Three-D Issue 34: Statement on sexualised abuses of power in media, communication and cultural studies

Written by the Media and Gender group (a collective of academics working and studying in feminist media studies, mostly based in the UK. Please contact:

A full list of signatories, and the chance to add your own name in support, can be found here

We are writing to ask that MeCCSA members work collectively to challenge the endemic sexualised abuse of power within the discipline and the sector. Within the fields of media, communication and cultural studies, as in academia more broadly, there are deeply normalised cultures of gendered exploitation and sexualised abuses of power. We know this from recent reports of such abuse, and for many of us, from traumatic personal experience. First and foremost, we ask that MeCCSA members recognise this as an endemic problem that does untold damage to its victims, as well as ultimately harming our field of study by rendering it unequal, unjust and unfree.

One of the reasons sexualised abuse is so especially devastating when it occurs within our field is that academics in media, communication and cultural studies are ostensibly committed to gender justice and equality – and yet we know that abusive behaviour is rife within the field. Sexual harassment occurs on a continuum, and we must collectively commit to challenging both the visible and more invisible, insidious violence happening to academics in our field everyday (Kelly, 1987).

Abusive behaviour thrives within the hierarchical academy, and has devastating consequences for women and other minoritised groups, who are not only more likely to be targets of abusive behaviour, but are also doing the invisible but exhausting work of supporting those who have been abused. The extent to which this impacts women’s careers, often leading to an inability to work due to mental and emotional distress, and sometimes even forcing them out of academia altogether, cannot be underestimated. When women do speak up, they are often dismissed or disbelieved. For every woman who does come forward, there are countless more who are unable to tell their stories. Women are exhausted from doing this time consuming work.

We want to emphasise how urgent it is for those with power and influence to proactively address this insidious and largely invisible form of injustice. As the sector association, it is our contention that MeCCSA members need to challenge abuse within academia, an environment currently rendered hostile and harmful for women and other minoritised groups. Since abusive behaviour does not happen only within institutions (whose HR reporting procedures are often protracted, further traumatising, and entail unjust measures such as non-disclosure agreements), but in other academic spaces, contexts and networks, we need to develop much better and expansive ways of challenging sexualised abuses of power.

The men who engage in abusive behaviour often hold senior roles that have led to them being immune from consequences for their actions. We want to see an end to an academic culture in which, as the philosopher Amia Srinivasan puts it, women are seen ‘as bodies to be consumed, prizes to be won, reservoirs from which to draw’. We want an end to an academic culture in which access to women’s bodies and ideas is seen as a male entitlement.

Precarity in academia itself leads to an environment where abuse and misconduct can flourish (Shand, 2017). The combination of extreme power differentials, as well as unstable contracts and employment rights, puts victims at further risk and makes it more difficult for them to report. The fact that women are more likely to be in precarious positions within the academy increases their risk further. Endemic racism, classism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia mean that for many women, this risk is even more acute, the injustice even deeper, and the consequences even more devastating. As Kimberlè Crenshaw explicates in her germinal article on intersectionality in 1991, these issues do not occur on mutually exclusive terrains. Instead, forms of discrimination interlock, and academic bodies and organisations must recognise and challenge the signs and symptoms of systemic and systematic oppression wherever and whenever they occur.

Whilst it is clear that there are many ‘whisper’ networks within academia that act as a valuable space for women to warn each other of abusers to be avoided, it is equally clear that these are not sufficient to address the structural and insidious nature of this form of injustice. Short- and long-term measures are needed to achieve social change. Therefore, there is a strong need for comprehensive, safe, and efficient tools that can be used by women to report these abuses, and to receive widespread and cross-institutional support. There is also a need for a root-and-branch assessment of how and why sexualised abuses of power are so endemic and normalised in our field.

As staff and students who have been affected directly and indirectly by sexualised abuses of power, as well as allies and supporters, we ask that MeCCSA use its power and influence to initiate a conversation that will make our field a safer, freer and more just space. As an academic field that should be committed to challenging gender injustice and structural inequality, we hope that MeCCSA members will work collectively to help to take some of the load away from women, precarious academics, and other marginalised groups who have been doing this invisible, unrecognised and unvalued work for far too long.

Please note: This statement was written by a collective of women responding specifically to cases that have involved cis men and cis women. However, we emphatically do not wish to confine understandings of sexualised abuses of power to binaristic understandings of gender. Cis women are the largest group of victims of sexualised abuses of power in academia, but it is crucially important to acknowledge the impact of sexualised abuses of power on trans women and men, non-binary people and other men. This statement is an attempt to open up wider conversations about sexualised abuses of power in the academy in all its forms.

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