Using Intersectionality in Collective Responses to Sexual Harassment

Trigger warning sexual harassment and assault: let’s talk about intersectionality, policy and practice in dealing with sexual harassment.

There seem to be endless cases of sexual harassment coming to light, but these are the tip of the iceberg. In Australia, 575 cases of harassment and rape have been reported in higher education in the past five years alone. Most cases go unpunished, while other institutional responses are sluggish or inadequate. For example,  of the 575 cases, only six perpetrators were expelled. In the University of New England, perpetrators were only fined $55 and received eight hours community service.

The issues are well-known, but equity advocates note that little institutional reform has happened.

“A feeling of institutional betrayal significantly increases the likelihood that a student will develop long-term traumatic mental health issues” – Michael Salter, a senior lecturer in criminology at Western Sydney University 

“Too often, our universities have dealt with sexual assault and harassment of students by turning a blind eye, by claiming it is not their responsibility or, most shamefully, by actively covering up assaults.” – Prof Catharine Lumby, Macquarie University 

“The Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency does mandate universities have to provide a safe learning environment, at the moment with their approach to sexual assault they are failing to uphold those standards.” – Sharna Bremner, End Rape on Campus founder 

Prevalence of harassment and assault on campus

In Australia, a national inquiry on sexual harassment in higher education (which was initially plagued with ethical issues) was unevenly supported in the early stages. Not all universities committed to releasing  their results, which is symbolic of broader problem of transparency and public accountability.  The final 2017 report, Change the Course, surveyed over 30,000 students across 39 of Australia’s major universities. One in five students (21%) have been sexually harassed in a university setting, including travelling to university, and a further 1.6% students have been sexually assaulted at university. Perpetrators on transport were mostly fellow students from the same university (57%). Furthermore, one in four (25%) students have witnessed sexual harassment of others and the majority did not intervene (only 21% took action).

Women are three times as likely to be assaulted and twice as likely to be harassed as men. Half of these victims knew the perpetrator. In many cases, it was university staff, and in others, it was senior students with leadership roles, or the harassment occurred in residential colleges.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students as well as disabled people experience a disproportionate level of sexual harassment and sexual assault compared to non-Indigenous and able-bodied students.

Transgender and gender diverse people (45%), bisexual students (44%) and homosexual people (38%) are more likely to experience harassment compared to heterosexual students (23%)

In around 90% of assault and harassment cases, victims did not make a formal report. The most common reasons were that survivors did not think the incident was serious enough (40%) or they felt that they didn’t need help (40%). Most people did not know how or where to report (60%).

Key recommendations of the report are:

  1. Improve leadership and governance, including a public action plan to address sexual harassment
  2. Changing sexist attitudes through education and bystander training
  3. Ensure students and staff know how and to whom to report harassment
  4. Independent and systematic review to responses to sexual harassment
  5. Monitoring and evaluation of cases of harassment, including auditing reach and access of counselling services and a recurring survey on harassment every three years
  6. Improving policies at residential colleges, such as regards hazing, alcohol consumption and supervision.

These are useful recommendations, but they fall to individual universities to manage and interpret. I was glad that my alma mater, Swinburne University, committed to zero tolerance of harassment and assault. The problem remains that the higher education and science sectors have no consensus on how to manage and collaborate on ending sexual harassment.

Here’s the vexing matter: the laws have definitions and processes in place. Institutions have their policies. The system has many flaws in between.

Definitions and subjective attitudes

Legal definitions matter. Part of the problem is that even in academia and other science organisations, educators and students aren’t taught about practical examples of harassment and therefore have poor principles with which to respond. Too often in Australia and other “Western” contexts, we let language slide on gender violence instead of teaching legal, scholarly definitions. For example, “jokes” about a situation being “rapey” or saying “sexual assault” or “sexual abuse” when we mean something else confuses seriousness of sexual harassment. Similarly, carelessly comparing institutional matters on sexual harassment to cover ups of child rape by Catholic Church, are often seen in science communication to the public.

