Content Warning: This article discusses gender-based violence. Gender-based violence “refers to harmful acts directed at an individual based on their gender. It is rooted in gender inequality, the abuse of power and harmful norms.”
I write this article in honor of the survivors of gender-based violence filing the class-action lawsuit against the University of Michigan for allowing former U-M athletic doctor Robert E. Anderson’s decades of abuse to continue unabated, and for all other survivors of gender-based violence. This story belongs to them and to all of the survivors who go unheard and continue to be failed by oppressive systems, which perpetuate violence and inequity against marginalized groups on this campus, in this country and across the globe.
I am no expert; I do not hold all the answers to solve this complex, nuanced issue. I write this, first and foremost, to call for justice for survivors, a form of justice defined solely by them and what they need to heal, varying on a case-to-case basis. They deserve better.
To all survivors, thank you for protecting all of us in filing this suit. The University knew of this abuse and failed all of you and the rest of our community by enabling it. If the University cares about its students, it would take responsibility for this unimaginable injury and validate these survivors.
Second, I write this as a call to myself and all of us to continue to reckon with the reality of gender-based violence, a reality we construct and maintain, and to start to think of and pursue solutions to deconstruct it. I hope this op-ed encourages further debate, reflection and action when it comes to addressing and dismantling the oppressive systems that create gender-based violence.
Case I: Former U-M provost Martin Philbert sexually harassed multiple people over two decades throughout his entire career at the University while rising in ranks from professor to dean to provost, the head of the office that oversees cases of gender-based violence. University officials, including President Mark Schlissel, knew of the rumors, now proven true, circulating about Philbert’s misconduct and failed to launch investigations until the 2018-2019 school year.
Case II: More than 150 survivors have come forward, filing individual lawsuits and a class-action lawsuit, against the University in response to the University’s handling of sexual abuse of students by former athletic doctor Robert E. Anderson dating back to the 1960s. The University has received over 460 complaints against Anderson. Worst of all, former football coach Bo Schembechler and former athletic director Don Canham allegedly knew about Anderson’s actions and failed to do anything in response at the time. Anderson worked until his retirement in 2003, despite being demoted for his behavior in 1979.
Case III: The Michigan Daily uncovered 40 years of harassment and sexual misconduct allegations against Stephen Shipps, School of Music, Theatre & Dance faculty member.
Case IV: Employees at Clinc, an artificial intelligence start-up, made allegations of sexual misconduct against Jason Mars, Clinc’s CEO and professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University; some faculty wrote a statement calling for Mars to take a leave of absence. He taught an undergraduate course during the Winter 2021 semester.
Case V: In 2019, the University conducted a survey on sexual misconduct. Critical results include: 12.4% of women and 1.7% of men experience rape on campus; 20.4% of women and 4.2% of men experience nonconsensual sexual touching on campus; 34.3% of undergraduate women remain most at risk for experiencing nonconsensual touching and penetration on campus; 17% of undergraduates, and 26.4% of women, experience unwanted kissing and sexual touching prior to coming to the University; 6.7% of undergraduates, and 10.6% of women, experience unwanted penetration or oral sex prior to coming to the University. Marginalized groups, including women, transgender students, genderqueer or nonbinary students and students with disabilities, are the most at risk for experiencing unwanted sexual behaviors (stalking, sexual harassment, intimate partner violence and rape).
Case VI: English professor Douglas Trevor cannot conduct undergraduate office hours with his door closed nor hold U-M leadership positions for two years in light of allegations of harassment.
Case VII: The University placed EECS professor Peter Chen on administrative leave following criminal charges for sexual misconduct with a minor.
When I contemplated joining a class-action lawsuit against the University of Michigan in support of survivors of gender-based violence perpetrated by a University official, I knew I needed to sign my name on the line. No matter how long I thought about it, no matter the amount of anxiety throbbing deep in my gut, I understood my privilege in that I, fortunately, never experienced gender-based violence myself. By signing, I would not endanger myself nor be forced to recall a traumatic experience.
Because, fortunately, it did not happen to me.
I write this with a hot face and shaking hands. Not because I fear response to this piece, but it is my fear of the meaning of “fortunately” — meaning it could happen to me — that terrifies me. This fortuity acts as a coping mechanism because gender-based violence does not come down to fortune nor random happenstance.
Fortuity ignores intentionality. It ignores the intentional construction of systems of oppression — institutions, structures, behaviors and norms perpetuating sexism, racism, classism and other forms of oppression — that root themselves deeply in society. It ignores how these oppressive, patriarchal systems socialize us and pervade our culture. It ignores the way these systems enable privileged individuals and allow them to commit heinous acts while facing no consequences but condemns those with less privilege and silences survivors. It ignores our broken legal and mass incarceration systems that fail survivors while propagating further violence inside and outside prison walls.
