Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassmentby Jane Gallop, Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar (Editor), Jane Kramer (Editor), Benjamin Lee (Editor), Michael Warner (Editor)
Sexual harassment is an issue in which feminists are usually thought to be on the plaintiff's side. But in 1993-amid considerable attention from the national academic community-Jane Gallop, a prominent feminist professor of literature, was accused of sexual harassment by two of her women graduate students. In Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment, Gallop tells the story of how and why she was charged with sexual harassment and what resulted from the accusations. Weaving together memoir and theoretical reflections, Gallop uses her dramatic personal experience to offer a vivid analysis of current trends in sexual harassment policy and to pose difficult questions regarding teaching and sex, feminism and knowledge.
Comparing "still new" feminism-as she first encountered it in the early 1970s-with the more established academic discipline that women's studies has become, Gallop makes a case for the intertwining of learning and pleasure. Refusing to acquiesce to an imperative of silence that surrounds such issues, Gallop acknowledges-and describes-her experiences with the eroticism of learning and teaching. She argues that antiharassment activism has turned away from the feminism that created it and suggests that accusations of harassment are taking aim at the inherent sexuality of professional and pedagogic activity rather than indicting discrimination based on gender-that antiharassment has been transformed into a sensationalist campaign against sexuality itself.
Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment offers a direct and challenging perspective on the complex and charged issues surrounding the intersection of politics, sexuality, feminism, and power. Gallop's story and her characteristically bold way of telling it will be compelling reading for anyone interested in these issues and particularly to anyone interested in the ways they pertain to the university.
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Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment
By Jane Gallop
Duke University PressCopyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment
I am a feminist professor who was accused by two students of sexual harassment. This book is centered on that fact: the title is modeled after the style of tabloid headlines because of the way this fact lends itself to sensationalism. While any accusation of sexual harassment seems to promise a juicy scandal, this particular accusation is more sensational due to the newsworthy anomaly of a feminist being so accused. While sexual harassment is customarily a feminist issue, feminists usually appear on the accusers' side. For a feminist to be the accused is a dramatic reversal.
What kind of a feminist would be accused of sexual harassment?
I became a feminist early in 1971. It was, of course, the big moment for feminist awakenings, for young women around the country, around the world. At the time, we called it "women's liberation." Historians who remembered the women's movement of the nineteenth century called it "the second wave." And, although we baby boomers didn't think we were second to anyone or anything, it certainly was a wave, washing over my generation, soaking us through and through with a new understanding of who we were and what we could become, changing us forever.
I was halfway through college at the time. I did college in three years, in a special post-Sputnik program that recruited promising high-school kids from around the country and streamlined requirements to race us through; 1970–71 was the second of my three years, and I remember it all happening very fast, in a wonderful, dizzying jumble.
I was reading the books that everyone seemed to be reading, books not assigned for any course. I remember three in particular: Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex, Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, and Shulamith Firestone's Dialectic of Sex. Serious, intellectual books, not unlike the books I was reading for courses. But because these were chosen, not assigned, read for reasons of social peer pressure and adolescent desire, they seemed very different.
The books were a big part of it, but I wasn't just reading, I was also going to meetings. Meetings of various sorts of women's groups, both on campus and downtown at the Women's Center. I don't remember the names of the groups or the purposes of the meetings, but I remember the feel of it all: the sense of being part of a community of women, the busy calendar, the sociability, the desire to belong, and my attraction to the strength and beauty of some of the women who went to the meetings.
The books and the meetings are inextricably jumbled together in my memory of that hectic period. There, on the fringes of my college education, I experienced an exhilarating mix of private reading and social community, which I would call learning, in the strongest sense of that word. Not only did it change me, but it vastly improved my life then and there in two essential and entwined ways.
