Starting with the earliest days of this left-wing university, women had been objectified and trivialized, and there were constant reports of sexual assault and harassment. “To be a woman at Vincennes… is regularly to get treated like a sexual commodity, and in case of refusal, to get insulted or physically assaulted; to fear going alone to the bathrooms or to the cafeteria; to carve out a carefully circumscribed territory on campus where you can feel safe.” The demographics of the student body evolved over the course of the 1970s, shifting towards a heavily foreign public. An education professor and gay activist, Georges Lapassade, explained in 1977 that “Vincennes has always been a society of men. Now it is a society of foreign men” (Soulié 2012:187). The campus was most likely one of the most racially diverse in France at that point.
This raised questions about how to think about racial difference within feminist spaces. Feminists called sexism “a racism just like others,” and feminist organizing acquired an internationalist bent. In 1978, the campus Women’s Group [Groupe Femmes] was joined by the group of Latino-American women and the Coordination of Black Women, proposing the slogan, “women’s oppression has no borders” (Guimier 2019:97). Black women needed their own space, as the Guadeloupian feminist Gerty Dambury recalled, “because we felt insufficiently — or not at all — represented, because we were not allowed to speak and we did not want to be spoken for by others” (2017).
While 1970s politics are heavily documented, I do not have the archival sources for a general history of gender relations or feminist organizing at Paris 8 in the 1980s, 1990s, or early 2000s. But I found during my fieldwork, in 2009–11, that feminist politics remained relatively marginal on an otherwise very activist-friendly campus. Gendered sexual violence was a reality in French university spaces, as French activist groups have sought to make clear for decades. Yet administrative processes for handling sexual harassment remained controversial, and official discourses cast campuses as spaces of refuge against hostile environments. In a January 2017 communiqué, left-wing student activists responded to campus securitization with a fierce rejoinder. “While they pretend to ‘protect’ us by enclosing our universities within an apparatus of security and control, we affirm: our aggressors are already inside!”
When I spoke to a feminist student in the Philosophy Department, Jocelyn, I heard a critique of everyday masculinism that was far removed from public departmental discourse. I must note here that, while I was generally an awkward interviewer, on this issue my awkwardness was even worse than usual. I am embarrassed to read my part of this transcript; yet it demands to be examined.
I prefaced my question about gender relations by describing a climate of pervasive, awful sexual harassment in American analytic philosophy, which was documented on blogs such as What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?
Eli: But for the [Paris 8 Philosophy] Department, spontaneously I haven’t had the impression that it’s as bad as that, internally. I haven’t had the sense there are acts of sexual harassment that are very—
Jocelyn: No, I think there are.
Eli: Oh? I’m so clueless about this.
Jocelyn (whispering even though we’re alone): No, I think there are. But um, without details, meaning that I say it like that and yet… In any case there are profs that I wouldn’t want to be around, which is already saying something. And moreover, just the fact of feeling it is already pretty dubious. As is learning, from having talked to others, that there’s a certain vibe that I’m not the only one to feel…
I had certainly experienced for myself that the Department was a very male dominated space. But as a male-labeled and male-socialized researcher, I either did not witness or failed to recognize the gendered harassment that Jocelyn described. She readily classified the male professors into two groups.
Jocelyn: So, I think you have two categories [of problem men]. [Firstly,] personally I know of two profs with whom I just would not feel at ease, you know?
Eli: Who are they?
[I’m so embarrassed that I was so indelicate about this topic.]
Jocelyn: It’s, um, X. And Y. With whom it absolutely isn’t OK. Especially Y because I find — myself, I find that he has a way — a way of looking at me that I find [sharp intake of breath]. You know?
It proved very hard to talk about this sort of objectification directly, partly because of my own gendered position, and partly because strategic ambiguity was intrinsic to this mode of male sexualization.
Jocelyn: Yes, but then I say to myself, wait, admittedly I don’t know him, I’ve never taken his class. Possibly he’s just getting singled out because I’m speaking definitely here. And then there’s X, because I always find him iffy [limite] with his women students. I often find him leaving with his women students, you know, alone, along the lines of, going to smoke with the students, you know, on a little bench, in the Paris 8 gardens.
Jocelyn: So you know, what is this lunacy, right? You know, he’s always very physically close to them, and I find that absolutely, truly, very very iffy [très, très limite]…. (Long pause) Which doesn’t say anything whatsoever about what they’ve actually done, or not, but —
Jocelyn: I find it—
Eli: It does create a pretty recognizable impression.
Jocelyn: Yes yes yes. I find it very iffy [très limite]. And in any case it wouldn’t get you punished for sexual harassment. But still it could be called sexual harassment, what they’re doing. So there’s a first category [of, in effect, toxic men].
The iffy — my translation of limite — traced the bounds of Jocelyn’s efforts to make sense out of her experiences, which had a certain ambiguity, and yet ultimately were decidedly unambiguous. Indeed, they revealed a strategic use of ambiguity by certain male professors themselves, creating plausible deniability for sexualizing their students. Alongside these specific forms of sexualizing conduct, Jocelyn also noted a more infrastructural sort of sexism embedded in men’s habits and ideologies.
Jocelyn: And then you have a second category that’s more problematic – where you have at a minimum, these ultra masculinist attitudes. And you find them among practically everybody… That much is quite certain and [intake of breath].
Eli (lost for words): Hmm.
Jocelyn: And then there’s the fact that there’s no courses whatsoever on questions of gender or sex.
Eli: Yeah, it’s shocking.
Jocelyn: It’s aberrant. You know, it’s aberrant.
Jocelyn: … And even our friend A, he’s sure he’s a feminist and all that. But he just doesn’t get it, really he doesn’t get what it’s about… I like him a lot, but he has a real problem with this, and B too. Not in quite the same way as A, but still.
Eli: It makes me think I should have reacted more strongly to this sort of thing. Because this behavior presupposes at least tacit support from people around them.
Jocelyn: That said, we could have insisted on doing a student seminar on gender questions. Maybe we should still do that. We could have done it, but— [long pause]
Eli: It would be good to hire more women professors.
Jocelyn: Yes, that’s for sure.
Eli: I don’t really get the sense they’re thinking about that.
Jocelyn: But well, that’s for sure, yes.
We went on to talk about the longer history of sexual harassment at the university, dating back to the 1970s, and the ongoing struggles to establish institutional procedures for sexual harassment cases.
There was something clandestine about this part of our conversation, as if it was unsafe to talk about these issues.
It seems to me a long-term historical failure of this Philosophy Department that this was still the situation, 40 years after the Women’s Liberation Movement began on that very campus.
Undated political tract, “Être femmes à Vincennes,” reproduced in Guimier 2019:94. ↩
Cited in Soulié 2012:187. ↩
In 2002, the most prominent national activist group came into existence: CLASCHES, the Collectif de lutte contre le harcèlement sexuel dans l’enseignement supérieur (Collective for fighting sexual harassment in higher education). Yet It was only in November 2018 that detailed campus-level research was published on violence against students, including sexual harassment and assault (Lebugle et al. 2018). ↩
“Harcèlement, violences sexuelles et sexistes dans l’enseignement supérieur : défendons-nous !”, Solidaires Etudiant-e-s, 24 January 2017, https://www.solidaires-etudiant.org/blog/2017/01/24/3536/. ↩
I owe this point to Megan Steffen (personal communication, 2018). ↩