Sexual Harassment in Philosophy, Disability, and the Dream of a Common Language: A Response to Dowell and Sobel

Most mainstream philosophers and many white feminist philosophers probably don’t know that Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced and developed her idea of intersectionality in writing on women of colour and violence. In “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” for example, Crenshaw argues that feminist work on domestic and sexual violence that does not account for both sexism and racism and how these relations of power interact and reinforce each other in the context of this violence fails to recognize and identify the distinct ways that women of colour are victimized, enabling the perpetuation of violence against these women, expanding the scope of the combination of sexism and racism, and complicating the relations between these forms of power.

As Crenshaw compellingly argues, that is, feminist claims about sexual violence and domestic violence that do not account for differences between white women’s experience of domestic and sexual violence, on one side, and women of colour and other minority women’s  experience of it, on the other side, invariably end up universalizing (among other things) perceptions and understandings of white women as victims, what is required to adequately address violence  against women based on white women’s situation, and effective ways to resist and prevent violence against women based on the experiences of white women. When the situation of white women is taken as paradigmatic of violence against women, Crenshaw repeatedly points out, the experiences, social positioning, perspectives, and testimony of women of colour, African-American women, and immigrant women (among others) are ignored, misunderstood, trivialized, obscured, and erased.

Although in this article Crenshaw illustrates the idea of intersectionality by explicating how sexism and racism interact in the context of violence against women, she points out that the idea can be used in other contexts, with other, or additional, forms of power.

The belief that there is a non-exclusionary way in which we can talk about a “common” or “shared” experience with respect to sexual violence seems to have conditioned the two-part series about sexual harassment in philosophy that has run on the PEA Soup blog for the past couple of weeks.  Given the context of the series (PEA Soup), this belief likely derives at least in part from how mainstream normative philosophy addresses questions and concerns, using forms of ideal theory in order to do so, employing universal principles and obscuring differences and particularities between people.

In a comment on the first installment of the series, I drew attention to the fact that the sexual violence inflicted on disabled women (and other disabled people) is neglected in the post, first, noting, as Melinda and I argued in an earlier post, that this neglect of the rampant sexual abuse of disabled people is a recurring practice in efforts to mobilize against sexual harassment (and other forms of sexual violence) in philosophy and, furthermore, pointing out that disability and ableism were integral to the “sexual” harassment and sexual assault that I have experienced in philosophy and elsewhere in academia. I couldn’t tell you where the one ended and the other began: the ableism was sexualized and the sexual harassment was conditioned by my social positioning as disabled.

In response to comments on their initial post, Janice Dowell and David Sobel (or perhaps only the latter; the combined use of “we” and “I” in both the response to comments and the second post introduce this uncertainty) asserted that the central concern of the series was to focus on “the general case” of sexual harassment in philosophy rather than on different sorts of manifestations of it, that is, focus on the common features of sexual harassment (rather than how it is experienced by different groups of victims) in order to arrive at some general ways in which to prevent it and respond to instances of it. In the first post, in fact, Dowell and Sobel explicitly acknowledge that sexual harassment is not the only form of harassment, although it is, they note, the only form that they will address in the series.

Nevertheless, Dowell and Sobel do identify specific groups in the initial post of the series. As Dowell and Sobel explained it in their response to comments on the first post, the identification of specific groups of (nondisabled) people in their initial post and their claim that these groups experience the highest rates of sexual harassment and sexual violence in academia are grounded in the research that they found and are intended to demonstrate the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and other sexual violence in academia. In other words, the empirical data is supplied not to indicate that responses to sexual harassment should be specifically designed to address the distinct ways in which members of these disparate social groups are victimized, but rather to show that philosophy has a problem with sexual harassment in the first place.

The second part of the series reiterates this rationale for claims about the rates of sexual harassment for some groups of academics, suggests ways in which to respond to alleged and even known perpetrators, and is appended with a list of signatories, all prominent members of the profession, at least initially.

In the lead-up to the series and in preliminary remarks to both posts, Dowell and Sobel caution that their recommendations in the series will likely be “controversial” to some philosophers. The acceptance of these recommendations, they assert, depends upon knowledge of the pervasiveness and scope of the problem. Hence, the empirical data supplied about rates of victimization among some social groups.

To make a long story short, Dowell and Sobel recommend that perpetrators and alleged perpetrators be shunned in a variety of ways (not invited to contribute to edited collections, not invited to present their work at conferences or in department colloquiums, and so on) and that support and sympathy be extended to victims, including that examples of rape not be used to illustrate philosophical arguments.