Definitions of sexual harassment have policy and legal repercussions. Lay misunderstandings of related terms significantly impact on how cases of misconduct are handled.

Colleagues who are responsive to learning and responding to these distinctions demonstrate their integrity and commitment to making real change. In public discussions, ccolleagues who respond thoughtfully to reports on sexual harassment take responsibility to fix the problem, but others want to “debate” their right to use wrong terms. The latter usually manifests as disbelieving victims (“that’s not sexual harassment – focus on the bad cases,” “just tell them you’re not interested,” “take it as a compliment”).  

Not using the correct definition of sexual harassment, which includes “jokes” and unwelcome comments, has an impact on misinformation, leading victims not knowing what they should report. Survivors therefore fear their managers’ responses. Will they be similarly mocked and disbelieved?

Laws vary across countries and different states. In Australia, sexual assault is defined via various physical and mental factors (see this resource which “debunks” the technical language associated with legislation).

Sexual harassment law includes unwelcome touching, staring, invitations for dates, comments, and other forms of inappropriate communication. Moreover: 

‘” working environment or workplace culture that is sexually permeated or hostile will also amount to unlawful sexual harassment. Some of the factors which may indicate a potentially hostile environment include the display of obscene or pornographic materials, general sexual banter, crude conversation or innuendo and offensive jokes.”

In academia (and broader society) people think that harassment must involve some form of “bad” physical or verbal attack; subjectively judged. It’s not up to one or two or more people to set the tone for what sexual jokes/ comments/ advances are okay. Everyone’s safety matters.

What often happens in sexual harassment cases is that managers decide what is worth reporting higher up, sometimes not supporting survivors in reporting through formal channels. There is also the perception from supervisors and managers that if no one has reported sexual harassment, everything must be fine in their workplace.

Here’s where intersectionality must be integrated into policy responses, evaluation and reform: not everyone has the same power to report. Continue reading Using Intersectionality in Collective Responses to Sexual Harassment

Enacting Whiteness When Tagging People of Colour

I’ve written about why White people should reflect on the deeper motivations whenever they feel a need to tag Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and other people of colour, in their own conversations on race and racism. White people should understand that tagging people of colour into racist exchanges introduces further discrimination and abuse into that person’s life. I show this through an example of online abuse I received after one of my White followers tagged me twice into conversations involving someone who had previously harassed me.

Whiteness

White people often tag people of colour into their social media conversations on racism without recognising the impact. Sometimes this is because White people become easily overwhelmed when engaging in personal conversations of racism. This is an outcome of Whiteness. White people do not often think critically about race and so they are not readily aware of the benefits and protections they receive from their race. As such, everyday racism is often invisible to them. This includes not noticing racism unless it is overt in an extreme form which they recognise and feel disconcerted by. When they decide to step into racial conversations, White people are unfamiliar with how quickly race discussions escalate. As they face race discussions head on, they may panic and tag people of colour, ironically, to get support and reinforcement from people of colour.

This might take the form of a benign invitation to a person of colour as racial observer (“I wonder what @PersonOfColour thinks about this?”) or as racism expert (“How dare you say something so racist. You should read @PersonOfColour’s posts”). Continue reading Enacting Whiteness When Tagging People of Colour

Interview: Talking Feminist Sociology

Drawing of several women dressed in historical STEM outfits

In case you missed this on my other social media, in January 2019, Lady Science published a podcast about my career and feminism.  I was interviewed in late 2018 by Leila McNeill, one of the editors-in-chief. Below is an excerpt where you can learn a little about my professional history. I discuss how racial minority sociologists are challenging knowledge production in our field. I show how the concept of otherness is feeding the overt political resurgence of White nationalism. Then I cover the importance of intersectionality in sociological practice.

My face is drawn Brown, with red lipstick and red lines shining out of my top of my head
Portrait of me commissioned from the feminist and artist, Tyler Feder

Leila: To kick off our series I’ll be talking with Zuleyka Zevallos, a sociologist from Australia, about the history of sociology, how the work of Indigenous and minority sociologists is changing the field, and how intersectional feminism influences her work. Leila: Without further ado, I’ll let Zuleyka introduce herself.

Z. Zevallos: Yep, so my name’s Zuleyka Zevallos. I’m a sociologist, and I’ve got a PhD in sociology. I started off doing research on the intersections of identity from migrant background women. I was really interested in how their experiences of gender, sexuality, ethnicity and also religion made their sense of identity, and how that also interconnected with their experiences of racism and multiculturalism, and how all of that affected their sense of belonging to their communities, as well as broader Australian society.

Z. Zevallos: After I finished my PhD I’ve been teaching the whole way through, and then I was an academic for a little while. I taught the sociology of gender and sexuality as well as leading courses on ethnicity and race. I also looked at the impact of technology on society…

Z. Zevallos: I spent the first few years working with an interdisciplinary social modelling team. That was a really great experience because it really taught me different applications of sociology, but also how to speak to scientists from the natural and physical sciences, from computer sciences, and how to blend their disciplines with mine.
Continue reading Interview: Talking Feminist Sociology

Charming Central Coast: Aboriginal Organisations and Sights on Darkinjung Land

Sommersby Falls with the blog post title overlaid: Charming Central Coast - Aboriginal Organisations and Sights on Darkinjung Land

I’ve previously mentioned that I’d been away on secondment for six weeks at the end of last year. I was part of a national program that matches professionals from policy and corporate sectors with Aboriginal-controlled community organisations. I worked with Barang Regional Alliance (Barang) on the Central Coast, on their Empower Youth Summit, which was held last weekend, on 23-24 February 2019. Barang looks after the interests of 12,500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on Darkinjung land. It was a pleasure to work on this meaningful project and to learn more about Barang and its partners, whom I touch on below. You can see the Barang team and my fellow secondees below.

Next time, I’ll talk a little on my project, and some photos from the weekend, attended by 120 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth.  Today, I’m going to focus more on my broader experience on the Central Coast, especially the Aboriginal-Controlled organisations with whom we collaborated, as well as the cultural walks and sights. I’ll share with you a visual sociology of our visit to Finchley Campground, the beautiful rock art at Baiame Cave and Bulgandry, the Koori Art Exhibition, various national parks and festivals, plus much more!

Continue reading Charming Central Coast: Aboriginal Organisations and Sights on Darkinjung Land

Sociology of Spiders

A tiny spider on a centre of an orange wall, in a halo of light

A diminutive spider accompanied by its tiny shadow had me captivated as I pondered the sociology of spiders and fear.

Spiders inspire irrational fright, despite the fact that most spiders can’t harm humans. The small percentage that can are not usually found in our homes and they don’t specifically seek us out for attack. Yet even I overreact at the sight of a spider at home (or in my swag during a recent camping trip!).

Our collective fear of spiders in urban areas is culturally determined, and it far outweighs the risk posed. Spiders feature as focus and metaphor for different types of fears in Western societies. Even amongst educated people, spiders are a source of disgust and anxiety. Why might that be the case?

Continue reading Sociology of Spiders

Invasion Day 2019

This past weekend was the Australia Day long weekend. The holiday marks the genocide and dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This day will never be inclusive or live up to ideals of multiculturalism, as it is a Day of Mourning for First Nations people. We need to not just change the date but also #ChangeTheNation. This is time for truth-telling of our national history, a Voice to Parliament and Makarrata (treaty), as outlined in the Uluru Statement From the Heart.

On 26 January, beginning at 11am, we marched at the Invasion Day rally from Hyde Park South to the Yabun Festival. The rally starts with speeches, smoking ceremony and dance commentating survival. Remembering the Waterloo Creek massacre.
Continue reading Invasion Day 2019

Whiteness, Racism and Power

Here’s a typical example of how White people exercise and maintain racism. Kerri-Anne Kennerly flies into a rage about Saturday’s protests, led by Aboriginal people, seeking to change the date of Australia Day and establish systemic reform that includes a Voice to Parliament and Makarrata (treaty). Kennerly taps the table angrily, ‘Has anyone of them been out to the Outback where children, babies, 5 year olds are being raped. Their mothers are being raped. Their sisters are being raped. They get no education. What have you done? Zippo.’

Here, Kennerly evokes the same strawman argument that politicises rape and child abuse that has been used since colonisation to deny Aboriginal people rights. She could be referring to the Northern Territory Intervention, where the army went into remote regions to justify removals of Aboriginal children. The Intervention was NOT based on evidence – that’s already been proven. It has been catastrophic for communities. Continue reading Whiteness, Racism and Power

Visual Sociology for December 2018

Visual sociology for December 2018! I bring you back some of the final sights from my secondent to the Central Coast. We delve into the political and health upheavals in South Africa from the past half-century.  We then mosey over to the zoo, on a super hot day, and see that elephants know how to throw a good water party!

‘We are breastfeeding friendly’

I loved this sticker at a cafe in The Entrace, Central Coast of New South wales! 2 December 2018.

Continue reading Visual Sociology for December 2018

Roma: Film Review

 

Roma is a beautiful film that covers issues of gender, race, class and violence in Mexico. Dedicated to, and based on, writer/ director Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood nanny and housekeeper “Libo” (Liboria Rodríguez), the film follows Cleo (the sublime Yalitza Aparicio), a young Mixtec woman employed by an affulent Mexican family. She has lived with them since the children’s birth, herself perhaps still in her 20s. She is beloved by the children, but is still treated like a servant.

Her woman employer, Sofia, also tells Cleo she loves her at a pivotal point in the film, even as we see how she flies into rage, diminishes Cleo and blames her for insignificant details. Sofia’s mother also lives in the household, mostly indifferent to Cleo, until tragedy strikes. At one stage, having been on her feet all day working, Cleo sits on the ground, holding the children’s hands, as the rest of the family sits comfortably on the couch watching TV. Sofia then directs Cleo to get her husband a drink after Cleo is settled.

These are women separated by race and class, but who are bound together by the men in their lives who neglect and mistreat them. The men are a wreck. Everyone, including Sofia, call the philandering husband ‘The Doctor,’ his status, vanity and whims disrupting everything around him. Continue reading Roma: Film Review

Heterosexism in a Scientific Study of Lesbian Attraction

a White woman, shot only from the upper torso, holds candles arranged in the colours of the LGBTQIA or pride flag

An evolutionary psychology study that gained much media attention in May 2017 claims to show women’s sexual attraction to other women is the outcome of evolution, specifically for the pleasure of heterosexual men. The study was reported widely as ‘homosexual women evolved for men’s pleasure.’ Journalists have not read the study nor linked to it. The study is published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. The study is led by Associate Professor Menelaos Apostolou. The team is based at the University of Nicosia, with apparently only one woman co-author.

Here, I show why the study is flawed and why the conclusions are premised on dangerous heterosexism. Heterosexism is the prejudiced belief that heterosexuality is ‘natural’ and ‘normal,’ and that heterosexuality uniformly structures all aspects of social life.  Heterosexism also presumes that gender is a binary (there are only two groups, men or women), and excludes the lived experiences of transgender people. Heterosexism brings to light the social construction of sexuality, and in this case, the values and social dynamics that impact on what is taken-for-granted about heterosexuality.

I focus my discussion on cisgender heterosexual and homosexual people as the authors of the study have presumed men and women can either be homosexual or heterosexual, to the exclusion of other gender and sexual identities. They have done this without explicitly saying so (it is a facet of heterosexism to reinforce binaries, because variations of sexuality disrupt the idea that heterosexuality is natural and normal). Experiences for transgender lesbians would vary, however, the authors presume a gender binary in thinking about lesbian desire.

With these cautions in mind, let’s dive into the study.

Continue reading Heterosexism in a Scientific Study of Lesbian Attraction