[More post-BABEL postings (including more SCALE presentations) are to come! Meanwhile, check out this important posting from Dorothy Kim (twitter: @dorothyk98) with suggestions on how we can collectively create a better future for medieval studies.]
Medieval Studies, Sexual Harassment, and Community Accountability
After my last In the Middle post, I had a number of people reach out to me with stories about similar things happening at medieval conferences in regards to racial, gender, and disability microaggressions. In other words, my colleague’s public encounter was a normal part of the lives of certain divergent medievalists. On the interwebs, I also had several people tell me stories about other things that happen at conferences that I have decided to write about in this post. A number of female junior medievalists (graduate student and junior tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty) have told me that certain conferences have become the hunting ground for male, white-cishetero men. What I mean by this is that there have been witnessed incidents of sexual harassment happening at medieval conferences. Though conferences alone are not the only space where this happens. I think we have all witnessed sexual harassment at medieval talks, seminars, and in other professional spaces.
In particular, all this was brought to my attention because at the New Chaucer Society conference in Reykjavik, a certain male, white, cishetero faculty member (who is also married) has been sexually harassing junior female medievalists at conferences in front of witnesses. Apparently, he did this at the previous New Chaucer Society in Portland and he struck again in Reykjavik. NCS is not the only conference that this has been happening, but I call on organizers—NCS, BABEL, MAA, Leeds, Kalamazoo, etc.—to seriously consider what their resources, statements, and consequences are for these events.
Feminism and Silence
In this great written piece in THE, the author writes: “As I learned intimately during my doctoral studies, the university is an intensely hierarchical space, and students are structurally positioned to seek the approval of the academic staff to whom they are entrusted. This makes students vulnerable to abuses of that power.” There are power dynamics and power abuses at play in sexual harassment in academic spaces. But the point is and what angers me the most is why must students and junior colleagues—often the most vulnerable and with the least resources in these situations—be the one who must fight to change the harassing and toxic environment? Why must they be the ones to do all the labor (both emotional, bureaucratic, and eventually legal) to call out, fix, and address these situations? Why is there so much silence? Our silence is not helping the victims nor creating accessible, safe spaces. The author of the THE further points out that “Secrecy did not protect me or the other women. It didn’t even protect the university management. The only person it protected was the professor, whose years of abuse were hidden from the public eye.” [Read the entire opinion piece HERE.] It is time to take it out of the closet, to air it out, to give it sunshine and let others hear and see. It is time to stop protecting the abusers.
Codes of Conduct and Only the Beginning
This issue of sexual harassment at conferences is not new—it has surfaced in mainstream media in relation to women at tech conferences. A very recent issue of ModelViewCulture looks at Codes of Conduct at Events and issues surrounding inclusive events. I encourage everyone planning to organize anything to read that issue.
Closer to home, there has also been an ongoing discussion amongst librarians because Joseph Murphy (@libraryfuture) is suing two librarians for libel to the tune of $1.25 million dollar in the Canadian courts. Nina de Jesus @satifice and Lisa Rabey chose to speak out against sexual harassment at library conferences (which eventually may have gotten the ALA to revamp their Code of Conduct statements). You can read more about this HERE and here and HERE. Nina de Jesus and Lisa Rabey have a funded site for donations for their legal defense and a call for witnesses to stand up: http://teamharpy.wordpress.com. Likewise, someone has organized a change.org petition asking Joseph Murphy to withdraw the lawsuit. I have already signed the petition. Nina de Jesus is a writing colleague of mine from ModelViewCulture and is also a DH Projects librarian. You can follow what is happening with them and this lawsuit at #teamharpy on Twitter.
Medieval Studies and Sexual Harassment
Several victims and witnesses have identified this serial sexual harasser. I will not name names here on this blog because I do not have the permission of any of my sources to divulge nor have I been the victim of sexual harassment at NCS. However, the problem with whisper networks is that in the end it allows the continued behavior to happen with no consequences. Likewise, recent events in Canada have been a conversation-starter on Facebook. Alexandra Gillespie has posted a public Facebook post about the Jian Ghomeshi firing at CBC. The commentary on that post speaks to a long, persistent history of sexual harassment in medieval studies spaces. As with many things I have written more publically, it’s time to break this silence, this medieval whisper network that tells particularly junior women and graduate students who are the sexual harassers in our field. I encourage people who want a community conversation to either post on Alexandra Gillespie’s public post on Facebook that already has numerous narratives being shared among female medievalists. I also call anyone who feels more comfortable with Twitter to use #medievaltwitter to share their stories of harassment at medieval academic events. We need to begin by speaking about what is happening. We have all been witnesses, heard, and or been victims.
Steps Conference Organizers Can Take
My question now is what should conference organizers and societies do about this? I have dug around the NCS website, there is no Code of Conduct on there anywhere about what the standards are for conferences in general (though feel free to correct me anyone if I just missed it). I would strongly suggest that all societies who have conferences write Codes of Conduct, but write ones with some bite. I will also say that though the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship has never run its own conference, I will ask that an agenda item on Codes of Conduct be put on our Advisory Board Meeting for Kalamazoo 2015.
