When profeminist men are alleged to have perpetrated abuse or harassment

By Michael Flood, August 7, 2018. Revised, August 13, 2018.

I am writing this piece in response to the allegations that prominent sociologist and profeminist advocate Michael Kimmel has perpetrated sexual harassment and coercion. I do not wish to comment on the specifics of the allegations of harassment. Little detail has emerged thus far on these (see the bottom of this page for news items and commentaries[1]). Instead, I focus here on the wider issues raised when prominent profeminist advocates are alleged to have perpetrated abuse or harassment.

These thoughts are rough, written in haste, and open to revision. I’m sure that I’ve got some things wrong. Indeed, getting things wrong simply is part of the work.

How should the alleged abuser respond?

How should profeminist men respond when they face allegations of sexual harassment or abuse? What is required will vary depending on the circumstances: whether there has been a formal report or complaint, in what context the behaviour allegedly took place, relationships between the accuser and accused, and so on. But, whether for profeminist male allies or for others, there are some general principles for how to respond to such allegations:

  • Listen. Take seriously the felt experience of those alleging that you have harassed or abused them. Resist the tendency to deny, minimise, or blame.
  • Take part in any formal complaints process, honestly and supportively. People making charges of harassment or abuse deserve to be respectfully listened to and supported to come forward.
  • Look closely, carefully, and critically at your own behaviour. Be as open as you possibly can to the possibility that you have behaved in ways which were harassing or inappropriate or abusive to others.
  • Take responsibility for your actions. Acknowledge any violent or coercive behaviour you have perpetrated and the harm it has caused.
  • Make and enact a commitment to change. Seek formal and informal help. Learn the skills and practices of equitable ways of relating.

(Incidentally, there is remarkably little advice online concerning what to do if one has been accused of sexual harassment. Most Google hits point to advice for those falsely accused of harassment, taking as given the highly problematic assumption that the reader is innocent.)

How should friends and colleagues of the alleged abuser respond?

Friends and colleagues have an important role to play in preventing and reducing violence and abuse in general. They can be ‘active’ or ‘pro-social’ bystanders, challenging abusive behaviour and supporting equitable behaviour. They also an important role to play when it comes to light that a man they know has perpetrated violence or abuse.

Friends and colleagues of the person against whom allegations have been made can play a vital role in supporting that man to follow the process above. If necessary, they can play a vital role in holding that man accountable and in supporting his process of change. Friends can reach out, supporting him in addressing allegations of abuse, without assuming that he is innocent, or guilty. While it may be tempting to rush to defend an accused friend and proclaim his innocence, friends instead can offer support to him while being open to the possibility that he has indeed done harm.

Figuring out how to respond when a friend or acquaintance has been accused of harassment or abuse can be a minefield. There is good advice in the pieces by Kiefer and Manyard listed at the bottom of this page.

Some friends or acquaintances may cease all contact with the alleged abuser, depending on the severity of the alleged abuse and their own reactions to it. Others may avoid the alleged abuser because of ‘stigma contagion,’ the fear that the stigma of abuse will ‘rub off’ on or be shared with others in the abuser’s company. Others may fear reprisals from the alleged abuser, particularly if he is in a position of institutional power. These reactions are understandable. At the same time, where a man has behaved in violent, harassing, or inappropriate ways, his circles and communities of peers can have a powerful influence on his willingness and capacity to make change.

There is personal accountability, but also institutional accountability. Institutions must have robust protocols in place for how to respond when a staff member, employee, or representative is alleged to have perpetrated harassment or abuse. And institutions must work to change the institutional cultures, practices, and inequalities which enable or condone violence and harassment.

Does the severity of the abuse matter?

Yes. The severity of the abuse – the nature of the behaviours involved, and their impact on the victim(s) – matters.

Let’s say that Professor X has sexually harassed a graduate student, once: he commented inappropriately on her body at a conference. Professor Y, on the other hand, coerced a student he was supervising into sex, on numerous occasions, threatening that he would destroy her career if she did not comply.

