by Sara Ahmed.
Duke, 359 pp., £23.99, September 2021, 978 1 4780 1771 4
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Sexual violence​ at universities is shrouded in myth and misunderstanding. Media reports of a ‘rape culture’ among students and ‘epidemic’ levels of sexual predation by staff have created the impression that universities are unusually sordid and perilous places. It can sometimes feel that way. But rates of sexual violence are not significantly higher in universities than anywhere else. Abuse thrives wherever power relations are unequal – in the school, the workplace, the family, the church.

The belief that sexual violence is simultaneously aberrant and rampant – lurking around every corner and yet concentrated in certain communities – has long been a pretext for authoritarian solutions: it fuels the tough-on-crime initiatives that promise to protect our daughters by locking up other people’s sons or stopping them at the border. But this tendency co-exists with another, which, when the status quo is threatened, dismisses anxieties about sexual violence as overblown, a product of heightened sensitivities or stretched definitions. According to this way of thinking, well-meaning efforts to address real but rare occurrences have gone too far (cf ‘political correctness’). The contemporary university is a place of woke-gone-mad, inhospitable to freedom of expression and common sense, a place where complaints are a powerful weapon. (In the recent Netflix series The Chair, a troubled professor’s career is ended after students take exception to an ironic Nazi salute.) This perception is by no means alien to the academy. ‘Oh, he’s being lynched by a feminist,’ I once heard a prominent philosopher remark of some acquaintance, in a tone that seemed to say: you know how it is these days.

There is no question that sexual violence is common in universities, as it is outside them. A recent analysis in the Lancet, drawing on 104 studies from 16 countries, found that 17.4 per cent of women students in higher education – and 7.8 per cent of men – had experienced an ‘attempted or completed sexual act obtained by force, violence or coercion’. This excluded the still more common experience of sexual harassment. A survey conducted by the National Union of Students in 2010 found that 14 per cent of women students had suffered a serious physical or sexual assault and 68 per cent had experienced sexual harassment. Only a minority of those who experience abuse at universities make an official complaint. A 2017 investigation by the Guardian involving 120 universities found that fewer than two hundred formal complaints had been made by students against their teachers in a period of six years.

Talk about the prevalence of sexual violence provokes a degree of scepticism: it can’t be that common – or else ‘it’ is not the real thing (not ‘rape-rape’, in Whoopi Goldberg’s phrase). The impulse to doubt, diminish or deny isn’t limited to incorrigible misogynists or rape apologists. High levels of public fear about paedophilia and ‘stranger danger’ notwithstanding, most people find it difficult to believe that sexual abuse is as widespread as the evidence suggests (the Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse estimates its incidence in the UK at around 15 per cent for girls and 5 per cent for boys). That something could be at once so synonymous with depravity and so common casts a statistical suspicion on neighbours, friends and family.

These enduring habits of thought may explain why, contrary to popular myth, it is on the whole far from easy to pursue complaints of sexual misconduct. Barriers to complaint are created not only by sexist attitudes, but also by the ways in which institutions work to protect themselves from challenge or change. The feminist philosopher Alison Phipps has written that complaints made in the context of the contemporary university, with its clearly defined market objectives, are subject to a process of ‘reckoning up’: a calculation of the cost and benefit to the institution of each course of action. Occasionally the calculus favours the swift – and usually discreet – removal of someone who has become a liability, though this is less often a removal than a relocation (the ‘pass the harasser’ phenomenon, whereby men accused of sexual harassment are allowed to ‘move on’, only for similar allegations to arise at another institution). But usually the reckoning is unfavourable to the complainant, especially when the object of complaint occupies a position of power or is considered an asset to the institution.