What I mean by this is that serial sexual harassers are not going to stop harassing young women at conferences unless there are consequences. NCS moves around the world every two years. Conference attendees show up, often foreign shores, at unfamiliar conference sites. There is no clear delineation of resources in relation to what happens when sexual harassment, sexual assault, violent assault happen at a conference. Along with a clear set of resources, conference organizers must be clear about conduct expectations and then what the rules are if these expectations are broken.
Nina de Jesus’s post on transformative justice addresses many of what we can do beyond Step 1—breaking the silence. Code of Conducts must be victim-centered at all times. This is one of the biggest steps our communities must address. As she points out in her post (I, not Nina, have bolded key sections):
Frameworks and clear support for victims. One of the reasons why situations like this continue, despite the offender being known, is that, within our communities (both libraries and beyond), there is little-to-no support for victims and/or survivors. I don’t only mean support in terms of victim services (although these are important as well), but even the very minimal support of the benefit of the doubt.
The problem with habitual abusers/harassers is that they tend to know exactly what sorts of things they can get away with. They know who to target. They know that, even if their targets voice their experiences, that the victim will be doubted (and blamed) or that, in the absence of ‘proof’, nothing much will come of it. And, importantly, they know how to engage in their abusive, harassing, and potentially illegal behaviour in ways that leave very little evidence behind.
The NCS’s known serial harasser in the whisper network of junior women has consistently harassed young junior women medievalists. These things are about power, opportunity, and a lack of consequences because sexual predators know they can get away with this behavior. If we want conferences and particularly NCS to be a safe space for all, more has to be done to support victims and call out this behavior. Nina de Jesus points out in her post that the gender statistics in fields does not necessarily mean anything: the harassment is happening in library studies (a field filled predominantly with women).
A transformative justice, community accountability, and victim-centered approach also means conference organizers have to stop imagining that “proof” is actually an issue. As Nina de Jesus eloquently writes:
Many people think that these situations boil down to ‘he said/she said’ and that we can just really never ‘know’ what actually happened. Of course, this generally means giving tacit approval for the predator to continue abusing and harassing people.
In case people have forgotten, we are neither the police nor the judicial system. We do not have to adhere to their evidentiary requirements. We do not have to assume innocence. We don’t have to build a ‘case’ against someone. We don’t, in actual fact, require ‘proof’ that would hold up in a court of law. We don’t need to gather evidence and conduct investigations.
This is about community accountability. Holding abusers/predators accountable to the community and holding the community accountable to itself.
So as a medieval community, I am calling on you to hold your colleagues accountable. Otherwise, your silence is tacit permission for sexual harassment and abuse to continue in these academic spaces.
If talking about it, getting it out in the open, not having it as a whisper network secret is the first step then step two requires concerted efforts for a victim-centered approach that at its bedrock is about community accountability.
Nina de Jesus’s community accountability post outlines exactly what these steps look like.
1. Victim-Centered means actually supporting the victim.
• “Don’t ask for ‘proof’.
• Don’t treat ‘both sides of the story’ as if they hold equal weight.
• Do not engage in any type of victim blaming behaviour.
Listen to the victim. Do it. And don’t judge.”
2. We need Codes of Conducts that are enacted when people break professional boundaries.
There is no point writing such statements without actually making sure they are actionable. What are the consequences? What is the follow through for these consequences?
Her post makes excellent examples and I am sure conference committees and come up with other ones:
Did a woman just report getting sexually harassed? Eject the man from the conference. Don’t ‘ask’ him to stop. Eject him and let him know that he can try again next year.
Did a presenter just make a racist joke?Stop the presentation. Call it out. If this manages to derail the talk (eg., the presenter gets defensive and is unwilling to apologize), then the talk is over.
Does someone have a reputation for being a sexual predator? STOP INVITING THEM TO SPEAK.
Essentially: hold people accountable for the harm that they cause.
She concludes with this great point:
The thing is, is that if we don’t hold people accountable for small, seemingly innocuous (microagressions anyone?) behaviour, we give them tacit permission to escalate this behaviour. If people are held accountable for their bad behaviour it also gives them a chance to learn and grow and (hopefully) stop behaving that way. If accountability becomes normalized, instead of silently accepting that abuse and harassment are something that we just need to grin and bear, then accountability doesn’t have to be this big boogeyman. It also doesn’t need to mean that a person’s reputation and career are ruined.
Because if accountability is what gets normalized, then we’ll all eventually have this experience (since there are no perfect people).NCS London 2016 is a little over 2 years away. That is plenty of time to draft a code of conduct, get information out about resources, and set up victim-centered, community accountability measures. Inform your panel moderators, explain and give them training on addressing moments when the Code of Conduct is violated. I would also suggest that societies and conference organizers make sure that all conference organizers are appropriately trained in regards to sexual harassment and sexual assault. We must take responsibility for what happens in our communal academic spaces.
I have been asked and have agreed to be a part of organizing the BABEL Conference for 2015 in Toronto. So, yes, expect a Code of Conduct, expect victim-centered, community accountability, and transformative justice as a major component in organizing this conference. Feel free to send me your thoughts on anything via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Twitter (@dorothyk98). I hope #medievaltwitter and the Facebook comment area can be a space where we can discuss what kind of medieval community we want for the future.