Service, Sex Work, and the Profession

A commitment to social justice in the workplace and outside it serves everyone.
By Donna L. Potts

I serve as the chair of the AAUP’s Assembly of State Conferences, the umbrella organization for individual state AAUP conferences; a moderator for Pandora’s Project, a website for survivors of sexual abuse and assault; a volunteer for Veronica’s Voice, a support program for women and girls who are or have been involved in sex work; a faculty senator; and a faculty adviser for my university’s feminist group. My combined service takes from fifteen to twenty hours a week, and although I haven’t received financial compensation, merit pay increases, or official recognition for my service, I feel that I have no choice but to do it. In this political climate, with depleted funding for social services and escalating victim blaming, I find that tenure has at least given me the freedom to devote my time to service.

My service to the profession has been shaped by my experience as a woman in academe—which, during my undergraduate days in Missouri, was still an overwhelmingly male-dominated place. In the years before I left my conservative Christian home in southwest Missouri to attend college, feminists were routinely depicted as aggressive, attention-seeking, man-hating women (it didn’t occur to anyone that men could be feminists too). “I’d never trust a woman to be president” was one of my mother’s many antifeminist mantras, all of which were uttered with seeming obliviousness to the disappointment in her three daughters’ eyes. But feminism soon acquired a deeply personal meaning for me, and became essential to my very survival, as I endured rape by a professor during my first semester away from home, several years of domestic violence after the rape, and the full range of gender inequities that women of my generation could expect to encounter in higher education and the workplace. Gloria Steinem’s visit to the University of Missouri, when I was an undergraduate there, came at precisely the right time for me; her frank assessment of the prevailing gender double standard provided a badly needed social context for what had seemed like my own private hell. She gave feminism a face that was nothing at all like the face my mother had warned me about.

Sexual Violence and the Academy

Sexual violence is an issue fraught with complications, especially in the United States, where people are generally as squeamish about sex as they are inured to violence. Because many Americans can’t comprehend that rape isn’t really about sex but about violence, they regard it as a private matter that should be hushed up, failing to recognize that silence enables rapists to continue their behavior undeterred. The recently surfaced scandal at Pennsylvania State University was a reminder of the damage that silence can do; the power imbalance that perpetuates sexual violence while silencing discourse about it isn’t solely gender-based. Assistant Coach Mike McQueary was reluctant to use a word like “rape” out of “respect for coach,” and Coach Joe Paterno was similarly reluctant to report what he heard to his superiors because he didn’t want to interrupt their weekends. It’s easy for the public, with hindsight, to claim righteous indignation about these men’s silence and to imagine that they themselves would have reported what they discovered immediately.

In truth, however, it’s common for people to ignore allegations of rape, to leave the matter for someone else to address, and to blame the victim, especially when she is a postpubescent female—and thus presumed to be culpable at least to some degree for her rape. Americans are a captive enough audience when the rape victims are fictional characters: the same people who stayed up all night reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, whose subject is “violence against women and the men who enable it,” have no moral compunctions about ignoring the real people in their lives who have endured similar sexual violence.

Bystanders’ silence enables more violence, whereas activism offers the possibility of ending that violence. I learned to see rape not as a private experience for which I should feel shame but rather as symptomatic of a fundamental power imbalance that must be confronted for the sake of social justice. Unfortunately, I have found that academic feminism is now less hospitable to my plight than it was when Steinem arrived on the scene. Carine M. Mardorossian, in “Toward a New Feminist Theory of Rape,” cites postmodern feminism’s “notable lack of theoretical engagement with sexual violence in academia,” asking “whether an emphasis on interiority and self-reflexivity is not itself a technology of domination that pathologizes women and displaces male agency.” Mardorossian urges the feminist community to “become more alert to the ways in which the source of women’s powerlessness is constantly located within victims themselves rather than in the institutional, physical, and cultural practices that are deployed around them.” Unless we begin questioning the focus on female interiority in approaches to sexual violence, the gulf between victims and those who speak for them will continue to widen.

When a prominent feminist professor from a prestigious private university visited our campus last year, I was reminded of how wide the gulf has become. The professor, guest-lecturing in a women’s studies class, began by asking students to tell her honestly why they had enrolled in the class. “Because when my conservative parents found out I was gay, they kicked me out,” said one; “I was raped in high school, but my parents didn’t believe in abortion—thank God I had a miscarriage,” said another; and yet another, “When my stepdad beat me up, I ran away from home and ended up in sex trafficking.” The litany of horror stories that ensued left her little time for the lecture she’d prepared, much to her chagrin. That night at dinner, the professor turned to us and asked, “Were they really telling the truth, or were they just telling those stories for my benefit?”

