Since the beginning of the #MeToo movement, there have been many unsurprising revelations about men using their positions of power to harass and assault women with impunity. There have also been some surprising revelations—people whose public work reflected a commitment to gender equality but whose private actions were antithetical to that work.
One of the most pervasive myths when it comes to abuse is that there are abusers, there are victims, and then there’s everyone else. This myth is comforting because not only does it allow us to believe that abuse is uncommon, it absolves us of a responsibility to look in the mirror.
Although there are certainly people who fall into the unequivocal category of “predator,” many people who commit abusive behavior are not people that we can put into a separate category from the rest of us. A wide range of people are capable of wielding their power in unsavory ways.
Nothing illustrates this point better than a story like this one: a female professor/feminist scholar is accused of sexually harassing a male graduate student while she was his adviser.
Take away the qualifiers and you have a story typical of the #MeToo movement: a professor is accused of sexually harassing a graduate student. Add them back in and it gets confusing, but it shouldn’t be.
A culture with the potential for rampant abuse is one for which several of these things are true:
• Hierarchical relationships exist
• Those relationships exist in spaces where the two people spend time alone together
• There is not a lot of third party oversight on the nature of the relationship
• The person in the position of power is well-established in their position/well-respected among their peers/colleagues
• The person in the position of power has influence over the other person’s success/ability to achieve a goal/wellbeing
In relationships between academic advisors and students, all of these things are true.
And yet, when the story first came out, prominent feminist academics were the first to defend the accused professor. The defenses ranged from characterizing the complaints as political correctness gone too far, to questioning the character of the student, to vouching for the reputation of their colleague.
In the article “What Should Feminists Say About the Ronell Case?” the author says:
“These sorts of defenses — whatever the gender of the accused — serve the same aims: they search for anything to redirect the conversation away from the allegations, and more than that, from the power structure that produced them.”
It’s that power structure that needs to be scrutinized, even and perhaps especially in “feminist” circles. In order to prevent abuse, organizations first need to recognize their essential role in creating and/or disrupting abuse prone environments. IMPACT works with organizations to to create cultures that are the opposite of those in which abuse thrives. That means challenging everything from secrecy to unchecked power—regardless of the stated mission/politics of the people in power.
In our college-bound curriculum, students practice a scenario where they have a challenging conversation with a friend who they believe may have committed date rape. The scenario probably seems a bit unrealistic for some students, so I like to remind them of an unfortunate truth: sexual harassment is common, as is abusive dating behavior, as is sexual assault. That means that some of us have friends who will engage in this kind of behavior, and to pretend otherwise is a disservice to our community. When we decide there are certain types of people who “wouldn’t do that” and certain types who would, we are not only turning our backs on survivors, we are denying the need for constant self-reflection, and that is a dangerous thing.