Friday, October 31, 2014

Medieval Studies, Sexual Harassment, and Community Accountability

by DOROTHY KIM [Guest Posting]

[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: Likewise, someone has organized a 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 recently posted a Facebook post about the Jian Ghomeshi firing at CBC. [EDITED on November 2 to indicate that thread is no longer public; instead the conversation can continue in the comments section below.] 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 ( 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.


Elaine Treharne said...

Dorothy, I agree with what you're saying and asking for; all medieval conferences could benefit from a policy on Harassment. The ALA (I think) has formulated such a policy, though it wasn't an easy process. It isn't the case, though, that all of us have been always silent. About twelve years ago, a Leeds University colleague and I made it our business (because it is our business) to make public the names of those colleagues who practice sexual harassment as a matter of course. At the Vagantes conference at OSU, I had occasion to make a public statement about a known serial abuser of graduate students--a man at the top of his field, who has persistently abused female graduate students, such that a couple left the field altogether. I have subsequently warned every female colleague about him and others, whom I have named and whose actions I described. Other female professors in the UK, particularly, have also been very active in trying to draw attention to this issue. The silence is profound, however: those who *appoint* or *promote* harassers do so with FULL knowledge of that person's reputation. In other words, those on appointments' committees (including senior women, I might add) deliberately set aside the 'personal' lives of these men (I'm sure--in fact, I know--there are women harassers, too). This is heinous, of course, because it makes the known abuse of power an irrelevance, when it is not. At conferences, years ago (I am too old to be subjected to abuse now) I was persistently hit upon. I use these experiences as first-hand examples to all and any female colleagues I get the chance to talk to. These are not 'whisper circles'; these are real and useful actions. These are the moral duties of all of us: to be responsible to our colleagues, and, indeed, caring of them. First and foremost, the harassers should just bloody well stop it; secondly, interviewers--those who appoint and promote--should consider the known activities of harassers; thirdly, conference organisers should, indeed, explicitly condemn harassment through public policies; fourthly, we are all obliged throughout our professional lives to care for our colleagues.

Danica said...

I'm really happy to read this. I'm a female grad student who attended the Portland conference and received totally inappropriate attention from a certain older, married man also. I wasn't assaulted, but I did feel unsafe.

Gilbert Ratchet said...

"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."

“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.”

I never thought I'd read the totalitarianism that underlies political correctness spelled out in such explicit detail. No, you're not a court of law, but fundamental fairness suggests that THE ACCUSED HAS RIGHTS TOO. If you want to create a regime in which an accusation is as good as a conviction, you're incentivizing the making of false claims, and placing the anti-sexual harassment cause on the same moral level as those accused of "hoarding and wrecking" in the old Soviet Union.

medievalkarl said...

Gilbert," thanks so much for helping us complete our Men's Right's Activist BINGO card. We've already moderated out a 'AMERICAN WOMEN ARE THE WORST' comment, and I'm expecting someone to come through and post 'EUROPE IS FAR MORE ENLIGHTENED WHEN IT COMES TO SEXUAL MATTERS' and a 'IN THE OLD DAYS, LIFE WAS MORE FUN' comment.

Some reading: here for one takedown of the MYTH of false rape accusations; here for a presumably incomplete list of cons that have anti-harassment polices in place (and by all means, if you can demonstrate that these policies have led to the liquidation of the kulaks, try to post here again), and here, for John Scalzi doing the right thing (which leads to liquidating the kulaks etc), if you want to carry on the conversation somehow.

to Elaine and Danica: thank you for your comments, VERY much. I hope to see more like them here. Don't worry about having to argue your way past men like "Gilbert." This comments thread isn't going to turn into that kind of argument.

Lollardfish said...

Re: burdens of proof, As Thomas MacAulay Millar wrote the other day over on

"With lesser power comes lesser responsibility."

We are not a court. We are not bound y court-like procedures. The right step is to believe the victim as a default.

dorothyk98 said...

Hi everyone, Alex Gillespie's Facebook thread is now closed for comments. So feel free to post here. You can do so anonymously if you so choose. This thread will be moderated.

Unknown said...

I really want to thank Elaine Trehearne for her courage, strength and caring for others. It is her example I want to follow.

People who have never intervened in a similar context should get their own thread.

Let us not forget that the worst excesses of homophobia are in the name of "protecting the children" -- let us not become the left that joins the extreme right in its comments or policies or actions.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much, Dorothy, for this, especially in plotting such a needed, no-holds-barred set of actions for us all to not only contemplate but *implement*!

I really appreciated you mentioning here (or in your August post, it may have been?) the difficulties and potential (professional) dangers of speaking out from the low rungs on the academic ladder — I continue to think it is necessary of those of us in these positions to take (at least some of) these risks.

As a tandem strategy, though, I am wondering what tactics, rhetorical and otherwise, we from below might take up in compelling those senior/tenure-track faculty and administrators above us to do as you say: to ask them to speak out and act against these violations?

dorothyk98 said...