Let’s be clear: these behaviours are related. They are both part of a continuum of sexual violence. They both may be driven by the same factors: by a sense of male entitlement and sexism. They are enabled by wider gender inequalities. There is no sense here in which the first is ‘okay’ while the second is not. Both are unacceptable.

At the same time, our response to these should differ in some ways. The severity of our response should be tailored to the severity of the behaviours involved. This is true both for informal responses by friends and colleagues and formal responses by organisations, workplaces, and the law.

Note that the impact of violent or harassing behaviours on the survivor cannot simply be read off from the character of the behaviours involved. The impact and harm of violent or harassing behaviours is shaped in part by the survivor’s situation, her previous experiences of trauma or abuse, and other factors. The same behaviour may cause moderate distress for one person and profound trauma for another.

Does this change how we read the alleged abuser’s work? Does it diminish the legitimacy of his work?

In the case of the allegations against Michael Kimmel, he is widely known for his writings and advocacy on men, masculinities, and gender. Does the news of these allegations influence how this work now will be seen? Yes, it does.

Let’s say for example that Professor W is a white woman known for her influential work on the role that white people can play in addressing racism and racist inequalities. She has published books, given speeches, and so on. Reports emerge that she has behaved in racist ways towards people of colour: she shouted racist abuse towards a Black American man in a restaurant, and stories have emerged of similar behaviour in other instances. (Note that is a fictional example.) Will this affect perceptions of her work on white people and racism? Yes, it will.

There is a widespread sense that people’s public work and the values it embodies should be matched by their personal behaviour. In the hypothetical example above, Professor W argues against racism in public, but her own behaviour is racist, and this undercuts the legitimacy of her public work. It shows her as hypocritical, as failing to practise what she preaches. As stories of Professor W’s racist behaviour spread, her published works diminish in credibility and influence.

I have a caveat here. For profeminist male advocates (or any kind of social justice advocate), some kind of gap between our political values and our personal practice perhaps is inevitable, for several reasons. First, personal change may be partial and uneven. Second, the wider culture routinely invites men into sexism and bestows patriarchal privilege whether we want it or not. Still, profeminist men must seek not only to ‘talk the talk’ but to ‘walk the walk’. And too great a gap between our feminist values and our personal behaviour does render those values suspect.

While revelations of alleged abuse or harassment do change how we read their perpetrators’ work, should they? Can we still appreciate the political value, theoretical insight, and empirical contribution of a particular book or speech even if its author’s own behaviour does not match this? I think so. I am tempted to separate the author from the text, assessing the text on its own merits regardless of the author’s personal history and behaviour. Still, part of the power and appeal of profeminist speakers and authors is that they embody the politics they espouse. When there is a revelation that a profeminist male advocate falls far short of feminist principles in his own life, this is likely to dilute the persuasiveness of his public work.[2]

More widely, revelations of abuse by prominent profeminist advocates weaken not only the influence of their work but the wider cause. They harm the movement. They empower feminism’s enemies and disempower its allies. Such revelations will be used by anti-feminist advocates to further attack the credibility and legitimacy of feminist and profeminist advocacy.[3] And when prominent profeminist men behave in ways profoundly at odds with their commitments, this intensifies feminist distrust of male allies.

Can the alleged abuser take or stay in public roles?

Can a man who has perpetrated harassment or violence against women play a public role in advocacy and commentary on violence against women, gender issues, and so on? There are several different situations to consider here for such male advocates or allies:

  1. where allegations emerge against a male advocate;
  2. where these allegations then are substantiated;
  3. where a man with a history of violence then seeks to become an advocate.

If a man plays a public role in commenting on men’s violence against women, gender equality, and so on, can he continue to play such roles once allegations of his abuse have emerged? No. Where allegations of violence or abuse have emerged, whether substantiated in a legal or formal context or not, he should step back from such public roles, at least in the short term and possibly long term as well.

I have described two situations above, the first where allegations are made, and the second where these allegations are substantiated. Yet the line between these is not hard and fast. And there are difficult issues over what counts as substantiation. What does ‘due process’ look like for such allegations? This will depend on the nature of the alleged behaviour, the institutional context, and other factors. Also, what happens if the allegations never are the focus of a formal report, but remain as anonymous rumours and stories?

