Sexism at the centre: locating the problem of sexual harassment

Autumn 2015

In this article we discuss the sexual harassment that occurs within academic institutions between academic staff and students. Our interest is in analysing the ways that sexism and sexual harassment are enabled and sustained in the university environment. In particular, we are interested in interrogating the power that occurs in these relationships, and how the nature of this relation makes it difficult for students to name and refuse the harassment that occurs. We argue that sexism conceals itself through its continual movement, and that sexual harassment is perpetuated within universities through tactics that relocate the problem away from the individual and the institution. In this way, sexual harassment disappears: the problem never appears as a problem of sexual harassment. Instead, it appears as a number of other shifting problems which include the problem of the women who complain and the harm caused to academic reputations. The slipperiness of sexism means it comes to be re-circulated through social and institutional structures that keep sexual harassers in place, because sexism and sexual harassment appear always out of reach. Mechanisms within the institution set up to address sexual harassment work not only to distance the institution from responsibility for the harassment, but also to hide the harassment even in the moment when women and male allies are insistently working to try to make it appear.

NF 86: Sexism