Despite my academic "promise," which had gotten me into the fast-track foundation-funded experimental program, I was a poor student my first year of college. I got mediocre grades, did a minimum of work with little enthusiasm, cut classes, and either watched late late movies on tv or played bridge all night. My second year of school, I became a feminist, and I became a good student. Despite all the meetings, the social and political gatherings, I spent more time on my homework and attended classes more regularly. My senior year, I wrote an honor's thesis and really threw myself into that work, caring deeply about it. Somehow, feminism had made it possible for me to take my school-work seriously.
Freshman year, my disaffection as a student was matched by my sexual passivity. As a good soldier in the sexual revolution, I had sex often, but with little pleasure and no orgasms. Although I fervently wished that all these young men I bedded would fall in love with me, all my wishing and hoping wasn't really desire.
Thanks to feminism, not only did I become a better student, but my sex life improved. In January 1971 I read de Beauvoir's Second Sex, learned that women could masturbate, and had my first orgasm. For me, that sea change will always be a central part of what "women's liberation" means. In no way did I lose interest in sex with other people, but now that meant bringing my sexuality into an encounter, rather than hoping some man could endow me with sexuality. I credit feminism with teaching me sexual pleasure.
Not only pleasure but also desire. A vocal if small lesbian presence was integral to the women's community on campus; this diffuse presence made the entire community seem a space of sexual possibility. I had the hots for so many of the energetic young women who went to the same meetings as I. While I actually slept with very few of them, these attractions introduced me to the feel of desire. Whereas my adolescent boy-craziness had filled me with romantic fantasies of love, when I thought about the women at the meetings I burned to touch their bodies. I walked around that year constantly in heat, energized for political activity and schoolwork; I learned that desire, even desire unacted upon, can make you feel very powerful. And the space where I learned desire—where it filled me with energy and drive—I call feminism.
I had been a "sexually active" young woman who was, ironically, neither sexual nor active but rather awash in romance and passivity. I had been a supposedly smart girl who was deeply alienated from her own desire for knowledge. Within one whirlwind year I came into a sense of my sexual power, of my sexuality as drive and energy. In that very same year I became an active, engaged student committed to knowing as much and as well as possible. I speak of these as if they were two transformations, but they are actually two aspects of the same transformation. One and the same change made me both an engaged, productive student and a sexually energized, sexually confident woman. The disaffected, romantic, passive young woman I had been gained access simultaneously to real learning and to an active sexuality. One achievement cannot be separated from the other.
This double transformation was my personal experience of what we then called "women's liberation." This access to learning and to pleasure will always be the root meaning, my most powerful personal sense of feminism. I know there are many people for whom feminism is the opposite of sexy. And even that there are many people who presume feminism to be anti-intellectual. But for me feminism will always name the force that freed me to desire and to learn.
My initial and formative experience of feminism was this entry into a milieu bubbling indiscriminately with ideas and lusts. Feminism turned me on, figuratively and literally: my body and my mind began firing, pulsing with energy, an energy that did not distinguish between mind and body. Feminism made me feel sexy and smart; feminism felt smart and very sexy. When I call myself a feminist, as I have for twenty-five years, I necessarily refer to that milieu where knowledge and sex bubble together, to that possible community, to that possibility for women.
Perhaps that is what makes me the kind of feminist who gets accused of sexual harassment.
Since being accused of harassment, I feel like my life has fallen into sensationalism. I've become a spectacle. Despite the urge to hide in shame, I've decided to speak from this sensational location. I'd like to make spectacle speak, to use spectacle to explore our assumptions about sexual harassment and feminism.
To do this, I have to tell what happened to me, tell how and why I was accused of harassment and what the investigation determined. But I won't be telling what happened chronologically; the story will appear broken into pieces and out of order. For spectacle to speak, it must be analyzed, broken down into its various components.
My purpose is not simply to tell my story but rather to use that story to understand what's going on with sexual harassment. The spectacle taught me a thing or two, and I'd like to try and explain what I've learned.
Feminist sexual harasser seems like a contradiction in terms. I find myself positioned at the center of this contradiction. Although the position has been personally quite uncomfortable, professionally I can see it as a rare vantage point, an opportunity to produce knowledge. I have long suspected that a contradiction in terms might present an occasion to confront and rethink the terms themselves.
