protect victims and to ensure that success goods are not abused). It’s a sad fact that the victims and relative powerless are the ones that are now the best hope for reform and wisdom. But that’s how the situation looks to me now.” The size of the settlement $825,000 at Boulder is of the right order of magnitude to generate the right incentives.
New sexual assault legislation planned July 31, 2014
From Inside Higher Ed
New sexual assault legislation unveiled
WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of eight U.S. Senators on Wednesday unveiled legislation aimed at holding colleges more accountable for preventing and dealing with the sexual assaults that occur on campuses.
The lawmakers, led by Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, both Democrats, said that the bill responds to a national problem of campus sexual assault and the publicized cases of colleges mishandling investigations. …
[One measure:] The legislation would require all colleges to conduct anonymous surveys of students about their views of sexual assault on campuses. The results of the so-called “climate surveys” would then be published online for prospective students to see.
There are a number of other tough measures. Have a look.