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Part 1

Part 2

"There's a difference between blaming the community and not the attacker, and holding the community accountable for enabling the attacker to be there."

-- "I Wish I Could Safeword Rape Culture"

I'm not returning to grad school this fall. This would have been my fifth year in the Ph.D program in the Computer Science department at Portland State University. I've been employed by the university as a research assistant for all four years (which means getting paid for the work you would do as a grad student anyway). I passed my Research Proficiency Exam two years ago and was second author on a conference paper a year ago. If I were returning, I would probably be defending my dissertation proposal sometime before the end of 2011, and assuming that my committee didn't see any major flaws in my plan, then I would achieve all-but-dissertation (ABD) status. But now that's not going to happen. I've written to the Office of Graduate Studies to request a leave of absence, and I already have the approval of the chair of the Computer Science department. With that said, I don't know if I'll be returning when that leave of absence is over. For me to return, some serious problems will have to be addressed, and honestly, I don't see anyone who has both the power to address them and the desire to do so.

I don't feel like returning was a serious option for me. On August 12, my advisor told me that if I returned, I would have to fulfill a set of conditions that would make it impossible for me to do my job. I can't fulfill these conditions because to do so, I would have to spend so much of my time doing emotional labor to compensate for others' lazy, self-serving attitudes, I wouldn't have any time left to do research. He then closed the letter by saying he hoped I would be able to finish my Ph.D. So I have to assume that his intentions were good -- see, there's that word again! -- but that doesn't really help me. In fact, that makes it harder, because when I know someone hates me, I know where I stand. On the other hand, if I have to untangle a mixture of malice, fear and laziness, well, it's just yet more unpaid work for me.

But let me explain.

On February 8, I witnessed Thomas Dubuisson, another grad student in my department, make a sexual advance towards a third student in our group, "Alice", in our grad student office. ("Alice" is a pseudonym. Yes, I'm withholding the victim's name but not the aggressor's name, which seems fair, since the victim got victimized whereas the aggressor didn't. What also needs to be said -- because it's relevant to the story -- is that Alice prefers gender-neutral pronouns now, so I'll use those pronouns to refer to them. However, at the time when the incident happened, they were identifying as a woman and had requested that feminine pronouns be used to refer to them. This was nine months after Alice came out to the department as trans and publicly announced their preference for a chosen name and for feminine pronouns.) The advance was unwelcome because both Thomas and Alice were and are married; while there is certainly space in this culture for dating a person who is married to someone else, it's best dealt with delicately and not in a workplace. By the "reasonable woman" standard used in sexual harassment law, Thomas's remarks qualify as something that a reasonable woman would find unacceptable. I think so, Alice thinks so, at least one independent expert thinks so. So let me be absolutely clear: Alice should not have been expected to say, pre-emptively, "I don't want you to make a sexual advance towards me at work." Thomas should have known that it would be wrong.

This incident followed a series of inappropriate remarks by Thomas -- mostly directed at Alice -- that began even before Alice came out as a trans woman, but escalated after that happened. While I also don't enjoy being told (during lunch at work) that I'm not normal because I'm not heterosexual, the incident of February 8 was the most blatantly inappropriate one that I witnessed. I'm going to be very clear here and say that I didn't even respond appropriately myself at first. But, after talking with Alice, and upon more reflection, I slowly realized what had really happened. In the only conversation that Thomas and I had about it, Thomas told me "I just thought it was funny." This is another example of disparate expectations for emotional work: in-group members are allowed to excuse any of their behavior under the umbrella of "humor", whereas if out-group members don't find jokes at their own expense to be funny, they need to "get a sense of humor". They need to do the work to improve their senses of humor (that is, to learn to treat themselves as worthless except as fodder for the meanest, most mocking sort of putative humor -- actually, that's one of the things marginalized people often least need to work at).

Now, I hope it should be obvious to you that an unwelcome sexual advance doesn't become acceptable in a workplace if you say it was just a joke. In general, you can't say something completely wrong and unacceptable and justify it with "I was only joking". Right?


Just in case it isn't, let's review some basic feminism. (People who have taken Feminism 101 or done equivalent independent study can probably skip the next paragraph or two.) Sexual harassment is frequently misunderstood because people think it's about sex, or about being offensive or crass, or about hormone-crazed men (trans men are always absent from the picture, of course) who can't control their behavior. In reality, sexual harassment is just a form of bullying for people who've gotten tired of sticking gum in the other kids' hair. Sex has very little to do with it -- it just so happens that using sexual references or behavior to reduce a woman to the status of a sexual object is a pretty effective way for a man to bully a woman. It's about putting an uppity woman in her place (reminding her that women are good for sex, and nothing more, and if you're good for sex, you can't be good at anything else); it's also a threat. I think anyone who's spent more than 5 minutes being perceived as a girl or woman over the age of 11 understands that "I want to fuck you" turns into "I'm going to fuck you" pretty quickly, and from there the jump to "whether you like it or not" can happen in no time. Many women are never raped, most women who are raped experience it only a handful of times, but in a sense it doesn't matter because the threats are constant, and women are trained to live in a state of hypervigilance of these threats. (Again, it doesn't really matter whether you were socialized "as a girl", or "as a boy", whatever that means; if you know you're female, you know these messages are addressed to you. And if you're a man or a genderqueer person who doesn't identify as male or female, but people regularly see you as a woman, you know these messages are addressed to you, too.) This is called "rape culture", and it's a labor-saving device for men who need to show that they have power over women. They can simultaneously avoid actually raping (usually), while accomplishing much of the work that rape does (keeping women in a state of fear), by stopping at "I want to fuck you" or at comments, looks or gestures that communicate that message.