“No,” one of my graduate students (a lesbian who had only recently come out to her conservative family) immediately replied. “They would have been telling the truth. Students around here wouldn’t have academic reasons to be in a women’s studies class. They’d have personal reasons.” I concurred, explaining that because our students are more likely to come from lowerincome families than the ones she was used to teaching, more likely to be first-generation college students, and more likely to be raised in conservative, evangelical Christian homes and perhaps even home-schooled, they were more likely to have families that could not or would not accept sexual difference, or acknowledge that rape wasn’t the victim’s fault, or concede that the sex trade was built on coercion. These families didn’t have access to the economic, legal, and educational resources to challenge their own or their children’s victimization—resources that her much more affluent students and their families undoubtedly had.

As I spoke, I felt a fierce loyalty to the students in the women’s studies class and growing rage at the professor’s willful obliviousness. Describing the students at my university, I’d also been describing myself. My conservative, fundamentalist parents hadn’t gone to college, nor did they feel any obligation to pay for college for me, even if they could have afforded it. “Feminism” was considered a dirty word, and the only time rape was mentioned, blame was placed on the woman for having dressed too seductively.

A Feminist Perspective on Service

The visiting feminist professor’s question, “Were they just telling those stories for my benefit?” alerted me to a dangerous shift in sensibility. Whereas it once was the patriarchy that questioned women’s stories about themselves—from Dr. Weir Mitchell’s treatments for hysteria to Freud’s psychoanalysis—it is now the feminists themselves, climbing a career ladder that wasn’t of their making, who can listen in disbelief to the plights that feminism once sought to address. The most immediate service to the profession that we can do on our own campuses is to keep listening to our students’ stories, responding to them through our teaching, and challenging the standards by which the profession has traditionally deemed women unworthy.

A fellow AAUP Council member’s story of his campus’s inadequate response to a student’s story of rape prompted me to teach literature involving the trauma of sexual violence, and to write about rape as well, after which I gained opportunities to provide input on university policies on rape. I was invited to serve on the AAUP’s Committee on Women in the Academic Profession and became a member of a subcommittee that drafted a statement on sexual assault. Whereas the AAUP’s role has traditionally been to protect professors from false allegations, students—mostly women but some men as well—are disproportionately likely to be victims of such assaults because they are relatively powerless. As I’ve visited various AAUP chapters, I’ve heard the stories of female professors who were, as students, sexually exploited by male professors, and as I did research for the statement, I was reminded of how often graduate students and contingent faculty, especially in heavily male-dominated departments, are victims as well. Women have told me about being forced to change their areas of study, change offices, forego conferences in their own disciplines, and even leave their institutions entirely—all because of sexual harassment and assault by full and distinguished professors, who were seldom even reprimanded for their behavior. The AAUP’s obligation to protect faculty members against false allegations of harassment or assault must be coequal to its obligation to protect the academic freedom of the victims of sexual harassment or assault.

Service for the AAUP is integral to a broader agenda of advocacy for social justice. As president of my local AAUP chapter and as a faculty senator, I have advocated for contingent faculty members whose appointments have been nonrenewed or risk not being renewed. These days, 75 percent of teaching hires are for contingent faculty, and the people being hired are disproportionately female. As the chair of the ASC, I have witnessed nonrenewal on an even larger scale: it is no surprise that attacks on public universities disproportionately affect women, minorities, and the poor and working class. Even my most liberal colleagues often justify their refusal to join the AAUP because, they tell me, in this economy so many people are “worse off” than professors. However, they fail to take into account that the AAUP ultimately serves the interests not solely of professors but of the entire educational enterprise— which includes students and academic professionals. Furthermore, the AAUP’s joint 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure maintains that tenure is ultimately a benefit for the community— not merely the professor to whom tenure is awarded. Thanks to the AAUP, those of us who are fortunate enough to have the freedom that tenure gives also have the responsibility to serve that community.

