It’s been a few weeks since the #metoo hashtag prompted discussion about the widespread and systemic nature of sexual violence. As I’ve shared stories and listened to others’, I’ve been struck by frequent questioning: “Does ______ really count as sexual harassment or assault?” And that question has led me to consider the many moments of sexual intimidation that aren’t harassment or assault per se, but constitute violence and are part of rape culture nonetheless.
Here are a few examples from my life as a professor interacting with undergraduate men:
- A student waits until everyone has left the classroom to confront me about his grade, raising his voice and moving closer until he’s towering over me.
- A pattern emerges in which at least seven students (all men) walk into my faculty office and shut the door (only for me to re-open it), making me aware of the tension that arises in my body from their assumed control of space and uninvited move toward intimacy.
- A student enters an otherwise empty elevator and stands in front of me, blocking both the exit and the keypad for selecting floors. My body stiffens up so that I wait until he’s left the elevator before moving forward to the keypad and pressing the button for my office floor.
- A student brings his friend (another man) to his writing conference late in the evening when the department is empty. This friend sits outside my office, essentially guarding the hallway.
Whether intentional or not, intimidation operates in moments like these because they play into larger understandings of agency, ownership, intimacy, and control of physical space. They obstruct efforts to maintain distance, to meet in public, to plan exit routes, and so on.
While none of these experiences constitute sexual harassment or assault, they show how presumed ownership of space communicates domination. They show how rape culture, which is based in domination, operates in classrooms, offices, elevators, hallways, and other spaces. They also show how no one is immune: even the professor who holds institutional power can be intimidated and over-powered.
I share these moments with the hope that we might better understand rape culture as a cultural phenomenon that is constructed and performed in everyday interactions. Moments like these aren’t ones I report to our Title IX coordinator, but they are ones that stack up the longer I’m in higher education. They are moments that come to mind when I think about how gender-based intimidation and invalidation—like other microaggressions—play out in many seemingly small yet consequential ways.
I share these moments, too, because they’ve become memories that sit alongside those of harassment, assault, and other sexual violence. When I think of my own stories and those shared by others, I see how moments like these are part of larger narratives of rape culture, or a culture that perpetuates deep injustice through sexism and heterosexism, including the objectification and exploitation of women’s and marginalized peoples’ bodies. Truly, such everyday moments make up the larger culture and have cumulative impact. They erode trust, provoke fear, and increase inequitable demands for emotional labor, among other matters.
I also share these moments because they reveal patterns—like the pattern I noticed of men shutting the office door. Just as there’s potential in looking for themes and outliers for everyday divination, there’s potential in identifying patterns of sexual intimidation and other violence. Identifying patterns allows us to better witness, name, and intervene into injustice. And the patterns supporting rape culture desperately need intervention.
This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Me Too: Standing Against Sexual Violence” or “Microaggressions Matter.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!