Making Power Visible: “Slow Activism” to Address Staff Sexual Misconduct in Higher Education

Ruth Lewis and Susan Marine have edited a special issue of the journal Violence Against Women on activism to address campus sexual violence. This is a timely and important issue and so we are very grateful to the editors for including us in the special issue. Tiffany Page, Emma Chapman and myself contributed an article discussing the modes of activism we are using to work on staff sexual misconduct within higher education. In our article, we argue that in order to activism to address staff sexual misconduct on campus, we first need to make the issue visible. We have attempted to do this through ‘slow activism’ by carrying out research; making complaints; telling survivor stories; and discipline- and sector-level activism for institutional change. Of course, as this work is fairly fast-moving, this article, for which the final version was submitted in September 2018, is a snapshot in time. Nevertheless, given the dearth of research and academic work on this topic in the UK it may be of interest to other activists and researchers in this area in thinking through some of the issues arising as well as thinking through how to make change in this area.

For those who don’t have institutional access, I’ve uploaded a pre-print version of our article. Please note there were a few final edits that are not in this version. The article was covered in Research Fortnight (in case you want the extra-short summary).

I would also strongly recommend taking a look at the other articles in the special issue.

Ruth Lewis and Susan Marine (from the UK and US respectively), in their editors’ introduction, ask whether it is time to transform, rather than adapt, university cultures, moving beyond a compliance culture that is complicit with neoliberalism and dependent on quantification, to adequately address gender-based violence on campus. Their article demands that we think critically and creatively about our activism and demands for change, and the question of adaptation versus transformation is one that we need to be regularly reminded of as we do this work.

Here in the UK, Kym Atkinson and Kay Standing reflect on the 2016 Universities UK Changing the Culture report, interviewing 11 academics doing activism within their institutions in this area, and argue that we need to ‘challenge the masculine university, discourse, and practice of staff members, university leaders, and broader regulatory bodies’. I hope that this article forms the start of a broader critical appraisal of the implementation and consequences of the Changing the Culture report.

It’s inspiring to hear about activism happening in North America. At our recent conference, Faculty and Staff Sexual Misconduct, held in Madison, Wisconsin in July 2019, we shared knowledge and experiences with activists and academics from round the world and this special issue also does valuable work of sharing strategies and tactics for addressing sexual violence on campus. In their article, Simona Sharoni and Brian Klocke discuss US-based group Faculty Against Rape, who provide resources and support for faculty in the US working on campus sexual violence, including supporting those who are retaliated against for doing this work. The article describes their activism and provides recommendations for drawing on faculty expertise to work on this issue. The article is an important reminder that even when we feel like there is nothing we can do, by coming together it’s often possible to find ways forward even within intransigent or retaliatory institutions. Also in the US, Deborah J. Cohan draws together a powerful narrative of the experience of being a contingent/adjunct faculty member teaching about family violence and abuse, arguing that the extra support that this teaching work requires becomes even more challenging when doing this from the contingent position that 75% of faculty do in the US. Many faculty are already, necessarily, activists through teaching in this area, and Cohan highlights the extra labour and support that this requires when students start to disclose their experiences – but, as she also describes, this teaching can be transformative both for faculty and students.

Last but certainly not least, Sandrine Ricci and Manon Bergeron give a fascinating history of activism against campus sexual violence in Quebec (including some great examples of direct action such as a group of ‘masked avengers’ and ‘stickergate’). They describe the activism of their feminist action research team, carrying out a national survey. This has led to legislative change requiring universities to report next month on their prevention/response to SV. I am eagerly watching progress in Quebec to see how this statutory change works out on the ground. It’s encouraging to see a swift government response to sexual violence on campus – unfortunately very different to what we are seeing here in the UK. The authors finish with a thoughtful discussion of institutionalisation of sexual violence prevention and response, describing what can happen when the work of activists moves into institutional settings.

Making Power Visible: “Slow Activism” to Address Staff Sexual Misconduct in Higher Education

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