On resisting

By Charlotte Galpin

CW: sexual harassment

This is a story of resisting as a woman, and as a feminist, in a public space. Of being, to use Sara Ahmed’s words, a feminist killjoy.

I gave a public talk at a university and afterwards I was sexually harassed. What followed my talk was a response to the content of my research, punishment for explicitly naming, challenging, resisting toxic masculinity in public spaces.

My talk drew on initial findings from a small-scale, qualitative study of pro-European activism during Brexit using in-depth interviews. I argued that Brexit, and Euroscepticism more broadly, is deeply gendered. It is, amongst other things, underpinned by a highly confrontational, toxic masculinity in British political culture that has not only marginalised women (and of course also many men and non-binary people who do not conform to cis/heteronormative gender norms) from debates about the country’s future but, through violent online abuse, driven female MPs out of politics altogether.

Pro-European activists, I argued, are not merely opposing the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, they are also resisting this gendered dimension of Brexit. By applying a feminist approach to citizenship, I contended, we can understand the way in which the public sphere, the sphere of politics, of national security and the economy, has traditionally been a masculine space, rooted in colonial notions of the “rational man”, while women are confined to the private sphere of emotions and irrationality, of love, family and sexuality.  Pro-European activists, I maintained, contest Brexit in a number of ways that break down the public/private divide.

One way they do this is in their calls for a kinder and more caring society and economy. I told of the women I have spoken to who have been verbally and even physically abused on the street while campaigning but who show a phenomenal resilience and determination to carry on, to continue their resistance. I spoke of activists who campaign in informal, creative, small and personal ways that allow them to fight back and reclaim public spaces for themselves in the name of Europe.

The first comment. A man at the back, a known trouble maker as I found out later, announced that I had confirmed gender analysis is “complete nonsense”, I should focus on the real problems, immigration and EU bureaucracy. The next questions. This time from the front, from two important, powerful men linked to the institution hosting my talk. Pro-Europeans, actually. Powerful men I had been asked to personally thank in my opening remarks. Their comments wilfully misunderstood my arguments, implied I had intentionally misled the audience, discredited my claims. It is not scientific research, one proclaimed to the audience of 120 people, it lacks statistical analysis, it is not representative. This was a demand for “rationality”, the Enlightenment’s assertion of the natural scientific method. A rejection of the 20th century -male- German sociologists who recognised society cannot be studied using the methods of the natural sciences, that social science should explore subjective experience, values, social norms. The personal, the private, the emotional.

These two important men confirmed and legitimised the response of the first. They did not merely criticise my work, they tried to delegitimise it, to discredit me as a scholar. Declaring my work unscientific, they wanted to exclude me from the academic community, to strip me of my qualifications. A denial of my right to the public space of the university. Their comments were a reaction not just to a woman entering into the public sphere, speaking with authority and a platform. Women may be tolerated in public spaces, after all, if they do not kick up too much of a fuss. If they acquiesce, not shake the boat too much, leave masculine structures intact. They were responding, rather, to a woman who was resisting. One who had openly and explicitly challenged male domination in the public sphere. It was an attempt to discipline, to silence. And it created an environment in which I was subsequently sexually harassed.

A man approached me in the crowd of the wine reception as I split off from another group. How can such a young girl could have the title of Dr already, he asked, was I married, did I have children? No, I answered, but I have a partner, they are here in the room. A shame, he said. When will you be back in the city, hopefully you will not be married by then, he pondered, you really have such a lovely figure. Should we go somewhere together afterwards, just the two of us? I walked away.

In this context, I had been given a platform. I had authority, the power to educate. I had been given a formal introduction. My name and photo appeared on the event posters that guided attendees to the room. Like all forms of sexual assault, this incident was not about my relative attractiveness to this man, but about power, about his need to reduce me to my body, to demean me and objectify me in a context in which I was the one holding the power. But that power had already been challenged. My rightful place there as a scholar had been opposed by powerful, important men. What was left for him was a body to be sexualised, to be transported out of public sight to the private sphere of sexuality. Back to bed, back home, back where I belonged. Silent.

But I will not be silent. And after Britain leaves the EU on Friday, pro-European activists will not be silent either.

Charlotte Galpin is Lecturer in German and European Politics at the University of Birmingham. Her research focuses on the European Public Sphere, European identities, EU citizenship and Euroscepticism. Her monograph, The Euro Crisis and European Identities: Political and Media Discourse in Germany, Poland and Ireland, was published with Palgrave in 2017. Her current research is exploring pro-European mobilisation during Brexit. 

Protecting abusive academic men because of their ‘genius’ must stop

Jemima Repo


In the last two weeks, we have seen gender, higher education and celebrity revolving around one issue our news feeds. No, I am not referring to Angelina Jolie-Pitt’s appointment as Visiting Professor at the LSE, but rather the series of revelations relating to violence against women in academia and the celebrity-verse. First, on 20th May, Buzzfeed broke the story about two allegations against renowned Yale professor Thomas Pogge for sexual misconduct. Then, on 28th May, global news outlets reported that the Los Angeles Superior Court had issued Johnny Depp with a restraining order in response to his wife Amber Heard’s evidence of a history of domestic violence during their relationship. Finally, on 30th May, one of the world’s best-known feminist scholars, Sara Ahmed, resigned from her professorship at Goldsmiths University due to the institution’s failure to tackle sexual harassment. Brought side by side, three separate events speak volumes about how the obsession with male genius and creativity continues to sustain rape culture.

