Helping Victims of Sexual Assault and Harassment: A guest post by Jennifer Lackey

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.

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18 thoughts on “Helping Victims of Sexual Assault and Harassment: A guest post by Jennifer Lackey

  1. In cases where a lawsuit has been filed, it is important to keep in mind that coverage of the event in the media (if it receives any) is very likely to be largely derived from the lawsuit itself. This means that the person who files the lawsuit has not only the advantage of greater financial resources, as Jennifer mentions, but also the advantage of speaking first. What appears in the lawsuit as it is initially filed may well be incomplete or inaccurate, and it may have been crafted so as to serve the interests of the perpetrator. Typically, the defendant will then be forced into silence out of fear that any public statements on her part will complicate the legal case that is now her most pressing concern. The lawsuit may, of course, be dismissed if it doesn’t have any legal merit. But, even in this case, the motion to dismiss does not take up factual matters—that is, the victim’s lawyer is required to treat every alleged fact in the perpetrator’s lawsuit as if it were fact indeed. The case can thus end without the defendant ever getting a chance to correct the factual record or defend her own point of view in a public way. In most cases, public attention will have already moved on to something else, and the public’s views may have become fixed by the initial lawsuit.

    So, a further suggestion one might make here is to read news reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment that are grounded in the perpetrator’s lawsuit with a very critical eye. The fact remains that speaking out when one has been victimized is an extraordinarily painful and difficult thing to do. It is not undertaken lightly. (Research shows that the rate of false reporting for sexual assault is very low, in the range of 2-8%; see http://ndaa.org/pdf/the_voice_vol_3_no_1_2009.pdf). We as a community can help protect victims, and prevent further victimization, by giving them the benefit of the doubt in our discussions and in our own private beliefs.

  2. I think that’s a great point, Baron. There are HUGE incentives to not report. Those who make the decision to report face enormous hostility and opposition. They are unlikely to take this on lightly.

  3. I wonder whether concerns about defamation lawsuits might be keeping philosophers from reaching out to sexual assault victims. I am not a lawyer, so I am not sure which statements might be defamatory. However, given what I do know about defamation, I don’t think there is any risk of defamation if one were to tell a student: (i) that if you find out her name, you will think of her as a philosopher, and not just as someone who was a victim of sexual assault.; (ii) that you hope she will not be driven out of the profession because of the assault; (iii) that you realize that she must be suffering greatly.

    If you can manage to make it clear that you are offering an opinion, and are not attempting to state a fact, you can offer additional support. You might do that by saying, “If I were in your shoes, I think I would feel that a great injustice has been done.” Also, you might tell the student that, in your opinion, it was courageous of her to come forward.

    If the victim is being prevented from telling her side of the story, perhaps because she is being sued for defamation, you might tell her that you wish you could hear her side of the story. You might even use the language of “silencing,” and tell her that you view what is happening to her as silencing, and that you wish that she weren’t being silenced.

    Again, I am not an attorney. However, I think that anyone who does even a bit of research on defamation law will find that as long as it is clear that one is offering an opinion, and does not intend to make a statement of fact, one is protected.

  4. What if you are in this situation: you have heard of a case of sexual assault, and you want to reach out to the student, but you do not know her name? I wonder whether Baron, in particular, has any ideas about this?

  5. Jennifer, thank you for this excellent post — and Baron, yes, it is extremely important to think about *why* a victim might report. (What does s/he have to gain? In most cases, absolutely *nothing.* What does s/he have to lose? In many cases, particularly cases in which there is a power differential, as in, say, faculty-student sexual misconduct, *everything.*)

    One thing in connection with this point that I find maddening is the fact that we (myself included) find it important to study and report the rate of false reporting of sexual assault. We don’t, after all, frequently cite or discuss the incidence of false reports for petty theft. If someone says “my wallet was stolen,” we don’t wonder what the proof is, or whether they might have hidden the wallet and then made a false report.

    This tendency to look for publicly accessible evidence or “proof” that the victim is a victim can introduce a bias into both the discussion and investigation of sexual misconduct because it essentially makes us automatically grant more credibility to the suspect than the victim. This is particularly true if there are what are known as “red flags” in the case. The rapist is a stereotypical “nice guy” who doesn’t “look” like a stereotypical rapist (read: white, affluent, etc.). Most of our colleagues in philosophy fit this profile.

    Clearly the “red flags” are often grounded in our implicit biases — or even explicit biases — about, e.g., what sort of people engage in sexual misconduct, what constitutes sexual assault, etc.

    We need to identify, name, and eliminate these biases.

  6. In response to comment 4, I think there is a variety of ways to support victims when you don’t know specifically who it is. One simple way for today is to share Jennifer’s post on Facebook and by email. I have heard from a friend that he has forwarded it to everyone in his department. This sort of thing will, I hope, be taken by victims everywhere as a general statement of support.

