Dealing with Sexual Harassment Intersectionally

As I continue to think about the outcomes of the Sexual Harassment in the Academy Survey (now at almost 2000 entries; it is still open and you may contribute your own story using this form), I want to direct attention to the incredible work done on the Conditionally Accepted column (originally blog) founded by Eric Anthony Grollman, and currently published in Inside Higher Ed.  That space has featured a series of posts on sexual harassment from POC and queer perspectives over the past year.  I’d like to feature some of those in the coming weeks.  This one is titled,  Navigating Harassment As a Young Black Femme, by Gabi Jordan (pseudonym), an Assistant Professor of Sociology.  The author’s words:

“I am a light-skinned, mixed-race black woman who is visibly feminine, with big curly hair and what is considered to be both a “voluptuous” and “fat” body. Consequently, I have been subjected to aggressive street harassment, followed by men in stores, grabbed by men (and women) in bars, had students write offensive comments about me in their course evaluations, and witnessed rape “jokes” being directed at student athletes in the middle of a writing lab.

I have even experienced sexual harassment at the hands of fellow academics. For example, at the 2016 American Sociological Association annual meeting, I had the unfortunate experience of having a male professor comment on my “beauty” in the middle of a conversation about my research, with him reaching out to caress my face.

A lifetime of men (and many women, too) feeling entitled to make lewd comments or touch me without my permission has, in some ways, made me numb to the ways in which my body is viewed as accessible. My research on the intersections of race, gender and sexuality has allowed me to intellectualize why such harassment often happens. Yet even with the minor protections that an intellectual understanding of these experiences lends me, I continue to struggle with being socialized to believe that I am somehow complicit. I often feel guilty about wearing makeup and dressing in formfitting clothing, even as I wear high necklines and hemlines that come to the knee. Despite teaching my students about how the notion that women are sexual gatekeepers is part of an oppressive gender structure, I have a hard time not blaming myself for the harassment I experience.

My physical appearance remains a factor in everything that I experience in the academy, particularly the ways that my students and my colleagues find it appropriate to speak on my attractiveness (or lack thereof)….

I spent most of my graduate training unsure to whom to report these encounters and feeling awkward about discussing them with my (black, cisgender) male adviser. That awkwardness mostly stems from my own insecurities about admitting that I am vulnerable rather than deficiencies on my adviser’s part; in bringing up my harassment, I confirm that I am a sexualized body. Due to having had colleagues who are men of color tell me that the racialized and gendered harassment that runs rampant in higher education is something that I should “get used to,” I feel hesitant to bring up how my appearance impacts my ability to teach, to network with others or to conduct my research.

When I did report to one of my university’s human resources offices, I was told that I was not guaranteed any anonymity and, in the case of the coach’s unwanted attention that I described above, he would be let off with what they called a “positive confrontation” that I was assured would not enter his employee record. Instead, I was moved to another writing center and forbidden to work with student athletes who were members of that coach’s team. Essentially, this suggested that I was actually at fault, rather than the man who invaded my personal space and asked me inappropriate questions.”

A recent story on sexual harassment in the academy notes that women of color may experience especially high rates of harassment:

“In a 2017 survey of astronomers and planetary scientists, 40 percent of women of color felt unsafe in the workplace because of their gender, compared with about 20 percent of white women. Twenty-eight percent of women of color in the survey felt unsafe because of their race” (

Many stories in the Sexual Harassment Survey by women of color echo Dr. Jordan’s. Here is one:

“I was dressed up to give a lecture in a tasteful outfit which included a knee-length pencil skirt and knee-high boots–holdovers from a previous job in an non-profit office setting. He came up to me in a hallway and stood much too close to tell me how “sexy” he thought my outfit was and how I should dress like that more often.”

The impact of this kind of aggression cannot be overstated.  The Survey contributor goes on:

“That was the last time I ever wore a skirt. The rest of the time in the program, I dressed androgynously in jeans and over-sized t-shirts. I also stopped going by his office. Whatever contacts or advice he could have given me was not worth having to listen to his creepy comments about his loneliness or how he’d love to have his female students to his apartment, but “the bed is much too small.” I felt that he was testing the waters to see if he could get away with more than just saying something questionable. I decided I never wanted to be alone with him, ever.”

As story after story on the survey show, the impact extends profoundly into the victim’s ability to work in the field, and sense of worth as a scholar:

“I changed the direction of my study so I would not have to take his courses, or include him on my dissertation committee. It caused me stress and made me doubt myself and my worth as an academic.”  She went on, “It made me question why I was in academia in the first place.”

In this case as in almost all others, the harassment goes completely unpunished. “Comparing notes with other females students, I found out he did it to almost every women he encountered, but since he was a decades-long member of the faculty, nothing was ever done about his behavior. He may have received a slap on the wrist about 15 years ago, but that’s about all.”

Dr. Jordan comments that her experience contributes to “well-documented evidence of the ways that femme people are subjected to particular kinds of surveillance and, subsequently, harassment and violence. My membership in a discipline that recognizes and produces knowledge about various forms of sexual violence yet also fails to address harassment forces me to realize that there are still many gaps in how sociology departments and national organizations take steps to protect scholars.”

As the contributor writes: “The worst part of all this is that I am a 1st gen graduate student and a WOC and this person makes a big show of being a friend to women and underrepresented groups in academia. I can see how he can be manipulative, especially with younger women who may not know how the professor/student relationship is supposed to work.”

Dr. Jordan ends with a call to departments and campuses to become far more proactive in creating transparent systems for “those with social and institutional power to intervene and quickly shut down inappropriate behavior.”

As departments, campuses, and disciplinary associations grapple with the results of the Survey (and informal accounts suggest many are), I urge them to be aware of the particularly damaging impacts to women and femmes of color, who, as Dr. Jordan notes, “already must anticipate that they will be viewed as less capable based on racist and sexist assumptions,” and who lack a deep bench of potential mentors due to the under-representation of women and people of color on campus.  While Dr. Jordan was able to overcome this experience and continue on in her field, countless stories in the Survey show victims hounded out of the academy entirely. Any stated commitment to “diversifying” the department or field must engage directly with the ways that systems of racism, classism, ableism, and homophobia intersect with gender in these structures of power and harassment.


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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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