Trigger warning: this post discusses tactics used by sexual harassers to evade justice and the impact on survivors.
Today is International Women’s Day. I don’t much feel like ‘celebrating’ on this occassion. I feel burned out by the lack of racial justice and exclusion in the promotion of this day in Australia. Plus I am spending much of my spare time working through research and writing on my experiences working in equity and diversity. In particular, the myriad of ways in which women of colour are doubly or even trebly disadvantaged when they seek help on sexual harassment, racial discrimination and other inequity. So today’s post is not about ‘celebrating’ women and femmes. Instead, it is closer to the original impetus of the day. International Women’s Day is a day of protest that began with women’s workplace rights (United Nations Women Australia 2019). Join me in witnessing how far we still have to go to have our stories heard with dignity, and the lack of accountability by institutions to uphold our safety at work.
One in five women experience sexual harassment at work. In academia, from 2010-2016, 575 cases of sexual assault were reported in Australian universities, but these led to only six expulsions (see Zevallos 2019). Women students are three times as likely to be assaulted and twice as likely to be harassed as men. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students as well as disabled people experience a disproportionate level of sexual harassment and sexual assault, as do lesbian, gay, bisexual people, and especially transgender students, who experience up to twice the rate of harassment as heterosexual students.
What is sexual harassment? It is not subjective. Workplace law says it includes “any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.” For example:
- unwelcome touching;
- staring or leering;
- suggestive comments or jokes;
- sexually explicit pictures or posters;
- unwanted invitations to go out on dates;
- requests for sex;
- intrusive questions about a person’s private life or body;
- unnecessary familiarity, such as deliberately brushing up against a person;
- insults or taunts based on sex;
- sexually explicit physical contact; and
- sexually explicit emails or SMS text messages.
Perpetrators of sexual harassment use five tactics to deflect blame (“outrage tactics”):
- Cover up;
- Devaluing victims;
- “Reinterpreting” events;
- Using official channels to give an appearance of justice;
‘Official channels use’ is an especially pertinent outrage tactic that relies on institutional processes to disempower victims. I use the term ‘victim’ here strategically. Flavia Dzodan (2018) argues that moving away from the term victim (in favour of ‘survivor’) evades the need for justice.* Paula McDonald and colleagues (2010) write:
‘Using official channels includes reports to senior officials, grievance procedures, and appeals to organisational boards, internal ombudsmen, external bodies, or professional organisations. Most official channels emphasise formal processes, require confidentiality, and focus on technicalities. Despite the best intentions of those running the procedures, the effect of many official channels is to dampen outrage: the immediacy and urgency of the problem is lost in the slow, ponderous processes. Meanwhile, observers often believe justice is being done, although outcomes seldom live up to expectations.’– Paula McDonald, Tina Graham and Brian Martin (2010)
Let’s unpack these outrage tactics via official channels, and the role of institutions in re-traumatising victims. I discuss how organisations can instead take more proactive action to end sexual harassment.Continue reading Institutional Action on Sexual Harassment