Sexual Violence Has Always Been a Labor Rights Issue

 This week, Margaret Czerwienski, Lilia Kilburn, and Amulya Mandava sued Harvard University for the mishandling of sexual harassment accusations against anthropology professor John Comaroff. The lawsuit detailing the allegations reveals that Comaroff has repeatedly sexually harassed students over the last decade and that Harvard University consistently ignored complaints and allowed the professor to intimidate his students out of reporting him. Much like allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Comaroff’s victims report a pattern of abuse and intimidation that is characteristic of men who abuse their power.

The lawsuit, which also details how the professor used the hierarchical structure of academia to abuse students, re-affirms that sexual violence has always been a labor issue. At every turn, cases like this demonstrate how vulnerable we all are to abuse, harassment, and humiliation within the structure of wage labor. While Comaroff was able to act in an “objectifying and boundary-crossing” manner towards his victims, his position as a senior scholar allowed him to intimidate younger scholars into silence. Predictably, the victims who spoke out against him struggled to finish their dissertation and had opportunities of employment and upward mobility denied. While Comaroff has received the support of scores of elite academics, his victims are dealing with the aftermath of ruined careers.

The message is clear: the only women who get to work and earn a wage are the ones who forfeit safety and body autonomy to their bosses and superiors — not only in academia but in all kinds of employment. While #MeToo has exposed how powerful people are invested in defending and covering up the sexual violence of their male colleagues, we must make efforts to expose how the labor structure itself is conducive to abuse, sexual or otherwise. Indeed, it’s time we are honest about the coercive nature of labor in society, and how this can foster unequal relationships at work.

It is important that, when we have conversations about consent and sexual violence, we recognize non-consent at every juncture of our analysis. Our very condition of working for a living is an infringement of our consent because we are being forced to work to survive — we must recognize this as a cornerstone of how sexual violence happens in our society. The non-consent of going to work every day informs the non-consent of going to work and being harassed every day. These two are intimately related, and sexual violence will continue to happen in the workplace if this isn’t reckoned with.

When we all depend on a wage to pay for shelter and food, what choice do workers have but to submit to the violence they are being subjected to? How many of us have the strength, the resources, and the support networks to seek justice like Czerwienski, Kilburn and Mandava are seeking? When our very survival is dependent on accepting abuse lest we don’t make rent, how can we deny that sexual violence has always been a labor rights issue? If speaking out might ruin our careers, how will we ever change the status quo?

Czerwienski, Kilburn, and Mandava should be commended for their remarkable bravery and persistent ability to struggle against such a powerful institution. I hope they find the justice they seek and that Comaroff is removed from his position permanently. As for how we move on from yet another horrifying case of sexual violence within the feminist movement, my hope is that these cases will continue to clarify that wage labor puts us in vulnerable situations and that our “right” to work is just coercion.

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