Reflecting on Free Speech and Sexual Harassment
On Monday, September 19, 2016, I used EthicsPoint to file a report of Sexual Harassment that occurred at Tufts. On the preceding Saturday, my Sophia Gordon suite hosted a private event to celebrate three of our birthdays. Sometime between 12:00 and 1:00 am, I heard a knock—three to four masculine-presenting strangers wanted to come into my suite. I asked them who they were, and they didn’t give me a response. I thought that they were looking for the open party across the hall. They said no, that party was boring, there was no alcohol; they wanted to enter our suite. I again said that I lived there, and I didn’t know them, and that they wouldn’t have fun anyway. They insisted they wanted to come in. I shook my head and lifted my arm to close the door.
“Oh shit, look at her fucking pits! If you let us in, me and my friends can turn you and all of your lesbian friends straight. We can show you a good time, I promise.”
Our understanding of sexual harassment is more complex now than when Catharine MacKinnon, feminist philosopher and law professor at the University of Michigan, distinguished between “quid pro quo” harassment and “sexual harassment as a persistent condition of a work environment.” The current Tufts Sexual Misconduct policy outlines a breadth of inappropriate behaviors that constitute sexual harassment, such as: sexual jokes, unwanted comments about an individual’s body, and repeated failure to use someone’s “preferred” gender pronouns.
Recently, a student group, Students Advocating for Students (SAS), proposed the elimination of several parts from the sexual misconduct policy and the bias incident policy. The resolution that this group proposed would eliminate the policy that, in theory, allows me to hold the young men accountable for their actions. SAS states that the current sexual harassment policy at Tufts violates an individual’s freedom of speech. The proposed policy suggests that the young men on September 17 were exercising a right, and not violating my safety.
When these men attempted to insult their way into my home, was I violating their free speech by refusing them entrance? No, of course not. Freedom of speech and freedom from consequence are often conflated, though they are certainly not the same. I cannot prevent someone from harassing me, but as a community, we can attempt to hold our members to higher standards through disciplinary policy.
The notion of “turning someone straight” is deeply rooted in misogyny and homophobia. There is no individual or set of genitals that would prevent me from being queer: a cisgender man’s penis is not god’s cure to my homosexual tendencies. Perpetuating the myth that a queer or trans person can be turned straight or cis reinforces the use of sexual violence as a corrective tool to “reorient” queer and trans people, in addition to entirely erasing the existence of bisexual people. When I was informed that I could be “turned straight,” I was threatened with unwanted sex as I opened my own door. This could be alarming to any person, but as a survivor of sexual assault, it shook me to my core.
My intersection of identities has made me susceptible to specific forms of sexual harassment. My first year, when a professor joked about child molestation during a lecture, I dreaded his class and still feel uncomfortable approaching him, which is limiting, as he is my undergraduate program’s director. When someone I lived with told me that I wasn’t “that queer” because I didn’t “actually like women” and gossiped about my history of trauma, I no longer felt safe in my living space. When with my girlfriend in public, I actively choose between our safety and her affection. A man from one of my classes licked his lips and winked at her and I while entering Tisch.
Title IX ensures that people of all sexes have equal opportunity to education. According to Title IX, it is not enough to admit me to school; I have to be able to actually access college. When I cannot attend class or feel safe as I walk across campus, I cannot access my education. Members of campus who are opposed to the sexual harassment policy can access their education without telling me I have great tits. Somewhere in the dialogue about free speech, we’re losing that perspective. I am expected, as many other members of marginalized communities have been expected, to sit silently as cis White men access their freedom of speech.
I’d say I am sorry that some students are frustrated, but the reality is I am not. I am not sorry for feeling entitled to my education and for prioritizing my safety. While some students were picking apart the sexual misconduct policy so they could have the right to enact harm, I have spent two years trying to stitch it together to protect those who, like me, are hurt.
I joined the Tufts Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Education Task Force in the fall of 2014, after showing up to a large meeting in the Coolidge room and announcing my presence at the table. The previous spring, my first year at Tufts, I had been one of the organizers of the Standing with Survivors protest in May. Filled with energy and optimism, I was prepared to advocate for change through the task force. At the time, I was one of many students participating. As the next two years progressed, meetings became fewer and farther between. More and more students graduated or dropped out because of the toxic environment that the space facilitated. Many student participants often found themselves having to advocate for the validity of their own experiences, and consequentially students began to burn out without being offered any resources or compensation for their work. Several of my closest friends dropped out of school altogether.
When a student files a sexual misconduct report, the Office of Equal Opportunity begins by requiring that both the “complainant” and the “respondent” sign a confidentiality agreement, stating that they will not discuss their case with anyone else besides a designated “support person” (who also has to sign a confidentiality agreement). While I believe this is crucial for preventing retaliation, it does—by definition—limit freedom of speech. Students, who would like to have their allegations of sexual violence investigated and their assailants expelled, have to sacrifice a fundamental right. As survivors, we are asked to be silent in exchange for the opportunity to feel safe. We are asked to protect our rapist’s right to due process in exchange for an uncertain outcome—even if found responsible for sexual misconduct, there is no guarantee that we could complete our college degrees without ever running into our rapists or their friends a semester or a year later.
The problem with the Tufts Sexual Misconduct policy is not that it limits the free speech of students who wish to enact harm, but that in its creation, student input was carefully curated to filter for the mildest and most acceptable voices. Anger was shunned, sadness was stifled. The products of our trauma were ultimately not what drove change, but instead, lawyers carefully calculated how they could minimally support survivors to prevent potential lawsuits from those found responsible for sexual misconduct. Eventually the task force stopped recruiting students altogether. By the time the task force transitioned to the Sexual Misconduct Steering Committee, I was one of three undergraduate students who sat at the table. The other two were graduating seniors, one of whom was the TCU president.
It is now October 18, and I’ve received no response to the sexual harassment report I filed. I was informed through an automated message that it would take 48 hours for an investigator to get back to me, or to offer me resources. I’ve worked with the people who should have read my report and I cannot begin to fathom why it was that no one responded to me. I am terrified that other students have been ignored like me.
As survivors we face an undue burden to pursue our safety, and it is the university’s responsibility to take our allegations seriously. For two years, I utilized my limited opportunity to voice my opinions, my thoughts, and my experiences. I worked for the administration, for my peers, without compensation. It is such a great irony that a policy and a body of resources that I helped cultivate is now failing me. It frustrates me to know that members of our community value their speech over my safety. It saddens me to know that SAS doesn’t even need to demand that these policies be revoked, because apparently they are not even being enforced.