Thursday, December 07, 2006

Some Additional Musings about Sexual Harassment at Yale

The opening sentence of the Hippolytic's post "Yale Prof: I bet it would be fun f*** you" crystallizes one of my fundamental problems with the way we speak and think about sexual harassment.

"Sexual harassment is de rigueur for New Haven's seedier establishments, but now it has reared its head in the university's hallowed halls." While the Hippolytic continues on to make a searing and well-deserved point about the utter unacceptability of Yale's protecting professors who sexual harass employees, students, or fellow staff members, the implications of its opening sentence are that it somewhat surprising that a Yale professor would sexually harass an employee and that it is less surprising that such behavior would occur elsewhere.

As Maggie pointed out, this is certainly not the first, nor will it be the last, accusation that a Yale professor sexually harassed an employee or a student. Thus, it seems sort of silly to express surprise at its occurrence. It seems to me that surprise it could occur here, here at Yale, is indicative of a type of unfortunate elitism.

By conflating acts of ill-expressed sexual desire in New Haven's bars and clubs with quid pro quo sexual harassment in the workplace, we neglect the true potency of sexual harassment in workplaces. Indeed, sexual harassment in workplaces is about far more than sex: it is about exerting power, it is about creating a hostile work environment, it is about feeling threatened by the presence of women, and it is about undermining women's legitimacy as workers.

While the action may be the same (e.g. commenting that it would be fun to have sex with someone), the impact is different because of the different context. The sense of entitlement implicit in making sexual comments or gestures at a club or bar is certainly worth considering, it is fundamentally another animal than using sex to exert power or dominance in the workplace. Discussing the two in the same sentence minimizes these differences, and limits our ability to think of innovative solutions to sexual harassment in workplaces.

Finally, if we assume that sexual harassment is purely about sexual desire, we play into unfortunate stereotypes about male sexuality--that they cannot control themselves and consequently, that women need protection from male desire in the workplace. This creates a negative-feedback loop, because policies that emphasize protectionism further exacerbate a sense that women are fish out of water at work which will, in turn, lead to more sexual harassment.

Certainly, Yale's complicity in any of its employees sexually harassing students or co-workers is heinous, but I wish that the rhetoric in its wake could be more sensitive to the underlying motivation of sexual harassment in the workplace instead of comparing it to someone making a sexual proposition at Toad's.

Seuxual Harassment and Protecting Yale Professors

On November 22, a former Yale employee filed a civil suit against Yale. The woman, Mary Beth Garceau, worked as a secretary for the Chair of the Yale Pharmacology Department, Dr. Joseph Schlessinger. In her suit, she claimed that she suffered from innumerable incidents of sexual harassment during her three years as his secretary, and that when Yale refused to act on her complaints, she was forced to resign. The Yale Hippolytic blog has excerpts from the suit as well as a link to the full document. I encourage you all to read the post.

I don't want to speculate about Dr. Schlessinger's innocence or guilt, but I do think that these accusations reveal problems for women experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace. When the harassment comes from a superior, as in this case, it's hard for a woman to vocally object without fearing that she will lose her job or that such objections will only exacerbate the current condition. It's even worse when women have the courage to come forward only to have their concerns summarily dismissed. Garceau claims that she asked Yale to address her concerns but that Yale administrators made it clear that Dr. Schlessinger was too valuable to the university to warrant such an investigation. Do certain employees or, in Yale's case, certain professors, have license to act in a morally reprehensible way because their contributions (e.g. Schlessinger's work in cancer research) are so valuable? I'm thinking about the accusations made against Harold Bloom, besides those that Naomi Wolff made several years ago (on a side-note: I realize that not everyone believed Wolff's story, but I'm still troubled by how she was vilified by the media and by those at Yale). Do we think that such a system exists at Yale, one in which certain professors are infallible no matter what testimony is heard against them? If this is the case, then gender discrimination in Yale's administration is more pervasive and insidious then I thought.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Remaking the Wheel

I struggle a lot with how to approach criticizing the feminist work being undertaken by other women. Often, I fear, there is so much criticism coming from outside the movement that its counterproductive and damaging to partake. Yet, sometimes I think its necessary that women working in the feminist activist sphere be called out on certain behavior that is counterproductive to their stated goals.

