The story of fighting sexual harassment in the university tends to be a story of failure. It is a story of trying to address complaints, giving voice to victims, changing institutional culture — and of being met with walls and silences.
As feminist Sara Ahmed has repeatedly reminded us, walls come up from the moment a student or staff member tries to complain to well after their complaint is registered. (In 2016 Ahmed resigned from Goldsmiths, University of London, in protest against the institution’s failure to address sexual harassment of students.)
Walls exist at work, even in the rare cases of termination of employment on the grounds of sexual harassment, because confidentiality and non-disclosure clauses mean that perpetrators cannot be named. They are, in fact, free to go and seek employment elsewhere, in what has been called the “pass the harasser” phenomenon.
What would it mean to tell a different story of tackling sexual harassment on campus? A story of institutional resources and commitment; of independent offices to deal with complaints alone, to counsel and care; and of feminist leadership?
A story where it would be obvious that intervention must mean transformation of entire institutional cultures and not merely of individuals (through discipline and punishment)? Where, through measures such as advocacy, counselling, gender training and the creation of safe spaces, the silence of sexual violence could be made speakable? Where the effects of such speech would be concrete, material and transformative — formal dismissals, not just quiet resignations?
This could indeed be a story of feminist success. But feminist success is invariably its failure.
For, in the garnering of actual institutional capacity and power lies the undoing of feminist resistance and its promise of an alternative future.
We often hear of the threat of co-option, of feminist forces being co-opted by a range of structures, from the state to the market. Think, for instance, of how the slogan “Girl Power” adorns T-shirts made by underpaid precarious female workers — usually girls — of the Global South. Co-option has become so pervasive in our times that it becomes difficult to discern feminist from nonfeminist politics in the mainstream — everyone from a Hillary Clinton to a Beyoncé is, after all, now a feminist.
Universities, too, co-opt sexual harassment work for various agendas and ends.
Professor Alison Phipps of Sussex University describes how the neoliberal university uses campaigns run by students about sexual violence to draw in other students to enhance the university’s own attractiveness.
Unlike previous historical conjunctures, ours is one in which universities cannot ignore the “problem” of sexual harassment in their midst. They must learn to “manage” it through, for instance, what Phipps calls “institutional airbrushing”, in ways that ultimately serve to preserve the reputation of the institution at the cost of victims.
But when feminist sexual harassment work becomes too successful — when it doesn’t merely chip away at walls but begins to shake the foundations on which those walls rest — it is not simply co-opted, it is undone.
The same mechanisms of investigation that served to establish the university as a champion of sexual harassment work are now deemed as putting the university “at risk”; victims’ voices are replaced by those of perpetrators who speak, unchallenged, of injustice, wrongdoing, unfairness; new procedures emerge overnight whereas existing procedures are erased; external expertise is called upon when, throughout, internal expertise and voluntary labour has run successful institutional work; whisper networks emerge to instil uncertainty where there was once confidence, to undo the building of trust and to dismantle safe spaces.
Eventually, individuals are “redistributed”, or let go of. These are the feminist troublemakers; they are the killjoys of institutional life, who were originally brought in to chip at the walls of the institution but not to take it down. When they act in other ways — consistently in favour of victims — they become “rogue feminists”. Their detractors label them as “unprofessional”, as shooting from the hip, and not working within a rule-of-law framework. Complainants are left wondering why their words did not count for those making these kinds of assessments.
What, might you ask, transforms co-option into the active undoing of feminist work? The evidence comes from various quarters with the same implication: it is all right to challenge sexual harassment, bullying, even rape, when it occurs among students or between junior staff and students. Senior management, star professors, are another matter altogether — letting them go is too costly, too difficult when it comes to fragile egos and male entitlement, and too threatening for the boys’ club they are part of and whose interests they represent. When their position and privilege are challenged, it is as if the rogue feminists are taking over.
Another contributing factor is the expansion of the category of “sexual harassment” and the material effects of such expansion. In expanding to include, for instance, gender-based bullying, we move away from spectacular forms of violence against women — rape — to the everyday acts of sexism and aggression that constitute the bedrock of patriarchy.
As sexual harassment redressal work reaches deeper into the behaviours, cultures and psyches of the workings of patriarchal power, a panic ensues. In an act of undoing (not just co-option), the panic transforms victimology from being at the hands of sexual predators into the hands of rogue feminists.
It is the killjoys and rogue feminists that we are now warned against, not male perpetrators of injury and not institutionalised sexism or patriarchal power. It is no longer sexual harassment that places the institution at risk but the impulse of transformation and the effort to stop it.
The institution acts swiftly: it exiles the firebrand. Much like how it individualises the systemic nature of sexual violence, it shifts its own accountability on to a singular person, the feminist leader-turned-rogue. It appoints in her place someone whom it knows will work within walls, in the belief that such walls can be chipped away at, but not broken or rebuilt.
Now that the feminist rogue has gone, all procedural inconsistencies, all forms of “risk” and accountability (or lack thereof) can be attributed to her, and the project of co-option can resume. The university can be lauded for yet another successful measure in the fight against sexual harassment.
Such success is not just feminism’s failure, but its undoing.
Srila Roy is an associate professor of sociology at Wits. These are her own views