Atmospheres of Aggression Against Women

I’ve been following this case for some time: http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/09/07/us-yale-murder-idUSTRE7866DF20110907. Just the other day the family of murdered 24-year-old Annie Le filed a suit against Yale for negligence, saying that it had allowed an atmosphere of aggression against women.

And it made me reflect on what that means — to allow an atmosphere of aggression against women — and how universities in particular enable such climates. I know that I speak for many many feminist professors on campuses throughout the United States when I say that I can no longer count the times that students have come to my office to tell stories about sexual assault and violence. I have little to offer them except contact information about sexual assault services and my own tears of frustration over our inability to prevent these things from happening.

This happened again quite recently, ironically on the very day I had come across a thirty-year-old letter to my center from a rape victim who had dropped out of graduate school because of continued harassment by the rapist. That letter could have been written yesterday.

A few months ago, I mentioned my university’s retrograde communication about cases in which undergraduate women were being drugged at parties and sexually assaulted. Prevention still comes down to women’s need to be careful, rather than women’s right to live and work in communities that are safe and non-violent. It seems almost impossible to get these issues on the radar of people who could — and should — be doing something about them. Sometimes, faculty members just don’t want to get involved. In one case, faculty members and graduate students knew that a fellow student was carrying a gun and that his dissertation contained odd rantings and justifications of sexual violence. In this instance, his institution completely covered for him. No one complained; everyone just wrote it off as the somewhat eccentric behavior of a brilliant young man. The only reason he wound up not getting a job when he went on the job market was that he almost murdered his  wife in front of their young daughter a few weeks before he was scheduled to move.

And even when we do try to report on fellow workers whose behavior is erratic and unacceptable, we are confronted with stalling, mumbling, and buck-passing. Civil rights activist and professor Nikki Giovanni had Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho in a poetry class. She told her department chair that she would rather resign than continue to teach him — a statement that should have raised some red flags, but did not. Or at least the kinds of red flags that create action. At a previous job, I conveyed my concerns about a colleague who was obviously mentally ill to a dean, saying that this colleague should be removed from teaching responsibilities. No action was taken until a student filed a sexual harassment suit against the faculty member three months later. This case of sexual harassment, which will haunt that student for the rest of his career, could have been prevented if that dean had taken action.

More recently, numerous graduate students at my current institution have complained about the violent behavior of another graduate student, only to be put off by that institution’s fear of litigation. Apparently, his rights trump the rights of young women who have told successive administrators that they feel UNSAFE. Puts me in mind of the undergrads who took to writing the names of assailants on bathroom walls at Brown University when I was a grad student, only to be criticized for potentially violating the rights of rapists.Why are universities so much more concerned about those who are accused than they are with those who are — or may be — abused? Don’t we all share the responsibility of ensuring that our workplaces are safe for all the women and men who work there?

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