Which brings me to the issue of C.Lit a new feminist literary publication started last year by a group of women in Yale College. I have two bones to pick with these women, even though I appreciate their stated goal of publishing feminist writing by Yale women, in all its editorial, journalistic, and creative mutations. Obviously, I a huge proponent of getting more women's voices out there engaged in our collective public media sphere.

1. The name C.Lit. I believe it stands for Women's College Literary Magazine, or something akin to that. The rationalization I heard was that the intention with the name was to find something clever and eye catching in the tradition of Bitch and Bust magazine. The only snag here is that there are some fundamentally important differences between the titles Bitch and Bust, and C.Lit. First of all, neither of those words EXPLICITLY refer to a female sexual organ. Second, both of those words are meant as puns, and critically: can be used as VERBS, thus giving the titles an active, engaged, combative meaning totally absent from C.Lit, a word that will forever be relegated to the realm of passive nouns.

2. STOP REMAKING THE WHEEL. Yale College, and the Women's Center, has a magazine called Aurora whose project has always been to publish Yale women's feminist writing. Granted publication of this magazine has been spotty, especially over the last few years, but to create a new magazine rather then resurrect an old one, disassociates contemporary Yale feminist work from the amazing work done by our predecessors and helps to relegate that work to the dustbins of our collective Yale memory. If instead, this group of motivatd women had thought to do some research on the history of feminist publication at Yale, and seen that as recently as last year there was such a magazine being published, and one that has been published on and off for the past twenty or so odd years, they could have aligned themselvesm with, and inserted themselves into, an extensive, important history of Yale feminist activism. And by doing so, they would have further strengthened the impact of their publication, as well as given due respect to those who came before them. But instead, they decided to start a new publication, thus becoming a part of a tired tradition of Yale students remaking the wheel so that they can say that they STARTED a new magazine, no matter how unoriginal or derivative.

Monday, December 04, 2006

A Meditation on Toad's

So I went to Toad's on Saturday night, dressed up in my best '70's-gym-bunny-meets-90's-fake-gold-jewelry' style to dance. I am not sure exactly what that means, but I can tell you it involved striped pants, a sweatband, and big hoop earrings. But thats not really the point, right? While I was standing talking to my friends, two guys apparently took such a liking to my pants that one of them felt the only way he could express his appreciation was to grab my ass. An action, that was, of course, horrendously predictable considering the circumstances. Fortunately, my story has a surprising turn.

After this guy grabbed my ass, I turned around to ask him what the fuck he thought he was doing, and then turned to my wonderful friend to tell her what had just occurred. Here's where the things got really interesting, in her drunken self-righteousness, she gave him a glare, and then asked him "How would you like it if I did this?" and proceeded to reach for his crotch. He, not surprisingly, jumped back in horror, and then tried to play it off by saying, "Hey, I mean if you really want to, you can."

Fortunately, this all resulted in the two guys apologizing to me for their behavior, and trying to explain that the one guy had just really liked my pants and then the other guy had pushed his hand towards my ass. I encouraged him to, in the future, try tapping a girl on the shoulder and using his words.

What this whole episode made me really consider was actually how unwilling I had been to deal with this situation, without the aid of my friend. Sure, I turned around and glared at the guy, but I honestly might not have said anything to either one of them if my friend had not been there with me. I should also mention that this all happened after we were dancing, during which time, I watched her turn around to three separate guys who tried to grind her from behind and ask them directly: "Do I know you?" I had simply avoided that situation by dancing around and doing lots of turns.

This is all to say, that I was surprised at my own lack of conviction on the ground in terms of actually asserting myself. There was some small part of me that didn't want to argue with the two guys, and come off like an uptight [word removed due to misogynistic tone]. And yet calling them out on their sexual harrasment, was much more positive and empowering then I could have even anticipated, and ended up with them being embarrassed and us seeming totally reasonable.