by Madyson Johnson & Samantha Walla Staff Writer & Asst. Production Editor
On Tuesday, Sept. 25, Women and Gender Studies faculty teamed up with the Lasallian Women and Gender Resource Center to host a panel on the discussion of sexual assault since the #MeToo movement started a year ago. Professors Jordan Pascoe, Jolie Terrazas and Nefertiti Takla talked about their views and experiences with sexual assault, and discussed how the movement affected society.
The panel, which operated without a moderator, began with background information on the #MeToo movement, discussing how it became the organization it is today. Pascoe started by mentioning how the movement started 12 years ago and was founded by a woman of color, Tarana Burke, who was thinking of ways that women could share their stories of sexual assault without invoking the law. She pointed how accusations and sexual harassment have only started breaking out in the media in recent years because long ago there was no definite answer for what qualifies as sexual assault or harassment.
“The idea of #MeToo was to create spaces in which women share their stories with one another. Not just to reassure and comfort one another, but actually to engage in a collective practice of identifying, interpreting and naming experiences,” said Pascoe, a philosophy professor at Manhattan College. “A huge part of what we do is the idea that by identifying our experiences together we collectively come to a better understanding of what has happened.”
History professor Nefertiti Takla referenced the movement against campus sexual assault as foreground for #MeToo, specifically the work of Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia student who carried her mattress with her in the wake of her sexual assault as part of a performance piece called “Carry That Weight.” At this time, Title IX was being reframed as holding perpetrators of sexual assault accountable, whereas it had usually been used to fight discrimination in sports.
Jolie Terrazas, a management professor, emphasized that the response of women to sexual assault is not a choice that should have to be made.
“I want to make sure that we feel empowered but that we also are cognizant of certain choices that we make in organization and to what extent is it really our choice, and to what extent is it being imposed upon us to present ourselves in a certain way that is more appealing for others and might make us more vulnerable or take away our power,” said Terrazas.
The #MeToo movement as it is known today took of last year in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein accusations. Before this, many survivors of sexual assault felt that they were unable to speak about their own stories. The aim of this panel was to continue the dialogue and create a space for others to discuss their experiences, especially as professional women.
“A huge part of the power of #MeToo is the power of testimony, telling your own story. I was always taught that I was allowed to speak as analyst of sexual violence as long as I didn’t also speak as a survivor,” said Pascoe. “Part of what we wanted to look at today were our own experiences of sexual harassment, how concrete experiences of sexual harassment can shape your whole professional life. I think that’s a huge part of what we’ve been learning in #MeToo, sexual harassment is not just about being sexualized in the workplace, it’s about having a particular story of yourself forced upon you that then begins to organize your professional life around it.”
The panel spent a considerable amount of time discussing the value in giving name to certain experiences, as well as the healing power that follows.
Takla spoke particularly about the difficulties that students face, particularly in graduate school, when reporting sexual harassment perpetrated by professors. Because the professors in graduate programs work very closely with students, they have the ability to make completing the program very difficult for those who do not comply.
In addition to the trauma of actual assault, the reporting process often furthers the damage.
“The violation is not only the sexual harassment, the violation is being told ‘we’re not calling this sexual harassment’ and then having to put your story out there for the whole world to see in vivid detail […] Because of the way universities deny us the ability to even name our experiences, it causes us so much trauma,” said Takla. “Essentially #MeToo is saying we have the right to call this what it is. And that’s really half the battle.”
For many women, work and sexual harassment are so intertwined that they are indistinguishable from each other and not even recognized as problematic. Pascoe spoke about her own experiences in both the professional world and academia as being fraught with sexual harassment.
“For me, reporting didn’t ever feel like a viable option. And I know that not only me, but lots of other women tried to finish in that program and didn’t. I don’t know how many women there are who are not philosophers because of the culture of that program, but I would say the number is relatively high,” said Pascoe.
“That means not only that those women don’t have those careers, but that philosophy is different. Philosophy is whatever those of us who do philosophy say it is. If women are systematically not finishing graduate programs and not becoming philosophers because of these cultures, then that changes not only their lives but the question of what our discipline would look like.”
In contrast to the Takla and Pascoe’s stories, Terrazas was aware of sexual harassment and agency early in her life. Despite this, she describes difficulty coming forward and reporting.
This person had referent power, meaning power because of charisma and likability. Due to this, she was ostracized by both men and women for speaking out against her harasser.
“What happened is put on display for everyone to judge, for everyone to hear, and some people authentically asked, ‘Well, Jolie, I don’t understand. Why did that bother you so much?’” said Terrazas.
Being able to recognize what she was experiencing as harassment still did not make reporting and dealing with the responses of others any easier.
Freshman Sydney Collins attended the lecture because of her involvement in the Lasallian Women and Gender Resource Center.
“Hearing their stories,” answered Collins when asked about the most interesting part of the lecture. “Where I’m from in New Jersey is very small, so it’s interesting to hear a lot of different views. They all went around the same guidelines and you don’t really think about in a school situation where you’re the only person standing out.”
After the panelists finished their stories, listeners asked questions and made comments, bringing the nature of the #MeToo movement that had been discussed prior to the forefront of the discussion.
“We’ve spent the last year learning that it’s not just a question of what happened. It’s also a question of whose account we go to when we want to determine what sexual harassment or assault is,” said Pascoe. “By women sharing these stories with each other we are doing collective work in identifying what sexual harassment and assault are. We are literally in the process of changing the definition and making these things visible.”