Oberlin Engages In Wider Conversations About Sexual Misconduct

Editor’s note: This article contains discussion of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

The #MeToo movement — started in 2006 by Tarana Burke to support women and girls of color who have survived sexualized violence — became a household phrase in the waning months of 2017 when a number of prominent men across multiple industries were accused of sexual harassment or assault, and the hashtag went viral on Twitter. During this time, people spoke up about sexual misconduct perpetrated by the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Larry Nassar, and Roy Moore, among many others. The #MeToo movement has also prompted difficult conversations about gendered power dynamics, the limits of acceptable sexual behavior, and whether art can or should be separated from the artist. The movement has proven itself to be as relevant on Oberlin’s campus as it has been everywhere else.

For Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and Title IX Coordinator Rebecca Mosely, the #MeToo movement has coincided with a number of conversations and efforts that have already been in motion on campus for a number of years.

“I think Oberlin has been in a space on campus where the awareness has been here for a number of years now, and so I would say within the student population here, I think it has had less impact, though it brings support to the work that students were already doing,” Mosely said. “I would say the impact to me is supporting more [alumni] of the College as they become aware of the #MeToo movement outside of what we’re doing here, because they don’t have the same privilege to be part of what we’re already doing here on campus. They’re not getting that education in their daily life. #MeToo, I think, has brought awareness beyond our campus, and that has definitely had an impact for [alumni] to feel like they can finally speak up and speak their truth.”

The Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion has engaged in concrete efforts to reduce gender-based discrimination and violence on campus with the Preventing and Responding to Sexual Misconduct Program, a peer education program in which student trainers host workshops to teach students about issues including consent, intimate partner violence, bystander intervention, and supporting survivors.

“Our PRSM trainers … also created a number of other workshops to take it beyond [the mandatory trainings],” Mosely said. “Fall semester, an additional workshop that they did was Consent for Men, and they had over 50 men show up to that workshop, which I think just speaks to the interest of our students in making sure that people are trying to get it right.”

College junior and PRSM trainer Kira Findling said that PRSM navigates one of the many conflicts raised by the #MeToo movement — namely, that some people feel unwanted pressure to share their stories.

“One thing that we emphasize a lot in PRSM is supporting people who’ve been harmed, so that means telling people that it’s OK if they want to share their stories, and it’s also OK if they don’t want to share their stories,” Findling said. “It’s been really interesting hearing people talk about the #MeToo movement, some people feeling pressure to share things they don’t want to share and other people feeling really empowered by it. So I’m definitely happy to see that the larger world is reflecting conversations that we have all the time here.”

Within the #MeToo movement, people have been sharing stories of experiencing sexual misconduct and violence both as their own narratives and through artistic mediums, which can be an empowering but also a deeply challenging experience.

“How do you as a performer, or a writer, but especially as a performer — as a survivor, personally — how do you work to be healthy in the way you go about exploring your character’s experiences and your past experiences?” asked College junior Chloe Falkenheim, who recently starred as Girl Angel in the Oberlin production of Angel’s Bone, an opera about human trafficking. “That’s a main thing that performers will need to keep in mind, as I hope that there are more and more pieces that explore sexual violence in a sensitive way. Everyone will have to figure this out. How do we as actors work with that in a way that’s healthy for ourselves?”

For PRSM trainer and College senior India Wood, one of the most telling moments of the #MeToo movement was the conversation sparked by an article in Babe magazine about an anonymous woman, referred to as “Grace,” who accused Aziz Ansari of sexual misconduct while the two of them were on a date. In the article, Grace describes how Ansari repeatedly tried to initiate sex with her, despite her repeated indications that she did not want to — including repeatedly moving away and verbally telling him to “chill”. In response to the Babe article, Ansari released a statement saying that he viewed his encounter with Grace as “by all indications, completely consensual.”

“I think especially with the Aziz Ansari case, that really freaked people out because some people didn’t even know why what he did wasn’t OK,” Wood said. “That, in my opinion, goes to show the ways in which we completely misunderstand people’s cues, and the way that we misunderstand having open conversations about preferences and what we want and what we don’t want. Even on this campus, too, I really don’t think people have the language skills around sex and sexuality and love and romance to be able to talk about these things in ways that allow for completely consensual and good interactions to occur.”

The Aziz Ansari story also resonated with College senior Sarah Blum, especially as it relates to sexual behavior at Oberlin.

“I think, for me, the story [from the #MeToo movement] that I found to be the most teachable was when Aziz Ansari’s interaction with a woman became viral,” Blum said. “I remember reading this, and I remember thinking that this is about many Oberlin men I’ve encountered — feminist on the outside, but in their interpersonal relationships, they really still have a long way to go.”

Blum, who noted that the #MeToo movement has led to important conversations and meaningful changes both large and small, also spoke about some of the ways in which it remains flawed.

“I’m conflicted about [the #MeToo movement], because I think it’s a really great thing to bring to the surface,” Blum said. “But I think that conversation needs to be moved to perpetrators. As someone who has been sexually assaulted myself, this movement brings nothing new to the table. Once I was sexually assaulted, it was very clear to me that almost nine out of ten of my friends had also been through something similar. I didn’t need a #MeToo movement to know that. As a woman, oftentimes, in positions of supporting other women, you know. The #MeToo movement seems to be calling out men, generally, who do this — and anyone else who finds themselves in that position — but I feel like it’s not enough.”