As a feminist theorist of sexuality, I consider it my business to understand sexual harassment. And so I'd like to take advantage of my peculiar position as an accused harasser to provide a fresh feminist view of the issue. Theorizations of harassment generally focus on what is clearly the classic scenario: the male boss uses his professional clout to force himself upon a female subordinate—sleep with me or you'll lose your job, sleep with me and you'll get a raise, a promotion. Rather than refer to this classic case, I want to produce an understanding of sexual harassment based instead upon the limit case of a feminist so accused.
The classic scenario is explicit and quid pro quo (demand for sex in exchange for professional support). The concept of harassment also includes more implicit forms, where the sexual demand or the professional threat is not stated but understood. Implicit sexual demands might ultimately include any charged talk or behavior; implicit professional threats could possibly cover the entire range of professional interaction. While these possibilities are potentially already limitless, the range of harassment is also expanding in other directions. Harassment need not be perpetrated by bosses; peers can harass, even subordinates. And gender can be a variable: increasing numbers of cases involve a man claiming to have been harassed or a woman accused of harassment.
The classic scenario—easy to recognize and deplore as sexual harassment—expands its application in every direction. I want to ground my theorizing in a limit case precisely because I believe that there should be limits to this bloated general application. I hope that my example can expose the limitations of loose analogies and impede this rampant expansion of the concept of sexual harassment.
Feminism has a special relation to sexual harassment. One could in fact say that feminism invented sexual harassment. Not, of course, the behavior itself, which presumably has gone on as long as men have held power over women. But, until feminism named it, the behavior had no official existence. In the mid-seventies, feminism got women to compare notes on their difficulties in the workplace; it came out that women employees all too frequently had to cope with this sort of thing. Feminism named this behavior "sexual harassment" and proceeded to make it illegal.
Today the general public knows that sexual harassment consists of some form of unwanted sexual advances and that it is some sort of crime. Inevitably people assume that it is sex that makes harassment criminal. Feminism's interest in prosecuting harassment is then chalked up to feminism's supposed hostility to sex.
But, whatever the feelings of individual feminists, feminism is not in principle a movement against sexuality. It is, in principle and in fact, against the disadvantaging of women. Sexual harassment is a feminist issue not because it is sexual but because it disadvantages women. Because harassment makes it harder for women to earn a living, feminists declared it a form of discrimination against women. This framing was so persuasive that, within a few years, harassment was added to the legal definition of sex discrimination. Since discrimination on the basis of sex was already illegal, once harassment was included within the category of discrimination, it immediately became a crime. Sexual harassment is criminal not because it is sex but because it is discrimination.
When I was charged with sexual harassment, the accusations were made on official university forms that bore the heading "COMPLAINT OF DISCRIMINATION." Under that heading, the students filed formal complaints against me, checking the box marked "Sexual Harassment." This form includes twelve such boxes, each pertaining to a type of discrimination (race or color, sex, national origin, etc.). The form itself makes it clear that harassment is treated as a subspecies of the general wrong, discrimination.
After reviewing the evidence and interviewing the witnesses, the university officer who investigated the charges against me was convinced that I had not in fact discriminated—not against women, not against men, not on the basis of sexual orientation, not on any basis whatsoever. She believed that my pedagogical practices had been, as she put it, applied in a consistent manner. Yet she nonetheless thought I probably was guilty of sexual harassment.
When it is possible to conceive of sexual harassment without discrimination, then sexual harassment becomes a crime of sexuality rather than of discrimination. There is, in fact, a recent national trend toward findings of sexual harassment where there is no discrimination. This represents a significant departure from the feminist formulation of harassment.
Although the shock value of my case resides in the supposition that it is impossible to be both a feminist and a harasser, the spectacle fascinates because it suggests the possibility that a feminist could be a sexual harasser—which would mean that either feminism or sexual harassment (maybe even both) are not what we assumed they were. A feminist sexual harasser is no longer a contradiction in terms; rather, it is the sign of an issue drifting from its feminist frame.