Although these recommendations seem uncontroversial to me, I want to more closely consider them, including the recommendation that philosophers explicitly express support for victims, especially victims who come forward about their experiences.

On a personal note, I want to say that, in my view, this series does not provide a good example of how to do the latter. To be sure, Dowell and Sobel indicate knowledge of how victims and survivors are often rendered invalid, not acknowledged, not believed, dismissed, etc. After I posted my comment in which I referred to my own experiences, however, they responded in an indirect way, did not address me by my name, and seemed to chastise me for my critical response to their initial post in the series, suggesting that if (friendly?) critical readers of the series have pertinent information that they themselves don’t have, these (friendly?) readers should produce it.  

(Information about the widespread sexual abuse of disabled people is readily available on the web and, as I noted at the outset of my comment in the series, I have written various posts about the prevalence of such infractions on both BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY and Discrimination and Disadvantage.)

In my comment to the first post in the series, I suggested that the prevalence of the sexual violence with which disabled women and other disabled people must contend is likely neglected in discussions about sexual harassment in philosophy because disabled philosophers are so incredibly underrepresented in the profession. Yet the very fact that we are underrepresented would seem to suggest that we are even more susceptible to isolation, ostracism, disrespect, and abuse than dominant groups of philosophers, including nondisabled white women philosophers. Although in their initial post of the series Dowell and Sobel seem to recognize this feature of oppression and victimization, the insight is not adequately developed in the series. I also suggested that the widespread sexual abuse of disabled people may be neglected in discussions about sexual violence that circulate in philosophy due to prevalent misunderstandings and lack of knowledge about disabled people, implying that philosophers should become better informed about ableism and the discrimination that disabled philosophers and other disabled people confront.

Let me thus return to the assertions that Dowell and Sobel make according to which their series of posts is intended to (1) draw out “the general case” of sexual harassment in philosophy and (2) focus on sexual harassment in isolation from other forms of harassment.

I contend that sexual harassment cannot be easily extricated from other forms of harassment in the way that Dowell and Sobel claim that it can. For most victims, “sexual” harassment is inextricably entwined with other forms of harassment, is mutually constitutive and mutually reinforcing with this harassment. The only victims of harassment in philosophy for whom sexual harassment can be decisively separated from other forms of harassment are women philosophers who are not in fact harassed along other lines of identity and subjection, that is, women who are privileged in other relevant respects, namely, nondisabled cis heterosexual white women.

Likely the only victims of sexual harassment in philosophy (and academia more broadly) for whom sympathy and validating support will suffice to (re)(a)ddress their victimization are philosophers whose professional standing remains uncompromised subsequent to their initial experiences of victimization, women philosophers whose job security is intact, the counselling services that they may require paid for, their income ensured, their occasional temporary absences permitted.

Since expressions of support and sympathy may be adequate redress for only certain elements of the profession, I think that philosophers must begin to expand how they understand the problem of sexual harassment in philosophy and what is required to face it head on. I suggest, therefore, that philosophers who want to take harassment in philosophy seriously should begin to ask themselves and each other questions such as these:

Beyond support and sympathy, what else are philosophers willing to give victims of sexual harassment in philosophy? A job? Are they willing to forego their prestige bias in order to hire victimized philosophers who lack a certain pedigree but whose careers have been (virtually) ruined due to harassment? Are they willing to forego specialized searches to prioritize the placement of victims of harassment (of any kind) in new jobs, regardless of areas of specialization and type of training? Is securing a spousal hire more important than hiring a victimized philosopher? What’s more important: hiring a wildly prolific and accomplished philosopher or hiring a victim who rarely publishes?

If a victimized philosopher challenges you on your ableism, racism, or heterosexism is that good grounds to disregard her situation? If you perceive that a victim has insulted you in some way, say, on social media, are you justified in your disregard for the fact that they have been harassed? In other words, are philosophers entitled to be selective about who they recognize as victims, the extent to which they support them, how they support them, and so on?

In my experience and from my observations, philosophers are, in a host of ways, quite selective about their support for victimized philosophers, selective in ways that recapitulate systemic prejudices and biases, in addition to personal preferences and alliances. Indeed, I want to argue that both the idea of a “general case” of sexual harassment in philosophy and the suggestion that victims of sexual harassment in philosophy are owed only support and sympathy obscure the structural dimensions of sexual harassment and other violence in philosophy, bespeak a particular location and situatedness in the profession, are outdated, and are probably pernicious.  

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