Danielle Howe

Cambridge

CN: Sexual violence

 

The past few weeks have seen the beginnings of a shift in the #MeToo movement, moving its focus to academia. On the 4th of April, the 1752 Group published a report on sexual misconduct between staff and students within UK Universities, finding that four in ten respondents had experienced at least one instance of sexualised behaviour from staff. Covered by the Huffington Post, Varsity, ITV, the Independent and the Guardian — to name a few — it seemed to act as a much needed trigger point, inviting difficult conversations and self-reflection in regards to the safety of the institutions that we work in everyday.

With the conversation rapidly growing, yesterday academics worldwide opened up on Twitter about the prevalence of harassment, assault, and abuse within their Universities and institutions. The sheer mass of individuals coming forward, often in search of support and solidarity, but also with the hope of shining a spotlight on how prevalent these instances are within academia, left me in a state of emotional confusion.

 

“It is always those most impacted, and most likely to be triggered, who take on the emotional labour”

 

It was a kind of helplessness that sat deep inside of me and a heavy weight that left me feeling suffocated. There was no shock, not for a second, not even as I joined in the conversation myself and my notifications were flooded with (mainly) other women and non-binary people reaching out. All asking the same questions; what can we do? Can we do anything? And this collective state of hurt, fear, powerlessness seemed to channel itself into (certainly in my case) productive anger; resources were shared, journalists contacted, discussions ongoing asking, “where do we go from here?”

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And this, I believe, is an issue in itself – the fact that it is always those most impacted, and most likely to be triggered, who take on this emotional labour. When someone experiences harassment or assault within an institution, the support they receive almost exclusively falls on those who have had similar experiences. When we reach out to speak about these experiences, it is largely those who have already experienced similar things who are most ready to listen. And it is nearly always women and non-binary people, people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, disabled people, and so on, that are at the forefront of these movements.

Whilst we must always strive to listen to those who wish to share their experiences, and do so with kindness, compassion, and support, it is equally as important to look after yourself. Remember that it is okay to step back and breathe. That it is okay to log out of Twitter, turn off your phone, close the latest #MeToo article, and take a break from that emotional labour. We are not meant to process trauma and tragedy on this scale, but the internet — whilst being vital in recent liberation movements — tends to compile all the worst experiences one may have and present it to you in an onslaught of 280 character tweets, blog posts, articles, and so on. Refresh the page and suddenly there are fifty new triggering posts.

 

“Refresh the page and suddenly there are fifty new triggering posts.”

 

There needs to be a balance, but its a balance that can feel near-impossible to find. It is not surprising that those who are most emotionally involved are the ones most likely to be triggered, and also the ones most likely to feel an obligation to help as much as they can. But if you give too much of yourself, if you fail to step back when being exposed to such an abundance of potential triggers, it can too easily result in being hugely detrimental to your own mental health and recovery.

There is a difference between self-care and complacency. There is also a difference between putting time, effort, and emotional labour into something you care about, and doing so at the expense of yourself.

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The sad truth of that matter is that this is going to be a long fight. The reason I was not shocked at what was being uncovered publicly by #TimesUpAcademia was because I, and many others, are all too aware of how prevalent and widespread these issues are. Four in ten students? I would not be surprised if a larger sample size came back with much higher figures. And institutional complacency, Universities that are more than happy to do the absolute bare minimum in order to avoid bad press, but with no real interest in protecting their students and staff, is ingrained so deeply that this is not something that can be overturned overnight.

It is a long fight. And we need you. So take a breath, turn off your phone, and remember that sometimes the best way to help the cause is to look after yourself, first.

 


All images by Roman Drits

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