In November 2011, after learning of Penn State’s cover-up of horrific sexual violence, I sought out websites for survivors of sexual assault. I became a member of, and later a volunteer for, Pandora’s Project. Some members who return to college after their painful ordeals—child sexual abuse, assault, domestic violence—struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, and dissociative identity disorder. They frequently blame themselves for the violence inflicted on them—describing themselves as pieces of dirt, shit, used socks thrown on the floor. I encourage them to place the blame on their perpetrators, where it rightly belongs, and to find outlets—through therapy, creativity, work, reading, education. When they mention college attendance, they often express fears about being shunned by anyone who knows what happened to them, encountering their perpetrators, or feeling isolated because honesty about themselves might lead to ostracization. I’m reminded of how important it is for the AAUP to promote education on sexual assault: rape victims who talk about their experiences, and are subjected to disbelief, trivialization, or shunning, often undergo what’s called secondary wounding—an experience that may be as traumatic as the original event itself. Their fear of others’ negative reactions means that it often takes them decades to face up to the level of violence to which they’ve been subjected. By educating the academic community about sexual violence, we open up the world of higher education to these victims.

Recognizing the strong correlation between child sexual abuse and sex work, as well as the frequent use of gang rape as an initiation into sex work, I began volunteering for Veronica’s Voice, an organization founded by Kristy Childs, who comes from my hometown of Joplin, Missouri. She was coerced into prostitution as a teenage runaway escaping her stepfather’s abuse, so she understood the degree to which prostitution is the result of coercion. Named for a friend of Childs who was murdered (prostitutes’ risk of occupational mortality is higher than that of any other group of women), Veronica’s Voice seeks to help women make the transition from sex work into more meaningful work, and sometimes college education. I can’t volunteer in person as often as others because I’m two hours from its headquarters in Kansas City, but Veronica’s Voice always needs people to raise funds, write grants and promotional material, and speak to audiences.

At my own institution, I’ve been working with a professor whose research led to her appointment on the Kansas attorney general’s commission on sex trafficking. We’ve discussed ways to advocate for the decriminalization of prostitution, first for minors (it’s still a crime in all but two states) and then for women over the age of consent. College students are potential victims of the sex trade: in 2011, the Huffington Post covered the escalation in the number of college students who resort to prostitution (though they seldom acknowledge it as such), depending on “sugar daddies” to save them from drowning in student-loan debt.

As the gap between rich and poor grows, tuition increases outpace inflation, and student-loan debt becomes ever more unmanageable, feminism becomes, for many people, a label that can be applied to a privileged few—an ever-shrinking percentage of the population. Yet the worse the economy gets, the worse conditions for women are and the more likely they are to endure a variety of experiences for which feminism provides the best response. Worldwide, the number of women entering the sex trade or reporting domestic violence and other systemic abuses has risen as the economy has declined. Nicole Sotelo, a social activist who writes about women and sexual abuse, notes that “as our economy spirals out of control, people feel powerless and, in turn, often seek to control something, anything, including women, and often violently.”

My service, whether it’s for traumatized victims of sexual violence or for beleaguered faculty members, has to be its own reward. Because of my own past experiences, I have no choice but to help other survivors. A motto at Pandora’s Project is, “Survivors always have an obligation to those who will face the same challenges.” Although I can’t count on being rewarded by my institution for any of the kinds of service that I do, I am grateful to my department head for deciding to give me a course release for fall 2012 for my ASC chair work; to my department and university for supporting my AAUP service and my work as an adviser to our campus feminist group; and to my students, who value the ways my service contributes to my teaching and research.

However, because there has long been an unacknowledged gender bias in guidelines for tenure and promotion, the women who are disproportionately assigned and perform the vast amount of service are rarely rewarded for it in any substantive way. Especially in women’s studies, in which service is particularly crucial, faculty members routinely have their service overlooked—even to the point of tenure denial. According to “The Ivory Ceiling of Service Work,” an article by Joya Misra, Jennifer Hickes Lundquist, Elissa Holmes, and Stephanie Agiomavritis that appeared in the January–February 2011 issue of Academe, female professors have often been disproportionately burdened with service commitments, taking an average of one to three and a half years longer to reach the rank of full professor. If we really care about social justice, our profession as a whole, and the students making their way through the educational system, we must work to change the standards by which service to the profession is rewarded.

Donna L. Potts is chair of the AAUP’s Assembly of State Conferences and professor of English at Kansas State University. She is the author of Howard Nemerov and Objective Idealism and Contemporary Irish Poetry and the Pastoral Tradition as well as a book of poetry, Waking Dreams. Her e-mail address is [email protected].