Now, when someone who's socially recognized as a trans woman is involved, what happens is an intersectional cluster-you-know-what, because to the extent that a person is seen as a woman, that triggers rape culture; to the extent that they're also seen as trans, that triggers discomfort and desire to intimidate, especially on the part of heterosexual men who feel threatened by the presence of someone who they find attractive, but who they also believe is pre-equipped with a penis. For guys with a heteronormative, cisnormative worldview, what that often turns into is intense desire to get them out of the way -- sometimes through intimidation, sometimes through less pleasant tactics. Finally, popular culture -- when it represents trans women at all -- represents them as sex workers, porn stars, or in other roles where they are seen as purely sexual objects. Even more so than for a cis woman, bringing up a trans woman's presumed sexual receptivity is a way of telling her she doesn't belong here (whether "here" is at work, at school, in church, or so on).

(I am, by the way, not particularly interested in debating those last two paragraphs. If you're tempted to argue with those particular points, please familiarize yourself with the last half-century of thought within various schools of feminism, and then we'll talk. To quote Chungyen Chang again: "if you don't know... then you've chosen not to". If you chose not to because you found other things more interesting or because you think violence against women doesn't affect your life, then that's still a choice.)

Furthermore, faculty members later told me things like: "he's just clueless, he didn't know how to act around a trans person, he was confused and had never dealt with someone who was transitioning before." Well, let's think about some of the things that bullies do:

  • They wait to do their bullying until no authority figures are present; when authority figures are around, they can behave like perfect gentlemen. (They know how to behave appropriately, in other words -- they just choose not to do so when they're not being watched.)
  • They choose a target who's terrified of complaining to authority figures, and is unlikely to let anyone know what's being done to them.
  • They choose both the target, and any witnesses, from politically marginalized groups (like women and trans people), so that if the target and witnesses complain, their stories won't be believed.
  • They exploit people's triggers.
So no, I don't think Thomas's behavior was clueless: I think his behavior shows that he's a skilled bully, and possibly an experienced one. Explaining it away isn't acceptable.

You might also say that two grad students are equals, so it's not possible for one of them to sexually harass another. I think the ending of this story shows how false that is: two people might have equal occupational rank, but if one of them is a member of social groups that everyone in charge is inclined to identify with, and the other is in groups whose members are widely considered to be subhuman and undeserving of empathy, there's a power imbalance. There's also a power imbalance insofar as we're all -- even, especially those of us who grow up gender-variant -- taught to consider gender and sexual minority members to be undeserving of empathy. We learn to do it so well that we do it without even thinking about it. And that's another reason why intent doesn't matter. To paraphrase Samuel Delany, there's no need for anyone to make a transphobic decision; all the transphobic decisions have already been made, and all it takes to perpetuate them is to do nothing.

Accordingly, I would also think that if a grad student feels it's appropriate to bully another student in this way, he did not come up with this idea in a vacuum. If somebody thinks that it's appropriate to act this way in a workplace, and that they can get away with it and keep their job, that has to be a problem with the environment. Ph.D students are supposed to be intelligent, mature people. This isn't grade school. People only do things like what Thomas did if they think there will be no consequences for themselves.

And... it turns out he was right. There were no significant consequences.

Alice took an immediate leave of absence, beginning a couple days after the 8th of February. They were on leave for the Spring term and missed the once-a-year opportunity to take the RPE, which Ph.D students at PSU take in their second year. As a result, they will be a year behind other students who started at the same time. Thomas was not required to take time off. He took the RPE. He was able to make academic progress. He didn't even have to have his working relationship with his academic supervisor disrupted. As far as I'm aware, the only consequence to Thomas was that he was asked not to approach Alice again or talk to them at all, about anything, even work. (I've been told that for privacy reasons, I can't be told all of the details of what action was taken. I can only conclude from this that nothing was done, except for the one request that I know about. I wish I could have been excluded from the events of February 8 in order to protect myself and my privacy -- not to mention my emotional health -- but since that didn't happen, it doesn't seem fair to me to not know what kind of justice, if any, was done to the person who did the harm.) Thomas ignored this request, and as far as I know, no consequences arose from his violation of the request. The only thing that's different in the department now is that I won't be in it.

Part 3

Comments on this post are screened by default. I will unscreen comments that I find to be constructive, unless you tell me "Please don't unscreen my comment".


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Tim Chevalier

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