Academic journal article New Formations

Sexism at the Centre: Locating the Problem of Sexual Harassment

Academic journal article New Formations

Sexism at the Centre: Locating the Problem of Sexual Harassment

Article excerpt

In recent years a number of high profile cases of sexual harassment and assault have redirected international attention to the issues of sexism and sexual violence at universities. Many of these cases have addressed student to student sexual violence. One such high-profile case took place at Columbia University where in 2014-15 Emma Sulkowicz protested the university's mishandling of her sexual assault case by carrying her mattress around campus and to her graduation. (1) The weight of Sulkowicz's mattress represented the burden placed on survivors of sexual assault when universities fail to take these cases seriously and not only force survivors to navigate their studies while living in close proximity to those who have violated them, but also tacitly accept and condone these violations as part of the conditions of study.

Other cases have drawn attention to the violence committed through faculty to student sexual harassment. For example, the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) made international news in 2014 when an independent report found the philosophy department to be characterised by 'unacceptable sexual harassment, inappropriate sexualized unprofessional behavior, and divisive uncivil behavior'. (2) The report went on to note that the effect of these behaviours was to alienate women from the workplace, with female faculty avoiding campus and making efforts to leave the department in disproportionate numbers.

While many of these cases have been located within philosophy departments, and while disciplines may express and reproduce sexism in distinct ways, sexual harassment is not confined to particular disciplines. Similarly, while many of the cases that have received international coverage are located at US institutions, the problem of sexual violence at universities is in no way specific to the US. In the UK a 2014 survey conducted by the National Union of Students found that sexual harassment on UK campuses was 'rife', with 37 per cent of women and 12 per cent of men reporting that they had experienced unwanted sexual advances while at university. (3) And while two thirds of respondents said they had been witness to students tolerating unwelcome sexual comments, 60 per cent said they were unaware of university procedures to prohibit these behaviours. This may be why Phipps and Young have found that two-thirds of surveyed students describe sexual harassment and violence as a normal part of university life. (4)

In this article we discuss the sexual harassment that occurs within academic institutions between academic staff and students. Our interest is in thinking about the ways that sexism and sexual harassment are enabled and perpetuated in the university environment. In particular, we are interested in interrogating the power that occurs in these relationships, and how the nature of this relation makes it difficult for students to name and refuse the harassment that occurs. What are the mechanisms, both social and institutional, that enable, circulate and conceal sexism, and what work do they do? How can we think about the mobility of sexism enabled by these mechanisms, and how does the movement of sexism make the work of those in universities committed to ending sexism even harder?

In pursuing these questions, we draw upon materials predominately gathered from experiences in UK higher education, which has its own particular institutional structures. This includes, for example, the structure of PhD study, which pairs students often with a single supervisor and no mandatory course work. However, we also draw on narratives from US spaces, showing continuities in the experiences of power in these two contexts.


Our engagement with sexual harassment within the academy has grown from our work with the UK-based blog project Strategic Misogyny. Strategic Misogyny was founded to collect and publish experiences of sexism and sexual harassment in the academy in order to make sexism and sexual harassment more visible. …

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