Restoring Trust in the Feminist Sociology Community

This has been a tough week for feminist sociologists. I’ll be honest, the recent sexual harassment allegations about Michael Kimmel make my heart hurt. I went to SUNY Stony Brook for my undergraduate degree and it was Michael who urged me to apply to grad school and guided me through the application process. While I know this is not everyone’s experience, he’s remained an important mentor for me through the job market and tenure. I’ve spent the past few days grappling with disappointment, anger, and the fact that someone can do good, while doing harm at the same time.

But this is not about me. I want to talk about what these allegations mean for us as a community of feminist sociologists. I think it’s safe to say our community is reeling. Folks are outraged, angry, sad, betrayed, disappointed, demanding evidence, and demanding action. This is our #MeToo moment — a very crucial time in our discipline.

I went to see “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” the documentary about Mr. Rogers the other day. In it Mr. Rogers explains that communities should be safe spaces, but they are not always. Sometimes people feel sad, unsafe, and scared even in their own communities. And there are many reasons why sociologists would feel scared or unsafe in our own community — sexism, transphobia, racism, classism, and obviously, sexual harassment and sexual violence.

So after having a good cry in the dark movie theatre, I went home and did some reading on restorative justice. Restorative justice focuses on healing survivors and communities by restoring broken social relationships. The theory behind restorative justice is familiar to sociologists — crime is a broken social bond, a betrayed social relationship.

I think the community healing part of restorative justice applies well here. We may never learn the outcome of the current allegations if they are pursued through legal channels. Unless there is a public confession by the accused, or survivors come forward publicly (and we do not need to pressure survivors to do so just because we need evidence), we might not see consequences for unjust actions, and that doesn’t give our community any kind of closure.

So how do we move forward as a community, to heal our collective trauma and make needed changes?

First, we have to recognize the wide range of the trauma we are experiencing. We must provide support and a safe space for survivors of sexual harassment and assault. But we also must think about other “collateral damage” — victims who have different professional and personal relationships with the accused. Some victims are more professionally vulnerable than others (grad students) and need additional support.

Second, we must to steer clear of potential community divisions. We must move beyond issues of needing proof or confirmation of accusations to find common agreement that as a community we have a cultural and institutional crisis. We need to be weary of competitions over “who is the better feminist” or calls to “test” feminists by demanding certain responses to allegations. Trauma is not experienced the same way by everyone. Instead of calling people out, we need to call people in.

Third, we need to focus on the work that can only be done together. Our feminist community has failed to protect and support victims. Sexual harassment and assault have continued unchecked. We must strengthen social ties so that we have a supportive environment where victims feel comfortable confiding in colleagues and mentors and reporting is less risky for them. We need to listen to criticisms that tell us how we fail to protect our most vulnerable members and adjust our community practices accordingly.

We must hear the survivors. But what we do as a community with what they tell us will literally shape our future. The work ahead will be some of the most difficult and important work we do.