Recursive silencing of sexual harassment victims perpetuates cycle of abuse

Alvaro Azcarraga/Staff

Upon learning of the details surrounding the sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Berkeley School of Law Dean Sujit Choudhry, I recalled a poignant lyric of Bob Dylan’s: “Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head/ pretending he just doesn’t see?” This sentiment seemed particularly resonant given the actions, or lack thereof, taken by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele in July 2015.

At that time, an investigative report written by the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination was forwarded to Steele. The report concluded that Choudhry’s conduct toward his executive assistant Tyann Sorrell, which included bear hugging, kissing on the cheek and holding her hands to his waist, was in violation of the university’s sexual harassment policies.

While Steele found that Choudhry failed to “understand the power dynamic and the effect of his actions on (Sorrell),” he nonetheless decided not to terminate Choudhry because it would “ruin the Dean’s career, that is, destroy his future changes for higher appointment.” Instead, Steele docked Choudhry’s pay by 10 percent for one year, and instructed him to write a letter of apology to Sorrell.

To echo the flyers posted around Boalt Hall, my visceral reaction to this information was that “survivor safety is more important than abusers’ careers.” Yet, I later realized that in order to truly appreciate such an affective response, a response shared by a substantial number of my fellow students, one must be cognizant of the very thing that Steele simply chose to disregard, namely, the mechanisms of power and silencing that are inherent to abusive acts.

By keeping Choudhry in his position as dean, Steele effectively legitimated the oppressive power disparity engendered by Choudhry’s actions — presumably, this is meant to be obscured by the fact that Choudhry apologized, albeit in what was a mandated letter directed towards avoiding further liability. Viewed as such, a disciplinary measure that allows an abuser to retain 90 percent of his salary is one that further reinforces his power, for he remains largely unscathed, his actions immune from public scrutiny, while the victim continues to be not only powerless, but also silent.

When one is powerless, as Catharine MacKinnon states, “your speech is not just differently articulated, it is silenced–eliminated, gone.” Sorrell’s silence, like that of many abuse victims, was achieved through an administrative decision that determined that her story was not one to pass on.

Not surprisingly, the tokenistic nature of Choudhry’s “apology” letter to Sorrell was soon revealed in his statement to the Berkeley Law community March 9. Despite admitting to UC investigators that he had engaged in a wide range of inappropriate touching towards Sorrell, Choudhry asserted that he “(disagrees) with the plaintiff’s claims and allegations, and will defend against them.” Further, in seeking to evoke one of the principal tenets of our adversarial legal system, a statement from Choudhry’s attorney March 10 maintained that “there are two sides to every narrative.”

The formulation of narrative is certainly an integral component of the legal process, insofar as it affords both parties the opportunity to have their stories heard by members of the community. Yet, as Gerald Torres and Kathryn Milun have noted, narrative can be rendered unintelligible through the “formalized idiom of legal discourse” — this is because the rhetorical framework responsible for giving form to the parties’ competing narratives often privileges the stories of certain legal actors above those of others.

Understood more broadly, the largely abstract and formalistic language of the law precludes some claimants from telling their stories in a way that authentically conveys the psychic trauma they suffered, and still continue to suffer, as a result of their abusers’ actions.

Attempting to minimize the egregiousness of his behavior, Choudhry contends that “there was never any sexual intent,” and his touching was merely a means of “(saying) thanks for managing the office.“ While this is unlikely to defeat her legal suit for sexual harassment, it does reflect a fundamental denial of Sorrell’s victimhood, eliding her status as a woman whose bodily integrity has been violated. Though Sorrell has already detailed her physical and psychological injuries in her complaint, I wonder if the legal idiom governing such storytelling minimizes the power relations that are created by an act of abuse.

To illustrate this point, consider Sorrell’s statement that while Choudhry was hugging her, “she would … make her body go limp until she thought he was done. … In response to his kisses she would freeze and try to pretend it did not happen. … Later she would blame herself for Choudhry’s touching her.”

This feeling of learned helplessness is an all too common experience for victims of abuse, who long to escape from a reality that has rendered them submissive and silent. Faced with an unrecognizable self-concept, one left shattered in the wake of violence, the victim lacks the vocabulary with which to properly define herself, and thus internalizes the feelings of inadequacy that are generated by the abuser’s exercise of dominance.

Can the complexities and nuances of such a dynamic, however, be adequately expressed through the constraints of legal discourse, such that Sorrell’s trauma is intelligible to a judge or a jury? Or will her narrative once again be silenced, ignored in order to further a powerful man’s career? What must one say in order to be heard?

The recursive silencing of victims bears troubling implications for those seeking justice in our administrative and judicial institutions. Yearning for a forum in which to share their story, hoping to experience the liberatory joy of speaking their truth, victims may instead, as Patricia Williams terms it, be “manumitted into silence.” Freed into silence — a paradox suggesting that while victims are no longer experiencing bodily violation, they are still not free enough to be recognized as speaking subjects, subjects with voices that are clamoring to be heard.

Darius Dehghan is a first year UC Berkeley law student.

Contact the Opinion Desk at [email protected] and follow us on Twitter at @dailycalopinion.

Tags No tags yet