Common sense tells us that these institutions will handle complaints as institutions generally do: with foot-dragging, arse-covering and punitive treatment of whistleblowers. That expectation is borne out in Sara Ahmed’s Complaint!, based on forty interviews conducted with university students or staff who have made (or have reason to make) complaints. In 2016, Ahmed resigned from her professorship at Goldsmiths, University of London in protest at the mishandling of student complaints of sexual harassment. Serving as a ‘feminist ear’ for the stories of others, Ahmed’s aim is to show what the typical trajectory of a complaint reveals about the ‘institutional mechanics’ of universities. ‘I kept hearing of unexplained and excruciating delays,’ she writes, ‘confidential folders being sent to the wrong person or being posted with incomplete addresses, whole complaint files mysteriously disappearing, or meetings that were not properly recorded or that were assembled haphazardly in contradiction to policy and procedure.’ The traditional question – ‘incompetence or malice?’ – is too simple here. What Ahmed describes belongs somewhere in the middle: not (or not always) a conscious device, but something more than ineptitude.

There is also the phenomenon known as lip service. As one of Ahmed’s interviewees says, a complaint may be met with nods and promises only for nothing to happen: ‘He seemed to take it on board; he was listening; he was nodding. Ten days later I still had not heard anything. A space of limbo opened up.’ The act of nodding, Ahmed writes, can be ‘non-performative’, her term for ‘institutional speech acts that do not bring into effect what they name’. (The italics are Ahmed’s.) But as with strategic inefficiency, non-performative acts do perform a function, just not the one they suggest. Organisations often respond to criticism ‘by pointing to their own policies as if having a policy against something is evidence it does not exist’. And if showing off an existing policy won’t cut it, you can always announce a new one: ‘Creating a new policy to deal with a problem becomes another way of avoiding that problem.’

Complaint, in Ahmed’s summation, is ‘a path of more resistance’. The process can be labour-intensive for the complainant: documenting her efforts and chasing responses can come to dominate her life, sometimes leading to mental or physical health problems and withdrawal from the institution. The complainant can find herself not only weighed down but isolated and stigmatised. The person who complains is often herself considered a problem, sometimes becoming the target of a countercomplaint. She finds doors closing, backs turning on her. In line with the so-called ‘darvo’ tactic (‘deny, attack and reverse victim and offender’) characteristic of psychological abuse, the complainant is cast as the aggressor. As Ahmed puts it, ‘violence against those who challenge violence is how structures are maintained.’

Complaint! doesn’t set out any particular thesis. Ahmed isn’t trying to prove to anyone that abuse in universities is widespread and poorly dealt with. Addressed above all to fellow feminist activists, the book instead offers a discussion of the phenomenology of pursuing a complaint, the way it reveals and shapes the world of the complainant. Language is central. ‘The where of complaint,’ she writes,

is … close to the what of complaint. A complaint has much to teach us about where, about where we are dwelling. To dwell can mean to live in a particular place or in a particular way. To dwell can also mean to linger on something or to delay. Given that complaints are understood as negative, to complain is to dwell on something negative. Perhaps we can think of complaint as trying to change how people reside somewhere, which requires an act of dwelling on the problems with or in that residence. From this, we learn: trying to change a dwelling is given the quality of being negative or even destructive, to complain as a negative dwelling.

Doors (‘the back of the door; we are back to the door’) figure prominently in this landscape, hence the book’s cover image: a representation of doors in plaster by Rachel Whiteread. Windows make a brief appearance:

An opportunity can be figured as a window. A window of opportunity is the time you have when you can do something, when something is possible. When that window closes, a possibility is no longer available. Windows, like doors, are passages; they can be opened and closed, although windows are not usually intended for the passage of persons. The word window comes from a combination of wind and eye and has been compared to the old Frisian word andern, literally meaning ‘breath-door’, a window as a hole that allows the passage of air as well as light and sound. Windows enable the circulation of fresh air; a breath-door is how a room breathes, as well as how we can breathe more easily when we are inside a room.

Scattered alongside these extended riffs are more aphoristic remarks. Ahmed makes liberal use of repetition (the phrase ‘we can return to’ itself recurs throughout the text), punning and wordplay (‘To fly off the handle can mean to snap or to lose your temper. If the handle breaks, you become the one who can’t handle things’; ‘We are back to how backs become doors. You are supposed to have the back of someone who is holding the door: to have their back, to back them up’), metaphor (‘I think of an academic career and I think of a jug that could be easily shattered if it was left too close to the edge’) and rhyme (‘Hiring your friends: hiring becomes wiring … A culture is tricky because friends are sticky; they tend to stick together’).

Writing in the Paris Review, Maya Binyam suggested that Ahmed’s prose is meant to ‘mimic, stylistically’ the claustrophobic feeling induced by the ‘circuitous processes people have to go through to complain’. It’s a promising thought. But even allowing for this, it’s possible to question both the merit of the strategy and its success. What I find most troubling about Ahmed’s approach is the way in which it seems to dare us to call bullshit, thus revealing ourselves to have missed the point. As Ahmed might put it, to be seen as missing the point is also to be seen as missing something, i.e. as being deficient. Am I exposing myself as lacking a feminist ear? Am I making a feminist ass of myself?

There are political as well as aesthetic objections to Ahmed’s writing. The most obvious is its exclusiveness: while Ahmed has an enthusiastic following, her mode of expression can be off-putting, even to those within academia. Perhaps this is unfair. Charges of elitism or obscurantism are often made to discredit politically radical approaches. The problem in Ahmed’s case, though, is not that her prose is especially difficult or technical. Complaint! is less likely to meet with incomprehension than impatience. Ahmed’s linguistic adventures take up a lot of space, with the result that, despite the subject matter, the book feels less than urgent. Its three hundred pages largely avoid the areas of deepest difficulty. The most interesting moments frustrate because they remain just that, briefly surfacing only to be submerged by another wave of word association.

At one point Ahmed touches on the relationship between complaint and the marketised university. ‘My complaint was called neoliberal,’ one interviewee tells her. A group of students report that ‘they were dissuaded from lodging a complaint about sexual harassment. They were told that any complaint would be repurposed by senior management as a tool to be used against “radical academics”.’ In response, Ahmed acknowledges the potential for complaints ‘to be used for ends that are not knowable in advance’, then counters that this concern might itself be co-opted as a shield for abuse. But the same market logic that dismisses a complaint when it compromises the image of an institution or requires institutional change is capable of brandishing a complaint when it wants an excuse, say, for closing a department already earmarked for the chop.

And sometimes a complaint is neoliberal, one of the few resources available to stressed, indebted and exploited students. Not all complaints are equal. It would be naive to think that sexual misconduct is somehow immune from the possibility of vexatious complaint. There have been cases in the US of Title IX protections (which prohibit sex-based discrimination in education) being misused to attack queer academics, for instance. Complaints against Black students are more likely to lead to expulsion than those against white students. As ever, it is members of stigmatised groups and those in less powerful positions who are most likely to suffer.

These observations​ raise a more general worry. Are complaints procedures an effective vehicle for the pursuit of feminist and other emancipatory goals? Insofar as Ahmed addresses this question, her answer seems to be a cautious ‘yes’. She nods to Audre Lorde’s maxim that ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,’ but also warns that this thought can lead to defeatism, or ‘institutional fatalism’: the attitude that ‘institutions will be institutions.’ ‘When the master’s tools are repurposed,’ she suggests, ‘they can be queer tools.’ The specific proposal put forward in Complaint! – elaborated, fittingly, in a collectively written chapter – is the formation of ‘complaint collectives’: groups that can work on complaints together, providing mutual support. This is fine as far as it goes. Complaints can be used to disrupt the normal workings of institutions, to shine a light on the violence that those normal workings entail. Something similar can be said of criminal law: being critical of it doesn’t mean you can’t make use of it, for instance, to resist workplace discrimination. We may have good reason to want to change laws or complaints procedures, to ‘modify the tools’, as Ahmed puts it.

The critique of carceral solutions – those involving law, prisons and police – is by now well established. But its insights are less often applied to what might be considered ‘quasi-carceral’ systems: disciplinary procedures that have some power to compel and to penalise but which stand outside criminal law. The main objection to carceral approaches, advanced by Black feminists in particular, is that institutions such as policing and prisons are neither designed for nor capable of remedying the problems they claim to address but instead reproduce violence and inequality.

The university is not the prison. But its disciplinary mechanisms share some of the characteristics put forward by critics of carceralism: the tendency for complaints disproportionately to target, or to backfire on, the more vulnerable or marginalised members of a community; the tendency for those who make complaints of sexual violence or misconduct to be revictimised by the process of complaint; the failure to hold individual perpetrators of (especially sexual) violence to account, let alone to address its root causes. The difference, some would argue, is that universities are capable of reform in a way that prisons and the police are not. Implicit in Ahmed’s discussion is a kind of gradualism: no silver bullets, but the prospect of incremental change over time, brought about by complaint. This view is in some sense obviously correct: the culture of academia has already shifted greatly – as compared to, say, the 1970s – in its attitudes to sexual harassment and the position of women. Even so, the fact that improvement is possible (and necessary) doesn’t mean that the university can be made to function in a way that is benign or feminist, or that there aren’t inherent dangers in the use of quasi-carceral mechanisms as tools, queer or otherwise.

Feminists have had a complex and conflicted relationship with academia, for understandable reasons. While often fiercely critical, many are at a deeper level also fiercely defensive of the university – if not as it actually exists, then as an ideal. But the university was only ever partially and exceptionally the space of critical thought that many like to imagine it to have been. Without some determined resistance of a kind to which academics appear to be constitutionally averse, higher education is set to continue on its current trajectory of marketisation, with all its deleterious consequences for staff and students. We will continue to see complaints handled according to a neoliberal reckoning of market pros and cons. Anyone who hopes for a scenario in which tackling abuse is brought into alignment with institutional self-interest is placing too much faith in the market solution. As evidenced by the chimera of ‘corporate social responsibility’ – or, for that matter, by the current handling of sexual harassment complaints – the market incentivises the appearance of ethical conduct, less so the reality.

It may be that the calculus is about to shift in favour of more punitive outcomes. But it’s unlikely to do so in a way that is good news for women or feminists – or anyone else, for that matter, who has reason to complain. Government policy on higher education has two mutually reinforcing strands. The first is the ongoing effort to encourage students to assert their ‘consumer rights’ against universities and academics deemed to be failing to provide ‘value for money’. This has been facilitated by the creation of the Office for Students (chaired by a Tory peer). Concern for the interests of students is a thin cover for the advancement of a marketising agenda: the subjection of higher education – like the health sector and so much else – to the competitive logic of the market, with the failure of some individuals and institutions (‘market exit’) an essential part of the process.

The second strand is the escalating ‘war on woke’. The government is actively encouraging and facilitating litigation against universities under the aegis of ‘free speech’: anyone who feels their freedom has been infringed – by not being invited to give a talk, for example, or having students protest against their giving one – will soon be empowered to sue universities. The Office for Students will have powers to fine institutions for such breaches (as determined by a Conservative-appointed ‘Free Speech Champion’). The white paper proposing these changes claims that ‘conservative’ students may feel uncomfortable expressing their political views in class. In this context, it isn’t hard to foresee an increasing number of complaints against left-wing lecturers for failing to provide ‘balance’ (complementing the false panic about political ‘bias’ and ‘indoctrination’ in schools) or for ‘discriminating’ against right-wing students. This toxic brew of marketisation-plus-culture-war can be expected to exacerbate the pre-existing tendency, noticed only in passing by Ahmed, whereby those who teach in ways or on matters deemed ‘too political’ (gender and race, Palestine etc) are at risk of attracting complaint: ‘You are not only heard as complaining; you are likely to have complaints made about you.’

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t complain, or that there is nothing to be gained from pursuing changes to the way complaints procedures operate. Some policies are better than others, just as some ways of policing sexual violence are better than others. There are good arguments for stronger protocols against staff-student sexual relationships, as recommended by the 1752 Group, set up by some of the students Ahmed worked with at Goldsmiths, and there is reason to push for greater transparency in complaints processes (at present, victims are routinely kept in the dark about the outcomes of their complaints). The crisis facing higher education in the UK is not an excuse for delaying action on sexual violence. If we wait to save the university first, we may well wait for ever. For that reason, though, it’s hard to resist the comparison between complaining in the university as it now exists and complaining on the deck of the Titanic. It’s no surprise that so many, with or without a lifeboat, are minded to follow Ahmed’s example, and jump ship.

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