This year has led the “revelation” (in quotes, because y’all… we knew) that sexual harassment in the academy is alive and well. Through the heroic efforts of some, in the most egregious occurrences sanctions have been enacted. But we are left with a question - How do we prevent history from repeating?
We still are very stuck focusing on heterosexual relationships when we talk about sexual harassment. But as the recent American Physical Society report on climate for LGBT physicists exposes, we are doing only a mediocre job at making our workplaces safe for people based on sexual orientation and gender minorities. People who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, agender, transgender, genderqueer, or non-binary face very mixed environments at work, and that experience is worse if you identify as a minority on more than one axis. This is often left out of our stereotypical vision of sexual harassment. Yet in report after report, such as the one above, we see the deeply damaging consequences of this harassment we rarely speak of.
Our current system appears to be predicated on the wildly inaccurate assumption that the job of the system is to protect poor hapless male faculty from the devious Lolitas (and they are always young women) that fill their lives (and of course their classrooms and labs). These assumptions are built on an outdated (as if it was ever otherwise) cisgender heterosexual fantasy world. Like so many things these days, we fail to protect those we claim to be thinking about, we endanger people we never imagined we would endanger, and we don’t know how to move forward. Huge swaths of harassment go ignored because they do not fit into the stereotypes we imagine, or fit cleanly into past experiences. People who are minoritized among several axis often find they are heavily discredited or disbelieved when it comes to reporting harassment. Perhaps it is not entirely surprising that the majority of "headline" cases we have seen about enforcing harassment have had white women at their cores (As so eloquently discussed here by Sarah Ballard). We need to extend and expand to keep our vulnerable community members safe.
I think we’re going about it a bit wrong.
I want to see a system where a careless sexist remark, a lingering touch, or an email asking a student out for a date can be reported, can result in protection and satisfaction for the victim, as *well* as a learning experience and proportional consequence for the offender. I want to not keep sheltering faculty who constantly question the competence of our students of color, or who make "offhand" racist comments in class - but are excused because "They're old." or "That's just how Y is, you know.". I want us to be able to hold people to account for harassment in a straightforward way. And then perhaps we teach *most* people that respect and communication is crucial, and that power differentials do matter, and society and its ills don't get left at the door when we enter our buildings. Our current options of endurance or scorched earth are unsatisfactory and problematic. At its worst, our system converts possible abusers into confirmed abusers, because there are almost no consequences for most of their inappropriate behavior and abuse.