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.

Power and intersectionality

Bearing in mind that most people in society have the wrong picture about sexual harassment, women and femmes in general have less power in the workplace, especially as victims of harassment and discrimination. Women and femmes in general are also more likely to have:

  1. Experienced intimate partner violence (1 in 4 women)
  2. Experienced emotional abuse and other forms of intimate partner violence (1 in 3 women)
    3) Poor health outcomes as a result of intimate partner violence, including anxiety, depression and other disorders

The greatest health burden of intimate partner violence is experienced by Indigenous women. This is because health is impacted by race, as well as gender.

Women bring these previous experiences with them into academia and then institutions expose them to other risks, including a culture of sexual harassment. For Indigenous women and other women of colour, sexual harassment is an additional experience of discrimination on top of racism and gender inequality, as well as other forms of inequality and previous trauma. For lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer women this includes homophobia and/or transphobia as well as sexism and other discrimination for queer women of colour, on top of sexual harassment. For women with disabilities, there’s existing health issues plus other experiences of ableism alongside sexism and sexual harassment, plus racism and homophobia/ transphobia if they disabled women of colour and transgender women.

As you can start to see, for women and femmes who belong to multiple minority groups, discrimination and gender compound experiences of sexual harassment.

All institutions must legally comply with anti-discrimination legislation. So they have anti-harassment policies, often buried somewhere on their intranet.  Policies are often written in admin or legal speak and placed in handbooks and perhaps only visited once at induction (if at all) or in once-off training. An employee may only be exposed to these policies once, in a cursory way, if they’re lucky.

Managers are rarely trained on how to manage sexual harassment, and almost never with a lens of intersectionality that recognises multiple experiences of discrimination and trauma.  We already know from decades of empirical evidence from academic, police, legal and medical sources that most sexual crimes go unreported. Institutions who think they’re “safe” from sexual harassment, could not be more mistaken; unfortunately, ignorance is contributing factor to lack of reporting.  The onus of systemic responses remains on victims to report sexual harassment, in a climate that misunderstands definitions, behaviours and other patterns of harassment.

‘Picking battles’

The system demands that victims, overwhelmingly women, report sexual harassment, even as they experience other forms of discrimination. That system is more likely to escalate so-called “bad” cases of sexual harassment, but “bad” means “whatever we’re prepared to believe.”

For all women in academia and science, that means being prepared to be disbelieved whilst facing threats to their career progression and their academic networks.  For women and femmes of colour specifically, it means “picking battles.” Should they report the racism they face daily, which is being belittled in everyday work contexts? Or should they conserve energy for other cases of gender inequity and sexual harassment? Nevermind that sexual harassment of women and femmes of colour are usually racialised, and regardless, these experiences cannot be separated.

Similarly for other minority women, it’s choosing what to report, along with fighting physical barriers and stigma of disability, or outing their sexuality in an environment that may not be safe to do so.

If women get to the point of reporting, managers may dismiss complaint or threaten their promotion and funding opportunities. That again puts women and femmes in a further vulnerable position.

As we’ve seen above, reporting formally within an institution, policies often lead to unsatisfactory outcomes, with perpetrators given “slap on wrist” if anything.  Reporting to an outside agency, whether it’s to police or some other authority, still puts women in a stressful position, irrespective of evidence they may have.  We know from scholarly studies that policies aren’t enough. A system that relies on women’s reports but upholds disbelief of victims is the reason why harassment and other sexual and gender crimes persist. Policies need constant independent evaluation through multiple mechanisms. This includes enhanced confidential reviews by equity and diversity experts.

Policies also need regular communication – annual campaigns with plain-language; regular training for students, staff, faculty, executives. Sexual harassment, like other issues of gender equity and diversity, requires strong investment and proactive action. This means funding and better resources!

Leaders need to model behaviour and be responsible for active intervention and further accountability of managers. Not retroactively, after a public case, but pre-emptively, to establish a culture of safety.

As it stands, the system is not working. So women and femmes are forced to rely on other individuals to warn them about sexual harassers who move from one place to another.

Every time I write about sexual harassment, I’m contacted by several colleagues concerned about their own safety or for their students.  In current circumstances, the back channels are a “safe” way to keep oneself and immediate colleagues or students aware of serial harassers. But that’s a temporary fix, because this happens outside of systemic reform.

Collective action

We have a major societal problem with gender violence. In academia and science, sexual harassment is one manifestation of that broader issue. Within our own higher education system, Australian academic and science sectors have the power to at least address sexual harassment, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism along with other forms of discrimination.

We need to do this collectively; not by forcing women to weigh up the negative outcomes of reporting, but to be more proactive and taking public action. I’ve previously outlined some collection actions:

  1. Speak up on harassment culture;
  2. Lead by example;
  3. Make it easier to report harassment;
  4. Make sure policies work;
  5. Make safety a day-to-day priority;
  6. Strategic planning;
  7. Take a collective stand against harassment.

Since I wrote the aforementioned article, more cases of harassment have been made public.  We need to stop accepting sexual harassment as business as usual. We need to stop forcing women and femmes to take action after they’ve been victimised.  Academia and science does not “lose” White women and minorities. Issues of harassment, racial discrimination and other inequities make this career untenable. This is simply unacceptable.

An earlier version of this post was published on Twitter.

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