For Blum, another major issue with the movement is how it places the burden on the people who have been harmed without sufficient accountability for allies who claim to support them.

“Typing #MeToo is a really easy action to do,” Blum said. “And once again, putting that burden on the women that have been harassed and assaulted just perpetuates [a system where] the people that have been hurt are usually the ones doing the work. ”

Faculty members have responded to #MeToo in a variety of ways, from including supplementary material in classes to expressing interest in more trainings.

“In the past, we’ve offered Title IX trainings and workshops for faculty, and there’s been great interest in that,” Conservatory Associate Dean for Academic Support Chris Jenkins said. “That’s something we’re looking to do more of in the future, and making sure people have access not just to information, but also to new modes of thinking and interrogation about how they form their mentoring relationships as music educators.”

“We’re reading an article this week in my Chinese language class about the #MeToo movement in the context of Chinese women standing up to sexual harassment in academia,” College senior Eliza Edwards said. “It’s really powerful to watch #MeToo spread from Tarana Burke to Hollywood to Oberlin and beyond — it strikes me as pretty incredible that a movement can have such a swift impact not only on an intensely personal level, but also on a global stage.”

One of the most visible ways that the #MeToo movement has manifested on campus was when former Associate Professor of Creative Writing Bernard Matambo abruptly resigned last semester after multiple accusations of sexual misconduct toward students had been made against him (“Matambo Resigns Amid Sexual Misconduct Allegations,” The Oberlin Review, Dec. 1, 2017). As the accusations against Matambo came to light, Creative Writing students had to wrestle both with this information about a widely-liked and widely-trusted professor, and the logistical issues raised by losing a faculty member midway through the year.

“I know a lot of students who either had [Matambo] as first-years last semester or who have been working with him for many years,” said College sophomore Gillian Palsey, one of the newly-elected Creative Writing major representatives. “It was pretty shocking and threw a big wrench in the academic year to have [this person] who was once a beloved professor just leave very abruptly. I think there was a lot of confusion surrounding that. At first people were like, ‘Did the school do something to wrong him?’ But then as news started to come out and rumors started to spread, it became more of a talk about sexual harassment on campus and from the faculty at large. And I feel like it makes sense that it came out during this time, because of the #MeToo movement. I think that probably had an effect, perhaps, on why the person who came forward decided to come forward when they did.”

As Jenkins noted, one of the places where the #MeToo movement may continue to be especially resonant on college campuses is in discussing and addressing the ways that potentially harmful power dynamics can manifest in mentorship relationships.

“Historically, we haven’t really talked about issues of sexual abuse and exploitation that sometimes have been a feature of music life and musical training,” Jenkins said. “So it’s especially important, I think — not just at Oberlin, but in general, and in all genres of music — that people grapple with these issues and have these discussions about the kind of exploitation that can go on. I don’t want to say it’s common, but I don’t know that it’s uncommon historically for this type of exploitation to occur in some of the mentoring relationships between musicians.”

#MeToo has also manifested on campus in one of the current exhibitions at the Allen Memorial Art Museum: Handle with Care: Embracing Fragility, curated by Olivia Fountain, OC ’17, a curatorial assistant for Academic Programs. The exhibit features a number of works by contemporary artists, including a portrait by Chuck Close. In late December, shortly before the show was going to open, Close was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women. Fountain chose to leave the work in the exhibition, but added an additional label that explained this new context to the work, as well as a comment book for people to leave their reactions.

“My original instinct was to remove the piece, and there were a number of reasons why I ultimately decided that that wasn’t the best idea, one of them being purely logistical — the show was literally ready to be mounted,” Fountain said. “But, after having this conversation [with other museum curators] and talking with a lot of my peers and doing a lot of soul-searching on my own, I decided that the most effective way to force this kind of conversation to happen in the Allen — the conversation being whether or not we can separate the art from the artists in a museum space — would be to definitely not shy away from what happened, but also to leave the work up. And so I decided to recontextualize it, to write an additional label being pretty explicit about what happened. The label says something to the effect of, ‘If this information had been available sooner, it would not have been included in the show,’ and that’s true. If I ever curate anything again, I will never include something by Chuck Close.”

For Fountain, her experience raises wider issues about the ways that museum curators and audiences can respond to the #MeToo movement.

“I don’t think a lot of museums are going to be taking works down,” she said. “Maybe in the context of Chuck Close they will, but there are so many artists that this could apply to — the question becomes, once you start, how do you stop? Where do you draw the line? And I think that by instead recontextualizing these pieces and being very, very up-front in your label text or whatever literature you’re providing in the gallery about the artist’s background, especially as it relates to sexual harassment and abuse, I think that’s crucial. That’s a museum’s job, so by recontextualizing this Chuck Close piece, I wanted to demonstrate something that museums can do. If taking things down feels like a bad idea for a bunch of different reasons, we can put more stuff up. But I also think, moving forward — the thing I just said about when you start taking stuff down — where do you draw the line? That speaks to the fact that museum galleries are filled with art by men that have abused women, and that’s a problem. It’s something that we as museum professionals need to actively work to counter.”

Full transcripts from the interviews included in this article can be found here.