I was construed a sexual harasser because I sexualize the atmosphere in which I work. When sexual harassment is defined as the introduction of sex into professional relations, it becomes quite possible to be both a feminist and a sexual harasser.
The classic harassment scenario clearly involves both discrimination against women and sexualization of professional relations. Because people always refer to that classic case, it has been assumed that sexualizing the workplace is automatically disadvantageous to women. But if we base our thinking in the more exotic possibility of a feminist sexualizer, these two aspects of harassment no longer fit so neatly together. And sexualizing is not necessarily to women's disadvantage.
It is no coincidence that I happen to be both a feminist and someone whose professional relations aresexualized. It is because of the sort of feminist I am that I do not respect the line between the intellectual and the sexual. Central to my commitment as a feminist teacher is the wish to transmit the experience that brought me as a young woman out of romantic paralysis and into the power of desire and knowledge, to bring the women I teach to their own power, to ignite them as feminism ignited me when I was a student.
The chill winds of the current climate threaten to extinguish what feminism lit for me. What felt liberating to me as a student is today considered dangerous to my students. Today's antiharassment activism is, of course, a legacy of seventies feminism. But the antisexual direction of the current trend makes us forget how women's liberation turned us on. The present climate makes it easy to forget and thus crucial to remember. And so, at the risk of sounding as old as I am, I want to tell you again what feminism on campus felt like back when I was a student.
In 1971, there was a weekend-long feminist event on campus, lots of workshops and seminars, which combined teaching the issues and organizing us for activism. As part of this event, Saturday night there was a dance—women only, featuring a women's rock band (the first I'd ever seen).
Outraged at the idea of a women-only dance, male students came to crash the party. A large group of us women threw ourselves against the door. It was a thrill keeping the men out, feeling the power of our combined weight, heaping our bodies together in this symbolic enactment of feminist solidarity. And then, after the men gave up, we decided to celebrate our triumph, our women-only space by taking off our shirts and dancing bare-breasted.
Our breasts were political. In those days feminists were said to burn bras. Restricting and constraining movement, bras provided a metaphor for women's bonds. We didn't wear bras. We stripped off our shirts in triumphant defiance of the men we had kept out. With no men around to ogle our breasts, we were as free as men to take off our shirts in public; so we were asserting equal rights. But our breasts were not just political.
I remember Becca that night, a gorgeous young woman a year or so older than me. She had been one of the first to the door, expertly throwing her long, rangy body against the would-be intruders. And she was the first to take off her shirt and start dancing, revealing the most beautiful breasts I had ever seen. We all danced together in a heap, intoxicated with the joy and energy of our young feminism. The bacchanalian frenzy did not in the least cloud my focus on Becca's breasts. I was dancing with those beautiful breasts, dancing all the harder because I so wanted to touch those breasts.
While I'll never forget Becca's breasts, they were not the most memorable sight at the dance. Earlier that evening, two women had made a spectacular entrance. One of them taught my first women's studies course, which I was taking that semester. One of the campus's best-known feminists, an early leader in the national movement for women's studies, a published writer over six feet tall, this teacher was a woman whom I looked up to in every way. She walked into the dance accompanied by a beautiful girl I had seen around and knew to be a senior. The teacher was wearing a dress, the student a man's suit; their carefully staged entrance publicly declared their affair.
I thought the two of them were just the hottest thing I'd ever seen. I profoundly admired the professor; I found the senior girl beautiful and sophisticated. I wanted both of them. Although I would have loved to have an affair like theirs, I didn't feel left out and envious. I felt privileged to be let in on the secret. I felt it as our secret, the secret of our women's party.
Excerpted from Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment by Jane Gallop. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author
Jane Gallop is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. She is the author of numerous books, including Thinking Through the Body, The Daughter’s Seduction, and Around 1981: Academic Feminist Literary Theory.
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