Coercive Control, Violence, Sexual Harassment, and Unsafe Work Environments

I have a lot of research to do, and so these thoughts are ill-formed. Writing because it is helpful for me to write this out (and to come back to it later) and hoping it might be useful in some other way, too.

The Libraries at UF have so many awesome folks, and many are reading Knowledge Justice together. First, the book is great, and everyone should read it. And, the Libraries are great and so lovely to read together. I’m not responding to the book or the reading group; I’m responding to my understanding of this chapter in relation to my work/life experiences and research over the past decades.

Today’s discussion session was on chapter 1, “Not the Shark, but the Water” on neutrality and vocational awe:

As Alan Freeman points out, much like the US and its antidiscrimination laws, libraries have policies on only the most blatant forms of racist attack, in which perpetrators clearly intend harm. There are no policies that support a library’s only person of color working at a reference desk when a person wearing a T-shirt promoting a hate group comes to the desk. (64)

Passages like this reminded me of feminist work on sexual harassment as part of a continuum of violence, acting as coercive control, wherein the repeated, consistent perpetration of acts (not all overtly violent) consistute crimes against liberty. Do workplaces allow people to have messages that constitute sexual harassment on shirts? And, do they allow this to happen consistently, as a repeated pattern, where workers would feel perpetually under attack? The handling on sexual harassment seems rooted in a fundamentally different place. I don’t know enough yet about the history of sexual harassment laws, rules, and trainings, but it seems useful to consider the concept of coercive control. From a summary on coercive control:

In most parts of the world, law, policy and prevention work addressing domestic violence is created based on a “violence model,” which “equates partner abuse with discrete assaults or threats.” [1] This model, Stark argues, is faulty because it assumes the severity of the domestic violence can be accurately measured based on evaluations of psychological and physical harm done to the victim in a specific episode or instance of physical violence. The “violence model” treats abuse as episodic, occurring only at the time of a specific instance of physical assault. 

This approach fails to take into account the “well-documented fact that physical abuse almost never consists of an isolated incident” and that almost half of all reported cases involve serial abuse in which victims reported daily assaults over the lifespan of the relationship [2]. As a result, laws and policy target only physical violence, but ignore and minimize the tactics abusers use to subjugate their victims. Abusers, if arrested, will often receive minimal punishment and victims are stigmatized and receive little to no relief because police, service providers and the general public inaccurately assume there is “time ‘between’ assaultive episodes” where victims can make decisions to leave the relationship if they have been harmed [3].

Because the “violence model” fails to recognize the damage of the coercive and controlling behaviors abusers utilize to subjugate their victims, it ignores the type of abuse that causes victims the most harm and leads most women to seek outside help.

It seems to me that approaching workplaces from more systematic views will be productive for change, and that coercive control and what seems to be the foundation for sexual harassment will be useful. I’m also very interested in thinking about collective organizing and bargaining and work to formalize structures to demand safe working conditions, and I need to read a lot more anthropological work on violence to effectively understand and parse violence as one-time specific action and system/pattern.