Sexual Harassment

harassment

I have one 105 pages to read for class tomorrow.

Right now, I’m in a cafe trying to read them, and I can’t.

I can’t read because I keep getting distracted by the fact that when I told someone that a tenured faculty member in my department was being accused of sexual harassment, they weren’t surprised.

I can’t read, although I want to, because I’m distracted by the fact that when Claude Steele resigned, he didn’t mention, not even in passing, his mishandling of the pervasive and oppressive sexual harassment issue on this campus. I’m distracted by the fact that his replacement, interim provost Carol Christ, is a woman, asked to step in and clean up a mess created by irresponsible men. And she did step in, in her own words, “ready to do whatever I can at this crucial moment in the university’s life.” Here is a woman — a former president of Smith College with a doctorate in English from Yale — appointed to an interim position as a figurehead, as if the appointment of a single woman were to somehow fix, overnight, the culture of harassment and subsequent impunity that we experience every day on this campus.

And she’s not the only one. Melissa Murray, appointed as interim dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law after Sujit Choudhry resigned earlier this year, is also a woman. As the university “searches for a permanent dean,” she is lauded for her “willingness to serve.” Again, here we have an extremely capable woman, awarded for her teaching at Berkeley Law and adored by her students, blatantly used by the administration to smooth over this huge, unignorable issue that hurts women — a woman asked to set aside whatever other responsibilities she may have in order to contribute to fixing a problem that she didn’t create but that nonetheless directly affects her.

These women deserve to be in these positions because they’re qualified for them. They deserve to hold them for more than a few months, for reasons other than just to save face for the university until the position is filled permanently, most likely by a man.

I deeply admire their willingness to step into the figurative line of fire during times of such turmoil; I just wish they didn’t have to do it. I wish women were in a position in which they could choose to help when they saw fit, not do it because the situation is so dire that no one else can help. Not because men are so unwilling to even recognize the issues that it takes women and victims to explain it to them.

In student groups, in the classroom, in graduate student cohorts, the double burden of suffering discrimination and harassment — and also explaining it and fixing it — falls on women. Women can’t do the work they’ve come to this campus to do because they are too busy ignoring gross comments that always slide just under the bar of harassment. Women can’t do the work they’ve come to this campus to do because when they look around them, they see an environment that rejects their presence. Women can’t do the work they’ve come to this campus to do because, instead, they are asked to serve on committees and groups to fix a problem they didn’t create. They’re asked to help remediate the continuing sexual harassment and discrimination on this campus — essentially, to stop an injustice perpetrated against them.

But what can we do? This ends up being the question: the real, unanswerable question that turns my attention away from my reading. First, we must create an atmosphere of empathy and solidarity. Certainly among women but also among feminist allies of all kinds. Second, we must have our voices actually heard. Putting women in positions of power is only step one. Then we must listen to what they have to say. Shrouding these issues in secrecy creates an environment in which victims feel uncomfortable coming forward, in which groups of graduate students are divided into camps based on their implied allegiances, in which the perpetrators of abuse and harassment are protected by a shield of silence.

We must demand that men make an effort to understand the situation and, based on that understanding, change their behavior. We must demand transparency so the next time someone is accused, all affected parties know right away — so that it is impossible to sweep an investigation under the bureaucratic rug.

These cases are only going to continue rising to the surface, but our reaction to them doesn’t have to remain static. We must band together, and, for sure, we must do the work we came here to do.

Marianela D’Aprile is a student at UC Berkeley.