Thanks Ben for posting. That's a good question. I have thought about that a lot. I think people have to feel comfortable and ready to speak but it needs to be about their choice. But as a group, I wonder if more vocal forms of protest as a community would help. Petitions, letters, even possibly later more art performance protests. I have been thinking about what is possible for different people to do together so they don't feel isolated and alone and also what is possible that would allow them to have others, yes, literally help carry the burden, but also the potential push back. I think it's good to talk about all these things and see what people suggest so we can consider. i think it's also good to start by having conversation.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I just closed the thread that Dorothy refers to here, but pledged to restart my part of the conversation elsewhere. Here's my last contribution to that thread, which is something I am still thinking about myself. Thanks to Dorothy and ITM for providing this space for this discussion.... Punitive measures and formal processes for the problems described here exist. Harassment is a breach of the codes of conduct of most of our institutions and of the policy of many of our professional organizations; the institutions in particular have very clear procedures for dealing with situations as they arise. And yet the system fails almost completely. It doesn't stop the behaviour; it has to a significant extent failed to change the culture that enables the behaviour; it traumatizes those who adopt its measures; it focuses energy on specific accusations and individuals' response to these, and does little to address generalized harm - the misery and grief, regret and frustration and exhaustion - of all those involved, friends, colleagues, onlookers, loved ones on both "sides". It makes enemies of natural allies. It fosters suspicion and defensiveness; it prevents those who need help from seeking it; it silences and shames everyone. It really sucks. I imagine we all agree about that. But of course we will have different ideas about the best way to effect change. As a - ahem - 'survivor' of this and that, I would like more openness, acceptance, understanding, community, support. For that, I need safe places to speak about my experiences with those who empathize. I believe that this will, in time, change the cultures I inhabit profoundly. I am willing to be patient. But I speak only for myself...

Elaine Treharne said...

Mini-womanifesto: I'll try and help students and colleagues who are having any kind of professional difficulty. This would include watching out for them, supporting and defending them, speaking up for them. Better still, as a group we can probably develop our own strategies and tactics to identify and begin to minimise ethical and professional infringements. That would be a great start. If we don't begin to find a way to address harassers and bullies, they (and others who learn from their behaviour) will continue to harass and bully with impunity. And indeed, I'm sure it's true that communities and integrity can succeed where institutions and policies fail.

dan remein said...


Thank you for writing this and placing it in such a public forum. And, Elaine, thanks for your comments, which lead me to think about the following:

I hate in particular the culture of obligate defensive postures: as with rape, its expected that the victim must defend themselves--ie. not walk down the wrong street, etc., whereas the thing is, HEY MEN, DON't HARASS PEOPLE.

And still, I find myself wondering about the defensive, but at least collectively, and in solidarity: ie. what sort of ways are best to 'speak up' or to support or defend that do not worsen or agitate potentially serious trauma/shame/embarrassment etc. for an individual being harassed.

Jennifer said...

Thank you so much to all who have been writing and commenting on these issues--the other horror show that is mid-semester, Halloween with a toddler, and overdue manuscript edits have kept my head down and I am so grateful to find all these energetic responses and thoughtful analyses. I admire you all and hope I can just catch up!

I also hope that those of you attending the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo this May will come to the SMFS session "Medieval Feminists at Work: Negotiating Complicated Workspaces (A Roundtable)" that I've organized as part of the SMFS Political Action subcommittee, with Dorothy's help. Since this is a roundtable the conversation will largely be determined by who shows up...and who speaks up. It would be great to have lots of people discussing harassment expressing sympathy, support, and solutions. I also hope that we'll have lots of folks live-tweeting the discussion.

medievalkarl said...

Various Last Honest Men whose comments I'm not letting through* are afeared that what's being recommended in this post will institute a wave of terror or discreditation or something: let me assure you that other conversations happening elsewhere are exploring what's legally possible and, of course, what's impossible. Despite what you prefer to suspect, these issues are being explored.

* Because why? Because tedium.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

A reminder to one and all of our ITM moderation policy. You can submit drive-by snark if you'd like, but do not expect it to appear in the comments:

dorothyk98 said...

Thanks for moderating ITM group. But yes, conferences and events are such gray areas b/c is it closed, is it open, who is in charge, what are the parameters? I love the mini-womanifesto. I also think that the labor of changing these things will only happen if we are a community and help carry the load. I feel from open discussions on Facebook and in other venues that a lot of people feel exhausted to have had to fight this (harassment, gender inequity, sexual assault, etc.) by themselves or in small groups for literally decades. I hope opening this up to a much larger public group also helps us see that others are willing to do the labor as well. That people are not alone either dealing with the fall out from encounters or dealing with fighting for others who have had things happen to them. A lot of work has been done in the decades around these issues. But I feel that now a lot more can be done openly with more hands helping. I am thankful Alexandra opened up her feed to the public because it allowed a large community to rally around it. I hope this post likewise is able to push discussions in as many circles as possible to continue finding more people to work to change academic culture. It is much easier to sustain momentum and activism to dismantle institutional sexism and oppression if there are many hands willing to help. I also hope the discussions help begin educating and actually allowing behaviors to transform.

5.things said...

Dorothy, I'm thinking about practical action and would suggest something I've seen done before:

If one problem is silence, and another problem is the repercussions for breaking that silence, couldn't we use new media to remove that barrier for women who have experienced harassment? By which I'm proposing that a dedicated twitter or Facebook account anonymizes and posts experiences on behalf of women and men who have witnessed or been subjected to harassment/abuse. One could, as has been suggested on this feed, even use these collated experiences in some form of protest art, or for a study.

dorothyk98 said...

A number of medievalists have been talking online in various spots about where would be a safe place to tell stories. We think this is a good spot and someone in our community has begun by discussing academic sexism in medieval studies: