Contrapower: on sexual harassment by students

The Australian Women’s History Network’s (AWHN) recent report on sexual harassment and discrimination in Australian academia reveals the need for more research into the continued misuses and abuses of power in the academy.

The findings of the report, released last week, expose a disturbing collection of inappropriate and widely underreported behaviours, from gendered bullying to sexual coercion, predation, and even assault.

One recurring scenario that was reported by survey respondents involved female PhD students being pressured into sex by their male supervisors. According to the authors, ‘Respondents wrote about being lured into men’s offices, hotel rooms or homes on a professional pretext, and then having to fend off unwanted sexual advances. In many cases, coercion and intimidation were involved’.

These reports draw attention to the complex interplay of gender and power in academia, while pointing to the need for structural change, including both the decentralisation and diversification of institutional authority. However, the report’s focus on ‘top-down’ discrimination overlooks another important aspect of this multi-faceted problem, which is the fact that many female academics are sexually harassed by students too.

This is known as contrapower harassment and it occurs when someone with seemingly less formal power in an institution (e.g. a student) harasses someone with more formal power (e.g. a professor).

Thirty-five years ago, psychology academic Katherine Benson called for future research on sexual harassment in academia to investigate the problem of contrapower harassment, so that systematic data on the issue is available. The phenomenon has since been well-documented in American institutions, with several studies finding that academic contrapower harassment (ACPH) is now a routine part of being a university educator in the twenty-first century.

In the Australian context, however, there is a lack of formal research surrounding academics’ experiences of this type of harassment, including its statistical occurrence and the effectiveness of institutional policies and processes put in place to deal with such reports. This is why preliminary research, such as that conducted by the AWHN, is important.

Let me tell you my own story.

I’m thirty-one. I have a PhD. Ten years ago, I completed my honours and started working as a tutor in creative writing and literary studies. In the decade since, I have worked mostly as a lecturer, teaching and conducting research at a handful of respected universities, both in Australia and abroad.

In this time, I, like many of my colleagues, have been frequently harassed – mostly by male students – both in and out of the classroom.

I have been propositioned for sex and bombarded with unwelcome advances and unwanted gifts, such as roses, chocolates, and on a few occasions, bad poetry. One poem, submitted to me for assessment in a creative writing class, was titled ‘Back Door Entry’. The poem was about a female teacher who gets gang raped. Coincidentally, she also had the same name as me. I flagged the work with a senior colleague who agreed that the poem was offensive but discouraged me from pursuing the matter further for two reasons: first, students have a right to express themselves creatively, even if their work is offensive, and second, I had no proof that the subject of the poem was me.

I have also been stalked, both online and on-campus, and forced, more than once, to change my phone number. In London, I contemplated moving house when a student found out where I lived and turned up to my apartment with a black bag, pretending to be an Uber Eats delivery guy. The next day, the same student came to class as if nothing had happened. A few weeks later, he sent me a link to his blog: a strange collection of mostly nonsensical meanderings, in which he confessed to having sexual fantasies about me.

At the time, I didn’t report the student to my supervisor because I was in a new non-tenured position, and I was worried that the situation would be perceived as a failure on my part to garner respect or to cope with the demands of the job. I also felt misplaced empathy. The student had also confided in me that he was staying in England illegally and I was concerned that if I said something, he would be deported.

The AWHN, in their recent survey, also found that many academics who experience sexual harassment do not formally report their experiences for a variety of reasons, including their employment status if they’re untenured, a fear of being labelled as a ‘trouble-maker’, and the belief that formal processes are ineffective or unsupportive.

In any workplace, contrapower harassment can be covert or overt. Recently, Wynen used data from a large-scale survey of the Australian public service to show that age is a significant factor when it comes to the relationship between gender, workplace authority, and sexual harassment. The study found that women younger than 30 are far more likely to be sexually harassed than women who are over 30. In addition, women with supervisory authority, who are aged between 30 and 44, are more likely to be sexually harassed than colleagues without the same authority. The study concluded that since the Australian government is expected to be more sensitive to issues of gender and equity, the existence of contrapower sexual harassment may be even more pronounced in the private domain.

However, I want to be clear about my students. Most of them are brilliant, intelligent, sensitive people. Usually, they respect themselves and each other, and nine times out of ten, our interactions are enjoyable and productive. Most of my students are goodhearted. Most of them are genuinely appalled when they ask me what it’s like to be a young female academic and I tell them honestly: it’s great, and it’s also not-so-great.

At other times, my personal space has been violated by students who I think of as ‘space invaders’, which is really quite a benign label for their behaviour. A few years ago, I had a male student, no older than twenty, who frequently took photos of me on his iPad while I was lecturing. I found out about the photos because he showed them to me. I reported the student to my head of school, and she immediately called him into her office for an informal meeting. However, when she reprimanded him, he didn’t understand what the problem was. He told her we were in love. The student was issued with a verbal warning and continued to attend my class. To my knowledge, the photographs stopped, but my discomfort remained.

Sometimes, I have felt targeted simply because I am a woman and perhaps more specifically because I’m a young woman in a position of authority. The power-threat model of sexual harassment suggests that women with formal power, who hold authority over men, challenge cultural expectations of male dominance, which makes them more likely to face harassment. In official evaluations of my teaching, students have made inappropriate comments about my clothes, my make-up and my body. These comments focus on the way I look, or how I dress, rather than the quality of my teaching. Some of these comments include ‘Great hair and smile’, ‘More out-of-class help (winky face)’, or ‘Class would be better if we went on a date’.

