CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1There are few studies on sexual violence in academia. Two recent works present the current situation in France and Quebec and suggest further research avenues. The French national association of feminist studies (ANEF) “white paper” focuses generally on how universities take gender into account and the professional inequalities operative there. One chapter assesses recent confrontations and progress in the area of sexual harassment, bringing to light some of the specificities of this type of violence. Sexe, amour et pouvoir, meanwhile, is a collection of analyses and personal accounts by female students and professors that discuss the seduction-based relationships that can develop in these institutions. The book raises the issue of violence but also the question of relations between conjugality, sexuality and teaching in a context of gender asymmetry.

2ANEF stresses the diversity of situations – from psychological pressure to rape – covered by the notion of sexual harassment and sexist violence. Status differences imply differences in power and prestige. Contexts too differ: classes, administrations, research projects. But in all these situations in France, perpetrators enjoy relative impunity and there is very little in the way of victim protection, despite the development of advocacy groups (e.g., CLASCHES, or Collectif de Lutte Anti-Sexiste Contre le Harcèlement Sexuel dans l’Enseignement Supérieur) and new arrangements for treating the problem. An exception is the Cellule de Veille et d’Information sur le Harcèlement Sexuel or CEVIHS [sexual harassment watch and information group] at the University of Lille 3, active since 2011. It assists victims and provides information to institution employees. Two recent trials did attain the status of public controversy, but as they did not result in any convictions; what they illustrate above all is the difficulty of handling this question institutionally or in the courts. The questions that get raised during these public controversies are another clue: “How can educated individuals, esteemed by their peers and in some cases renowned beyond their immediate scientific community, devoted to intellectual activities and whose task is to respect and transmit the values of the French Republic, give themselves over to such improper behaviour? And how can women in higher education, who are supposed to know their rights and to possess resources, let this kind of thing happen to them?” (p. 160). It is not only that the facts are difficult to establish; current notions about gender violence are decisive: gender violence is incompatible – contradictory – with the image of a world of knowledge in which authority is scientific, decisions collegial and power relations under control.

3Absence of data, statistics in particular, is another notable feature of the sexual-harassment-at-university issue. Advocacy and support groups have collected personal accounts that enable us, if not to measure, at least to become aware of how widespread this type of violence is. Moreover, the testimony reflects some of the general characteristics of gender violence: the vast majority of victims are women; the violence consists of a succession of small acts, utterances or interactions that would seem harmless and insignificant to a third party; the effects of these events on victims are either concealed or minimized. Other aspects are more specific to the academic environment; e.g., the importance of intellectual recognition; individualization of work relations between thesis supervisors and doctoral students; and perpetrator behaviour that many are aware of but that goes unreported, giving perpetrators a sense of impunity. The personal accounts lead the authors to the conclusion that colleagues and students concerned to protect the institution feel “solidarity with the accused” (p. 169). Last, they note that victims can initiate criminal proceedings (though they are costly for them in all respects) or a civil suit (though rulings in them often go against the victim).

4The collection of texts edited by Martine Delvaux, Valérie Lebrun and Laurence Pelletier presents different material to explain the emergence and persistence of sexual harassment at university. As the introduction points out, the “underlying cause” of harassment is “systematic sexism”. The authors do add, however, that “nothing in these stories is simple, neither women’s desire nor men’s power, neither women’s power nor men’s desire”. Many of the texts stress that while the university is a world that allows perpetrators to go relatively unpunished, the student-teacher relationship does spark desires (for recognition, sexual desire, etc.). In their dialogue, professor Isabelle Boisclair and her student Catherine Dussault-Frênette explain how some [professors] take advantage of the admiration they elicit, just as some [female students] get caught in a game of seduction that is difficult to distinguish from a desire to please the man or woman supervising their research – “as if, with her body, her presence, the girl immediately set off a Don-Juan-producing machine” (p. 42), as another contributor to the volume puts it. What then does it mean for women to “refuse to remain caught in the fantasy of the master” (p. 99)? The issue is not just one of consent but also of female students’ desires and the means professors have for imposing theirs.

5The book also calls attention to and investigates sexual harassment narratives, and in so doing identifies another explanation for why harassment persists. Often those narratives consist in gossip or confidences, stories that everyone seems to know something about, if only from a distance. The narratives do not disentangle true from false, important information from mere anecdote. Victims often remain silent for fear of not being supported or even believed, a reality also attested by ANEF data. The fact that violent acts get transformed into sexual harassment “stories” ultimately works to turn them into fictions, complete with recurring and in some cases archetypal situations and characters ranging from Narcissus to Lolita, figures in which victims get trapped, as this change works to de-realize the facts, including, perhaps, in the eyes of the victims themselves. While the editors enjoin us to “kill the fiction” (p. 11), the book also shows that harassment, like love, is made of stories – one question then being, who writes the roles?

6The two books pose questions that are central to understanding sexual violence at university and that should inspire new research. Two such avenues might be how conditions for teaching and producing knowledge change in a context of university reform, and differences in sexual violence and perception of it by academic discipline.

Uploaded on on 09/03/2017
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