A big thank you to Sara Mitchell ( @sbmitche ) for chatting with us about sexual harassment, assault, and the #MeToo hashtag that went around Twitter last week.
IR Bitch: Hi, Sara! Thanks for joining us. We really liked your comments on our #MeToo post. What do you think about #MeToo generally?
Sara Mitchell: On the positive side, I like how it raises awareness of women’s experiences with sexual assault and sexual harassment and shows how widespread these experiences are for women. On the negative side, though, I found it problematic to equate sexual assault and sexual harassment in the copy and paste statement. There is a distribution of assault/harassment experiences and the general statement dilutes that. I have worked with students and colleagues who experienced sexual assault and rape and those issues have been extremely challenging for me to handle as a female mentor.
IRB: I definitely agree. Harassment and assault aren’t the same. I also think it’s problematic to make a spectacle out of harassment or assault. Hearing people’s stories is good for context, but also can feel kind of voyeuristic, I guess? And women who don’t feel comfortable sharing (either they’re shy, or maybe their experience is so personal and traumatic that they don’t want to “go public”) could feel strangely left out, as odd as that seems
SM: Yes I agree. It puts pressure on women who have experienced awful things to share them, even though that could be a traumatic experience.
Americanist Bitch: I would tend to agree with your statement about hard it is to confront these issues, even for women. For us Bitches, one of us has been assaulted, while the other has been harassed. It was tough conversation between us- both that the assaulted Bitch felt like she had to tell her story, and for the other Bitch who had trouble coming up with what to say.
SM: I didn’t post anything because I feel like my experiences, while unpleasant on the harassment side, do not compare with the experiences of my students and friends who have been raped/assaulted. I was not comfortable putting myself in the same category.
I have seen how rape destroys women’s lives and felt powerless to help.
AB: Yes, I get that. There are situations where men just need to be more aware/cognizant of sexism – many times harassment or sexism in the workplace can be corrected with some education – awareness that they’re creating a sexist or unwelcoming environment Assault and rape require a totally different “fix”
SM: Yes. At the same time, the harassment end of the spectrum is something we can address more easily in academia.
IRB: So what about the critique that #MeToo is still keeping the focus of the conversation on the women who experience harassment or assault, and not on the men who do it? Women “get harassed” or women “are raped.” Passive voice, as though it’s just happening.
SM: Yes we need to shift the conversation to the assaulters/harassers. But the first step is education which does require victims to have voice. Because several women in my department published research on gender issues in academia and engaged in mentoring programs, this helped convince some of my male colleagues to become more active allies.
AB: How did that affect tenure and promotion discussions? Generally, “gender issues” are not a prestigious field to research in political science.
SM: Most women working on the issues were already tenured, but I am fortunate to work in a place that values research on gender/race/ethnicity/etc.
IRB: our last question is – what strategies would you offer young, untenured women in the discipline to navigate a world where #MeToo is still needed, where women still aren’t believed? What can WE do personally?
SM: First, I would keep a record of anything that happens in an academic setting that constitutes harassment or assault (including dates/places/events). Second, reach out to your department chair, dean, or ombudsman office if something happens. Don’t just let harassment continue unchecked. Third, find tenured allies in your department or other departments on campus that can serve as your advocates. Finally, it is important to pay it forward once you are tenured, help junior women navigate these difficult issues.
AB: That last step is one of the most important ones! Well, thanks so much for contributing this conversation. We could probably go on for hours, but at least we have a good place to start 🙂