There’s mounting evidence to suggest that student evaluations of teaching are not only biased against female instructors, but that these evaluations are more effective at identifying student gender (and racial) bias than measuring teaching success. It’s important to remember that ACPH, like other forms of sexual harassment, is a complex socio-cultural problem that cannot be understood in simple binary terms, such as ‘young’ and ‘old’, or ‘male’ and ‘female’. In fact, I have been harassed by female students too.

At a Queensland university, while on lunch in the quad one day, a third-year approached me somewhat brazenly and warned me to stay away from her girlfriend (another student of mine) because her girlfriend wanted to bash me. When I enquired as to why, she laughed, ‘We were having sex last night and I accidentally said your name’. The same student regularly wrote about me on a blog about ‘professional lust’ and sent me a link to her site, so that I could read her weekly posts. A few years later, she apologised.

Countless times – more times than I can remember – I have been made to feel powerless in my own classroom. At one point or another, during a class discussion, students have made sexual jokes or sexist remarks, usually without meaning harm, but their comments are still offensive. At night, I have called security to accompany me to my car because sometimes, when finishing late, I have found an idle student, waiting for me outside my office or in the car park. Usually, these students just want to have a chat or ask a follow-up question, but as a woman, alone, on a campus where young women have been sexually assaulted, I’m afraid.

At times, I have regretted outfit choices and wished that I’d worn jeans or pants instead of a skirt. I have actually thought to myself: ‘I should wear a bright top next week in case I end up in the bush.’ I have joked with colleagues that our classrooms need panic buttons – some kind of direct line to security, something that is faster and more subtle than a phone call. We’ve joked about it, but it isn’t funny.

And still, I worry about my students. I worry about the young woman with straight sevens who, in Week 5, stops coming to class because she feels threatened by the student who found out where she lives and turned up to her dorm on Friday night with a bouquet of roses, dressed for an obviously unplanned and non-consensual date. I worry about her wellbeing and I worry about the offender himself. I worry because he’s a future teacher, editor, politician, lawyer, journalist. When he graduates, he’ll enter the workforce. He’ll earn a good salary. Maybe he will get promoted. Maybe he will assault someone. Maybe, if he gets away with it, he’ll think how easy it was. He’ll feel confident. Strong. Entitled. He will do it again.

I worry that if we don’t expect more of our students, if we don’t hold them accountable for their words and actions, we will never end systematic discrimination, not only in our universities, but in the various workplaces our students will eventually lead.

Most universities have a student code of conduct that provides a general framework for acceptable standards of behaviour; however, these codes, while clearly articulated, are often unable to account for the varied and complex situations that arise in practice. What’s more, most students only find out about the code once they’ve breached it. We can’t expect students to abide by the code if they don’t know it exists! Rather, all students should be required to read and agree to the code as part of their enrolment.

I also worry that if we can’t access clear and supportive reporting mechanisms, without fear of retaliation or reprisal, then more cases of assault will go unreported.

At the moment, there are approximately four times as many casuals as permanent full-time staff members in Australian universities. Generally, casual employees have the most direct contact with students: they’re directly responsible for conducting tutorials, delivering guest lectures, marking assignments and exams, and providing feedback to students on their work. Yet casual staff have limited access to basic support services, such as WHS training, professional development opportunities and mentoring. When I started work as a casual academic, I had no idea of the correct protocols for reporting sexual harassment because I didn’t receive an induction. I signed a contract, received my timetable, and turned up in Week 1 to teach.

For this reason, I also worry that current preventative measures, such as anti-bullying courses and equity awareness seminars, are ineffective because they’re not reaching the people who need them most: sessional staff and students.

As one respondent in the AHWN’s survey remarked:

The answer is not more training. Our university just made all staff go through bullying training again … and it was a waste of time. Those sorts of trainings are 1. An HR tick-the-box joke, and 2. Do not actually reach the people who need them, who … will never believe they are actually doing anything inappropriate.

Regardless of the effectiveness of anti-harassment policies and procedures, the bottom line is this: we should expect more from our universities in their work to combat sexual assault and discrimination. We need to start with more research into the problem of contrapower harassment because this issue goes to the heart of the system: our students.


Image: crop of 1980 workplace harassment poster

Kate Cantrell

Kate Cantrell teaches Creative Writing and English Literature at USQ. From 2015 to 2016, she was a Visiting Lecturer at City, University of London, as well as an Honorary Research Fellow in Widening Participation at King’s College London. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in several magazines and journals, including Meanjin, Meniscus, Kill Your Darlings, and The Lifted Brow. Her research interests include Australian memoir and travel writing, and representations of wandering. You can follow her on Twitter as @kate_cantrell.

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    1. Thanks, Grace. We need to continue the dialogue around this, both with our students and with each other.

  1. I am so appreciative of this article and hope it gets read by all the most important and relevant people who have the means to act on the advice presented.

  2. I am also a young female academic and variants of these events and situations have also been my own experiences. Reporting only makes things worse. I was also branded a ‘trouble/maker’ and later forced out of work. Academia is morally bankrupt.

  3. Re Susan Brownmiller’s 1975 groundbreaking study (Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape) of physical intimidation and harassment bordering on or engaging physical violence, skip sexual denominators and start pressing the former should any challenge or litigation in respect of intimidation of the body or outright physical violence occur, is my tip.

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