The BBC’s #SexForGrades Video: We are the ones entrapped
Like many others, I was disappointed that in the case of the two Ghanaian lecturers, the specific claim of ‘sex for grades’ was not proven by the BBC documentary. The disappointment was founded on years of dismay and angst from hearing all these stories of sex and power play in our universities and beyond. The hope was that finally, an abuser or two would be nailed, and the other hope was that seeing someone nailed would be deterrent enough for others.
While the disappointment may be natural, upon reflection, I now understand that it is a product of me being entrapped. Many people who have been through our universities are not shocked by the video. Even those who say ‘sex for grades’ is not shown in the video can honestly not equate that to an actual absence of the practice on our campuses. Many of us know somebody who has been subjected to illegitimate sexual advances and propositions by lecturers. Or at least, many of us have heard such stories. Thus the real entrapment lies in why despite the common knowledge, most of us banked our hopes on the BBC undercover report? Why do we need a BBC report in the first place if this practice is common on our campuses and even, openly so in some instances? That is the real question.
Somebody will say, that is because the name of the game is evidence. The truth is that the evidence we look for has been sitting on the phones of many victims and in their hearts for years.
The trap focuses our minds on the BBC video — its title and investigation modus. The trap reduces the conversation to who was guilty or not per the video. The trap makes us accept that it should take some sort of sousveillance to bring these abuses under control. The trap sets the bar very low and makes too much room for less necessary conversations like ‘was she a student or not’. We cannot honestly be more outraged by not seeing what we expected to see in a BBC video than the fact that some lecturers are abusing their power and taking advantage of students. Similarly, we should be more outraged that we needed this video at all.
I have stepped out of the entrapment. May you follow. May we ask the question: what do we do now to bring real change?
I have recently looked at the University of Ghana’s Sexual Harassment and Misconduct Policy. It is a useful theoretical framework. The question we should be asking then is, if this policy exists, why do the abuses persist? That is the real question. The policy places a lot of useful emphasis on what should happen post-abuse/misconduct and then seems to rely on its existence, to serve as a deterrent. While that is all good, I have come to understand that sexual abuse/misconduct in our universities has a lot to do with exploitation of the many grey areas in student-lecturer engagements.
What we should be thinking a lot about is how to better regulate the general nature of engagements between students and their lecturers in the first place. Can I become your friend if I am teaching you? Can I teach you if you were already my friend or relative? If I can, how do I declare this friendship and what happens when I declare? Do you still get to grade the person’s paper? Where and when can a student meet with a lecturer outside of official lecture and office hours? Can a lecturer call or send a text message to their student’s private number? Can a lecturer hug their student? Can gifts be exchanged? Can we visit each other’s home?
In my school, these principles are for both professors and teaching assistants to observe. For example, you have to send emails to students via the school-given email address. Your communications then remains on the school’s server. While unrelated to sexual abuse, in France for instance, I know there is a court ruling restricting the sending of emails to workers after hours. If you claim to be a world-class institution, your ethical standards must be as high.
We really have to be super clear on the boundaries of the contact between students and lecturers/ teaching assistants and what is not acceptable therein. I have found that it is better for people to know they are breaching regulations than for us to assume that a person’s moral compass will help them to positively navigate the challenges that come with the absence of rules.
So yes, regulate these nominally harmless forms of contact as a start. The approach may seem too granular and highhanded. However, the implications of not ensuring these restrictions have been more harmful. I remember the stories of my female mates: the uncouth text messages they received and the figurative threats. We saw lecturers go on jogging with their student. We saw lecturers drink with their student. Somebody is taking liberties in the name of ‘being informal’ or ‘being cool’, and that is one of the fundamental problems.
In conclusion, I will say that the road to sexual misconduct and indeed sexism is littered with dubious informality, playfulness and show of care. This BBC product is a moment for us to exploit. The discontent it has instigated must be properly mobilized and craftily channelled. Unfortunately, it is not a skill many of our activists generally excel at.
Chasing guilt in a video should be the least of the worries. Our student bodies, school boards, the media and civil society groups should not be trapped with any less consequential debate. We should push for regulating the contact zones.
While at it, our universities should specify the nature of protection they give to students who come forward. Also, we should not forget that students also harass and abuse fellow students. The fact that the bizarre culture of openly targeting female students with catcalls still persists in 2019, should tell us all how big the problem is. The University should not say we found no evidence of ‘sex for grades’, they should ask themselves why the culture is so engrained and yet many victims are not coming forward.
May we not be entrapped!