Thirteen percent of all undergraduate and graduate students experience rape or sexual assault on higher education campuses across the country. For undergraduate students, 26.4% of women and 6.8% of men experience rape or sexual assault on higher education campuses; among graduate students, these numbers are 9.7% of women and 2.5% of men. College-aged students are at higher risk for gender-based violence, and gender-based violence is more prevalent than other crimes on higher education campuses. On average, 463,634 individuals age 12 or older are victims of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States; every 68 seconds, someone is sexually assaulted in America. Individuals ages 12 to 34 are more at risk of experiencing gender-based violence. One in six American women has been raped or experienced a rape attempt. 82% of juvenile people who experienced gender-based violence are women and 90% of people who are raped are women. About 3% of men have been raped or experienced a rape attempt. Twenty-one percent of transgender students have been sexually assaulted.
The criminal legal and mass incarceration systems meant to uphold justice for survivors often fail: Out of 1000 sexual assaults, 975 perpetrators walk free. However, a majority of sexual assaults go unreported; only 310 out of every 1000 sexual assaults are reported to the police. According to Danielle Sered in her 2019 book “Until We Reckon,” people who face incarceration experience high rates of violence inside and outside prisons. A 2007 survey conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that 60,500 people incarcerated in state and federal prisons were sexually abused in the twelve months prior to the survey. Authors Susan Burton and Cari Lynn share in the 2017 book “Becoming Ms. Burton” that approximately 94% of women who are incarcerated experienced physical or sexual abuse. BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folks bear a heightened risk of experiencing gender-based violence.
I could list more statistics and facts, but numbers and objective statements can be easily ignored. The person who commits harm could be anyone: a friend, a family member, a stranger on the street, a teacher, a counselor, a prison guard or, in this case, a doctor. People “you should trust” commit these harmful acts.
We continue to blame individuals, their injurious and painful behavior and moral ineptitude, but fail to also blame the systems that raised these people. Yes, we must hold individuals accountable for harm. But we must also hold our society accountable for not preventing harm in the first place, reproducing harm (such as in the sexual assault reporting process, in the prison system, etc.) and failing to rectify harm.
Gender-based violence appears in our streets, in our homes, in our schools, in our hospitals and places of care, in our work environments and in the legal and mass incarceration systems. It affects all groups, some — those with marginalized identities — more than others, reinforcing existing disparities. And it is only when we step back and view these not as individual, isolated incidents, but collective, systemic consequences of reproduced oppressive systems of power, that we can fully eradicate gender violence at all levels of society.
Collectively, those with privileged identities and experiences must particularly speak out against gender violence. We must destigmatize coming forward. We must empower and support survivors. We must break down the poisonous culture of toxic masculinity that proliferates aggression, violence, lack of respect, suppression of emotions and the silencing of survivors. We must support individuals with substance abuse addictions or those who engage in high amounts of drinking and drug use, as drug and alcohol use plays “an important role in the perpetuation of gender violence and in coping with victimisation among women.” Again, I do not hold all the answers. We face a beast of intertwined systems. But we can start with ourselves — internal change, growth of consciousness and transformation — and our communities. At the University of Michigan, this class-action lawsuit can be a start, necessitating justice for the survivors and systemic, institutional change. We do not want band-aid fixes; we demand that the University honor the survivors’ wishes, re-evaluating and transforming itself from the inside out.
As a society, we must ask ourselves, what does justice look like and what are alternatives to the current ways we address this issue, among many other issues of violence? In other words, what are alternatives, like restorative justice, to the “justice” of our current, ineffective criminal-legal system that destroys relationships, instead of mediating them, and reproduces harm? And how can we adopt cultural and structural changes to prevent gender-based violence in the first place?
To end, two powerful quotes from a powerful activist, Dr. Angela Davis:
“Rape bears a direct relationship to all of the existing power structures in a given society. This relationship is not a simple, mechanical one, but rather involves complex structures reflecting the interconnectedness of the race, gender, and class oppression that characterize the society. If we do not comprehend the nature of gender-based violence as it is mediated by racial, class, and governmental violence and power, we cannot hope to develop strategies that will allow us eventually to purge our society of oppressive misogynist violence.”
“We will never get past the first step in eliminating the horrendous violence done to women in our society if we do not recognize that rape is only one element in the complex structure of women’s oppression. And the systematic oppression of women in our society cannot be accurately evaluated except as it is connected to racism and class exploitation at home and imperialist aggression and the potential nuclear holocaust that menace the entire globe.”
Josie Graham is a junior in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts and can be reached at email@example.com.