Harassment and sexual misconduct: discussing the unthinkable

Earlier this week, I attended the excellent day-event put on by the Women’s Classical Committee UK, a very new group which I wish had been around much earlier in my life. Those attending included a few women who are even more retired than me, lots of younger women, and some men. It was good to see so many people there whom I can count as former students, colleagues, mentors or mentees; I had a real sense of community. The theme was ‘Diversity’ and the programme involved an invigorating mixture of short ‘Spotlight’ pieces (unfortunate word, perhaps: see below) and longer sessions. One of the latter saw Dame Averil Cameron – who has a special place in my academic heart because she was one of the co-editors of the book in which my first ever published piece appeared – describing her own career; it was engrossing, emotional, and hit all sorts of raw areas within my own memories. Another involved Anna Bull talking about staff-student misconduct in higher education.

Anna is part of the 1752 Group, who collect data around sexual misconduct and offer training in how to create better environments in higher education. So, what are we talking about here? The 1752 Group say, “We use the term sexual misconduct to describe forms of power enacted by academic and professional staff in their relations with students (this can also occur in relations with other staff members).” Power, then, is crucial here, because of the question around how consent can exist in a relationship of unequal power. There are clear similarities with church contexts, where you may feel nobody is going to believe you if you tell them what your priest has been doing. I blogged elsewhere about the movie ‘Spotlight’ which explores an example of this. In a higher education context, it may look very different because both partners are over the age of consent, but if you are in a sexual relationship with the person who grades your work, who supervises your thesis, who writes your references – then where is consent? What do you do? Where do you go to complain? Universities may talk about their ‘robust procedures’, but experience doesn’t seem to bear these out. Try this recent example from Winchester, if you are wondering what all the fuss is about…

The session at WCC-UK was arranged as a presentation followed by discussion in small groups (there was also the option of being in a separate group to discuss Anything Other Than That, plus the venue lent itself well to people simply going for a walk without anyone noticing whether they were present or not). I shared one thing from my career in my small group: and I didn’t share another one. Here are both of them.

Shared: in a previous job, at Reading, I was asked to serve as one of the university’s harassment officers. A line manager knew about a particular, non-sexual, incident in which I’d taken a mediating role, and thought I would be interested in this work. There were just over half a dozen of us and we were given comprehensive and, I thought, very useful training involving everything from the legal aspects to the best body language to use when speaking to someone who had been harassed. Our details were on the website (here are the current people in that role at that university) and from time to time we’d get a call from someone in trouble – often they’d want to come to see us right that moment, but we were advised normally to let a little time elapse before seeing them. The cases which came my way involved everything from staff bullying other staff, to students stalking former partners, to what the 1752 Group calls ‘sexual misconduct’. Mostly, all that was needed was a sympathetic ear and the confirmation that the behaviour experienced was indeed wrong, plus some possible options if the person wished to take this further. Sometimes, I needed to tell the person that they really should involve the police.

Once, with the permission of the student who had come to see me, I had to phone a head of department to tell him that an allegation had been made about one of his staff. I imagine that getting a call which starts, “Hello, you don’t know me, but I’m Helen King and I’m ringing in my role as a university harassment advisor” isn’t something anyone relishes. But I didn’t even need to tell him the name; he already knew full well what this man was doing in the library if he found any female students alone there. He knew: but he wasn’t doing anything about it. So, just how robust was the university’s policy when put into practice, or was the problem that nobody likes to break collegiality?

I stopped being a harassment advisor after a couple of years, because I just found it too harrowing. What was lacking in an otherwise strong system was supervision – that technical word used in lots of pastoral care situations to represent how someone needs to ‘help the helpers’. If I needed to unload, in a fraught situation, I could only do so to another advisor at my level, who would probably be just as pressured as I was. There were no regular opportunities for me to reflect on what was happening and on how I reacted to it, beyond the warning at our initial training that situations would arise which we should pass on to another advisor because they were too close to something we ourselves had experienced, or were currently experiencing.

What was worrying at the WCC event was that of the ten or so in my little group, only one knew about the harassment services at her own university. So, if these sorts of arrangement exist in other universities – and they do, as even a quick internet search of a university’s site using the word ‘harassment’ will reveal – the information isn’t yet getting out effectively to the students and the staff.

Not shared: This isn’t a case of sexual misconduct as such, but I share it here because it happened, and because at the meeting we didn’t talk about false allegations, but it’s useful to be reminded that they can happen too.

When I was working in Liverpool, one day the department’s Union rep called me to his room. This was odd, especially when he closed the door. ‘Helen’, he said, ‘I need to talk to you with my Union hat on. I don’t like having to ask you this, but a serious allegation has been made about you: are you in a relationship with Dr H?’

I was speechless for a few moments. Then I spluttered out a range of comments in no particular order:
“No! What is going on? Who says this? Dr H – you must be joking?! The last person on earth I’d even consider… What the…? Hey, but even if I was, which I’m not, why would that be a problem??”

To unpack this: Student W was living in a hall of residence. Dr H was his Hall Tutor and there had been some typical student disciplinary matters, to which Dr H had responded in a robust way. I’d have done the same. Student W was also in one of my classes and was getting some very poor marks there. Student W had appealed against these marks because he thought I was in a relationship with Dr H and that I had been persuaded by Dr H to mark down the coursework essays.

My jaw fell further. I think I was most horrified by the idea that while I would be in bed with Dr H he’d ask, ‘Helen, lovely one, you know W? I’m really fed up with his behaviour – how about you giving him some really low marks in the Roman Britain class?’ and that I would say ‘Dr H, I love you to bits, so of course!’

My colleague the Union rep already knew both me and Dr H, and he was well aware that we would have made an unlikely couple. But then, unlikely couples happen. How would this have panned out if the Union rep hadn’t told the Student Union rep (to whom W had gone in the first place) that this was a non-starter? How would Dr H and I have proved a negative? It’s a reminder of the complexity of everything we do, in relationships and in teaching.



2 thoughts on “Harassment and sexual misconduct: discussing the unthinkable

  1. I had an “interesting” recalibration event recently. I’m a member of a group looking UK-wide at the under-representation of certain groups, including women, in Computer Science. As part of this process, some researchers did targetted interviews, and extracted anecdotes. When something similar was done in Chemistry a few years ago, the community was horrified by what they discovered, which led to massive changes. I haven’t seen the Chemistry data, but assumed it had blood-curdling anecdotes. I was expecting we would see similar things in CS, but when I saw a draft of the anecdotes, it was well-known kinds of things, so I thought, “Oh, maybe CS isn’t as bad as Chemistry, then?” Then the guy leading our group expressed his horror…

    Our blood is so curdled, it’s hard to remember others don’t know what’s going on…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow. Yes, I felt like that when other people were sharing their experiences yesterday – people I know, but I’d no idea they’d had to invoke their universities’ procedures…


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