Ahmed’s bold move to give up her position in protest of her university’s  failure to protect its young female students is rare in academia. As we know, the prevailing response to complaints of sexual harassment received by universities is to hush it up. This was the case at Yale as it has been and continues to be at countless other universities in the UK, US, and beyond. Virtually all academics have heard familiar anecdotes or first-hand accounts about male professors who sleep with or pursue their graduate students, or proposition early career female academics. These are stories often shared in whispers, in jest, or through off-the-cuff remarks at the workplace, over a pint, or at a conference. Yet, as soon as such misconduct is acknowledged, it subsequently gets explained away as harmless, a private affair, or with that awful quip: “boys will be boys”. In addition, the “naïve” young student will be blamed for being foolish enough and not knowing better than to become involved with her professor. Given the power imbalance within institutions between faculty and students, this kind of victim-blaming is deplorable. When the accused is someone like Pogge, the head of an Ivy League Global Justice Programme with world-leading research credentials in ethics, global health, poverty reduction, and, troublingly, gender equity, or any other “progressive”, liberal, left-leaning academic male, the veracity of such accusations becomes virtually inconceivable. It is precisely the mirage of untouchability produced through the idolisation of male genius that enables predators to do what they do and continue to get away with it.

The Pogge case has obvious parallels with the way in which Amber Heard’s allegations have been received. While it would be a big stretch to call academics and celebrities comparable professions, it is not uncommon to refer to some academics as celebrities in their fields and to treat them as such, attending their conference talks or guest lectures just to see what they are like in person, asking for their autograph or a photograph to be posted on social media. Also, like actors, academics tend to see themselves as (intellectually) uniquely gifted and creative. As feminists have argued, those seen as gifted and creative are usually men, while women have achieved their status through hard work. This gives men certain advantages over women, such as being able to pass as the neutral, unembellished embodiment of knowledge and experience, and hence more entitled to benefits, praise and idolatry.

Social media has been rife with people saying Depp should be given the benefit of the doubt, or even calling Heard a liar, including Depp’s industry peers, even though Heard was photographed leaving the court with a bruise on her cheek. At the same time, others pointed out that liking someone is not a good enough reason to make excuses for them. The list of Hollywood men accused of violence against women is long, but these accusations (and in some cases, convictions) have rarely been an impediment to professional success. The catalogue includes Chris Brown, Nicolas Cage, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Sean Connery, Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Dennis Rodman, Steven Seagal, Mickey Rouke, Bill Cosby, Christian Slater, James Brown, James Caan, Josh Brolin, Mike Tyson, Enimem, Bill Murray and Michael Fassbender. Sean Penn stands out here as someone who like Pogge has been at the forefront of left-wing celebrity do-gooding, criticising the last Bush administration, rubbing shoulders with Hugo Chávez, defending same-sex marriage, and assisting relief workers in New Orleans and Haiti. Penn exemplifies the sort of prominent male figure, whether academic or artistic, who is always forgiven because of his art, and whose past wrongs are outright forgotten, without being righted, because of his philanthropic work.

The Pogge story is representative of an equivalent trend in academia. The sexual harassment and abuse of female students and colleagues that goes on is an open secret, but one that rarely damages the perpetrators, even when accusations reach public knowledge. And even then, even when someone speaks out, institutions will go out of their way to suppress and silence the issue, as it is not only professorial but institutional reputations that are at stake. When faced with a choice between pursuing disciplinary action that may bring the university into disrepute, or doing nothing and carrying on as before as if the problem did not exist, the careers of young female academics are the cast-away by-product of the latter choice. This would not be the case if women’s intellectual contributions were not seen as somehow expendable in the first place. What’s worse is that female students and academics know this, having been reminded of it daily in the classroom, the meeting room, the staff room, in job hires and promotions, conferences, and citations. Thus, women tend to know the price of speaking out against inequality, and the Depp-Heard case is yet another depressingly predictable case in point.

This is why Sara Ahmed’s resignation is particularly poignant. It sends a powerful signal to universities that there are also prominent figures in the profession who refuse to accept sexual harassment in their workplace. It also challenges all academics to acknowledge that their silence equals complicity in keeping rape culture alive. Ahmed’s privileged position may have enabled her to protest in ways that others cannot, but there other avenues of action for staff that cannot afford to give up their jobs. An important part of this is, as Ahmed suggested last year, finding a way to spread the cost of bringing the problem to attention. This includes naming the behaviour as harassment or abuse, proactively supporting students and colleagues subjected to it, sharing experiences with colleagues and friends that we trust, gathering a record of evidence of abuse in our circles as well as refusing to cite, invite, or share a platform with those who are yet to face disciplinary measures. Only then can we begin to stop the damage being wrecked on women’s personal lives, intellectual growth and careers.