How does the severity of the violence matter? While this is controversial, I think that some behaviours are ‘moderate’ or ‘minor’ enough that only a short break from public advocacy is required. Indeed, behaviours such as a single, isolated incident of inappropriate behaviour (let’s say, a sexual joke at an office meeting) may require only an apology and some reflection on one’s behaviour. On the other hand, other behaviours are ‘severe’ enough that they should disqualify that person from public roles for life.

What about the third situation, in which a man with a history of violence then seeks to become a violence prevention advocate? One problematic dynamic here is where men who have perpetrated violence then take up public roles in violence prevention campaigns in order to ‘whitewash’ their histories. They refurbish their public brand without genuine rehabilitation, contrition, or reform.[4]

However, I believe that individuals who have histories of abuse perpetration can play public roles in violence prevention and feminist efforts, providing certain conditions are in place. Such individuals should be able to speak at events, act as educators, and so on, providing that: (a) the violence they perpetrated was far in the past; (b) they have been held accountable for their behaviour; (c) they have made amends; and (d) they speak about their abusive behaviour in ways which take responsibility for it.

There is more to figure out here:

  • How far in the past is far enough?
  • Again, how does the character and severity of the violence matter? Are some behaviours ‘severe’ enough that they should disqualify that person from public roles in violence prevention for life, even if they meet the conditions above?
  • Does being ‘held accountable’ require criminal prosecution and/or formal sanction, or just some kind of public acknowledgement and reckoning?
  • What does ‘making amends’ look like?
  • Should there be a further condition, that such men should not profit personally from their involvement (through speakers’ fees, book payments, and so on)?

These are some quick thoughts on these issues. I am conscious that I have left key questions unanswered. In any case, I welcome feedback.

News items and commentaries

The following are some relevant readings on these issues.

On allegations of violence or abuse (whether against oneself or a friend or colleague) and how to respond:

On Michael Kimmel and the allegations of sexual harassment:

On a prominent ‘rape and reconciliation’ talk in 2017:

Versions of this piece

I first wrote this piece on August 7, and revised it on August 11 and 13. In the interests of transparency, I have attached below the text of the original piece, and the text of the revised piece with changes tracked.

 

[1] Details of some allegations against Michael Kimmel now have emerged, in an online article by Bethany Coston. They (their preferred pronoun) describe a range of behaviours, which I have categorised in five ways, as follows.

1. Exploitation of others’ labour

That Kimmel had students and junior academic faculty work on his papers and co-edit his books without formal reward or acknowledgement

That Kimmel had students and junior academic faculty print materials; collect and deliver mail; answer emails, find materials for his writing etc., without reward or acknowledgement

2. Inappropriate sexual talk

That Kimmel made inappropriate, sexual comments e.g. on his son’s and his own sex life, commentary on staring at a student’s breasts, etc.

3. Discriminatory behaviour

That Kimmel rewarded and privileged cisgender heterosexual male students over other students, e.g. giving them more paid work, funding their participation in conferences, internships, etc.

4. Homophobic academic commentary (in his writings)

That Kimmel wrote on gay men, lesbians, and issues of sexuality in ways which were homophobic and which did not reflect contemporary scholarship and evidence.

5. Transphobic commentary, in classroom commentary and writings

That Kimmel wrote and commented on trans issues in ways that were transphobic.

[2] I think for example of writings by Hugo Schwyzer, who was prominent as a profeminist male blogger and commentator for several years before it emerged that he had perpetrated severe forms of violence against women. I had found some insight in his writing, but knowing that history, I now read his work differently.

[3] For example, the prominent anti-feminist commentator Christina Hoff Sommers already has tweeted gleefully about the allegations against Michael Kimmel, while the notorious anti-feminist website A Voice For Men has gloated in the news.

[4] This point was made by Nina Funnell, “10 reasons why I will ignore White Ribbon Day”, The Courier Mail, November 25, 2016.