    It is also possible to make clear, on Facebook and elsewhere, that you believe particular victims who have already come forward. Too often, discussion of these cases gets bogged down in speculation about the merits of the case, especially when there is relatively little information available (or the information is primarily coming from only one side). As Heidi Howkins Lockwood said in comment 5, victims who file reports very often have nothing to gain (except a measure of justice) and everything to lose. The very least we can do is to give them the benefit of the doubt.

  7. I had several conversations recently with someone whose seeming friends did not believe her. That sort of experience can have long term and very negative impact.

    One very worrying phenomenon is that of the club or the cronies. Here mere imaginings can turn into solid beliefs, with the person making a complaint becoming a ‘known liar’ acting out of revenge for something. I’m not sure what is the best course of action in these cases. Talking to the younger faculty being brought into the club might seem promising, but the younger people may have a vested interest in seeing the more senior faculty as decent, honorable people. As indeed we would all like them to be.

    On cronies, see the reference to Naomi Zack at the end of this post.

  8. “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.”

    These all strike me as such good ideas. I was at a conference recently where I ended up speaking with another philosopher about some personal experiences, and he stopped me for a moment just to say “I believe you.” I was quite taken aback actually. I am so used to witnessing such conversations go an entirely different direction, where one party attempts to provide a more innocent construction of whatever perceived wrong-doing is described, where they ask if one is sure of what happened, where they withdraw because sensitive topics make them uncomfortable–this was a first for me, and as simple as it was, I found it an immensely supportive and constructive response.

  9. @philodaria I had a similar experience once, where a colleague from another department had gotten wind of something horrible that had happened to me, and had reached out just to say, you know, “I heard, and that’s awful, and I’m hoping you’re well.” When I related a bit more detail in private discourse she responded immediately, “I believe you.” It was a watershed moment for me, in the midst of all that. To have someone say, unwaveringly, and in this incredibly reassuring way, you know, you don’t have to fight TWO fights here — You don’t have to make your way through this pain AND defend your credibility. You can just do the one thing, and in fact, not feel alone while you’re doing that. That’s a momentous relief.

  10. Just for the record, I’ve had the opposite, non-accepting experience. I was talking about a male philosopher who had been very sexist toward me in an official, leadership role. We’ve all had the implicit “you are not credible” look, I suspect, but I was still surprised that a junior faculty member could look me in the eyes and say “I don’t believe you.”

  11. @annejjacobson Ugh, I am *so* sorry that that happened to you. I’m sure that a lot of women who have experienced sexism in some way or other can deeply empathize with that feeling of having your credibility undermined or questioned implicitly, but to have it so explicitly undercut is appalling. I hope you never have another such experience.

  12. anonymous, thank you so much for the supportive comment. The comment came at the end of a long and very negative period for me. I had accepted that I couldn’t continue in the dept, and I negotiated a reasonable retirement through the EEOC. So it was OK, though I’m deeply sorry for a person left who is not so neatly accepted into the boys’ club.

  13. Anne, I just want to say too that I’m so sorry you had that experience. How awful. For the record, I am deeply grateful for your presence within the philosophical community. I have been inspired both by the quality of your academic work and by your involvement in efforts to improve the climate of our discipline.

    And thank you to Jennifer Lackey for this wonderful post.

  14. I’ve removed a first and somewhat formal reaction to Kathryn’s comment. The comment is very valuable to me. It deserves more than a quick reaction.

  15. If a university is putting up money for a defense against rape/harassment counteruits, that leads to perverse incentives. It basically says that a student who files charges that are spurious and vile, and even if the perpetrator of the false charges is *found guilty in court,* she will face no ill financial consequences for potentially destroying someone’s life through the false accusation of rape. Could that possibly be what you meant? Because it doesn’t seem right. Why not take the position that the university should pay the legal costs of *every* accused student, whether they be accused of rape or defamation for filing a false rape charge. Of course, that offer must be conditional on them not being *found guilty* by the court of said crime. The university shouldn’t be paying anyone who is actually guilty of rape or criminal slander.

  16. David, Having medical insurance typically does not provide a perverse incentive for people to break their spines or deliberately contract measles. This is because, while insurance often (but not always) protects people from the financial devastation of such medical challenges, the other pain and trauma associated with them is a far more powerful incentive against abusing medical insurance. Indemnification of student victims, I take it, would be quite similar: trauma associated with reporting sexual misconduct by members of one’s own academic community is so deep and far-reaching that protection from the possibility of adding financial devastation to this hardly seems to be an incentive to raise false accusations. (Also, research shows that the rate of false reporting for sexual assault is very low, in the range of 2-8%; see http://ndaa.org/pdf/the_voice_vol_3_no_1_2009.pdf.)

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