Dealing with Sexual Harassment and Violence in the Neoliberal University

By Tanja Wälty

The issue of sexual harassment and violence (SHV) has received more attention in recent years thanks to feminist interventions such as #Aufschrei, #MeToo, and #NiUnaMenos. At the same time, neoliberal governmentality has led to an “economization of the social” (Ludwig 2010), in which the market becomes the structuring principle for social relations. This has a significant impact on the occurrence, functioning, and addressing of SHV. Social responsibilities, and with them structural relations of inequality and exploitation, are (re-)privatized. This partially undoes what feminist struggles of the 1970s and 1980s had achieved with the politicization of sexual violence, namely to de-privatize the supposedly private. Another consequence of the neoliberal economization of the social is the belief in the neoliberal credo that everyone is responsible for their own happiness, success, and well-being (ibid.). How these developments affect the handling of sexual harassment and violence in higher education can be illustrated with a student’s response to the question why she did not seek institutional help after experiencing sexual harassment at the university: “As an emancipated woman, I can handle this myself.” This quote can be considered characteristic of the ways society, institutions, and individuals perceive, assess, and respond to SHV in a neoliberal age.

The neoliberal promise that everyone can achieve a self-determined and independent life through hard work, applying themselves, and consumption makes young women in Western societies “the ideal neoliberal subject” (Scharff 2020). Dealing with social problems (such as SHV) thus also becomes the responsibility of the supposedly autonomous and free neoliberal subject. Under the guise of emancipation, social inequalities are (re-)privatized and withdrawn from collective responsibility, which makes both their continuity and their structural dimension invisible (Morley 2018). The neoliberal attribution of responsibility to the individual for his or her own success or failure reinforces the myth of the individual fate of SHV and obscures the structural component of sexual violence as a continuum (Kelly 1996). This turns experiences of violence into the “fault” of individuals and isolated survivors (Ludwig 2010).

Photo: courtesy of @femplak_berlin.

These neoliberal developments have also found their way into the European higher education system. As I will argue in this contribution, the neoliberalization of the university has a negative impact on combating SHV in the university context: experiences of gendered, sexual violence are treated as individualized problems, making structural relations of inequality invisible and absolving the university of its accountability. Contrary to the neoliberal promise of freedom and autonomy, the neoliberalization of the university undermines academic independence in research and teaching. The focus on excellence, competition, and entrepreneurialism, the emphasis on cost efficiency, and the rise of part-time and fixed-term contracts create a meritocratic academic system (Herschberg 2019).

Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez describes three crucial aspects of the neoliberalization of European universities: the introduction of a European-modulated bachelor’s degree to create EU-wide quality standards for educational qualifications; cuts in public funding for universities in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008; and the increasing marketization of public education that began in the 1990s. As a result, there has been an increasing promotion and implementation of market-oriented learning formats, concepts, and strategies for quality assurance and control, and universities have been marketed via branding (Gutiérrez Rodríguez 2018, 103-4). To achieve excellence and high international rankings, universities must market themselves as accessible, diverse, and gender-equitable institutions. Although equality and diversity programs have become core elements of academic quality assurance and human resource management, this has hardly led to structural changes in the gendered and racialized division of labor in senior management and research positions.

On the contrary, neoliberal policies seem to not only reproduce, but even to reinforce androcentric and white power structures in the university, and with them the prevalence of SHV, as feminist scholars from the United Kingdom have pointed out. Sara Ahmed (2012) describes this with the concept of the “non-performative”: universities develop policies and commitments that pretend to do something while actually enabling them to do nothing. While universities, following a neoliberal marketing logic, like to emphasize their efforts for equality and diversity, they actually “continue to work in favor of the ruling class” (Phipps 2020, 229) by reproducing male and white leadership in high-profile management and research positions.

The neoliberal transformation of the higher education system has brought previously unknown levels of competition and economic pressure into academia, resulting in the precarization of employment and new dynamics of inclusion and exclusion (Riegraf 2018). Ironically, this has led to a conditional opening of science to women, but at the same time, the precariousness of fixed-term contracts and uncertain career prospects also reinforce hierarchies and dependency relationships – factors that favor the prevalence of SHV, making access more difficult for women and minorities. Those who want to be successful in the neoliberal university need individualism, toughness, and competitiveness. These characteristics, considered typically masculine, lead to the establishment of a “virility culture” (Morley 2016) or a “re-masculinization of the university” (Thornton 2013), “by valuing and rewarding the areas and activities in which certain men have traditionally succeeded” (Morley 2018, 15). Studies of SHV in European and German higher education contexts suggest a direct link between these androcentric structures, characterized by personal dependency relationships, and the prevalence of SHV (cf. Blome et al. 2013; Bußmann & Lange 1996; Feltes et al. 2012).

The neoliberalization of the higher education system also influences the ways universities deal with SHV. Therefore, university policies and regulations need to be contextualized in a market approach, where universities are created as a brand (Giroux 2002). In the neoliberal academic system, reputation has become one of the university’s most important assets. In order to compete for excellence and international rankings, that reputation must be polished (Ahmed 2017, 102). In this, an open and transparent approach to sexual harassment and violence is “reckoned up” against potential harm to the university’s reputation in a market-oriented logic (Phipps 2020). Examples from a case study that our research group on sexual harassment in the German higher education context conducted at the Margherita von Brentano Center at the Freie Universität about the institutional handling of SHV at German universities (Schüz et al. 2019)[1] poignantly illustrates this “reckoning up” of reputation against transparency.

The interviewed university employees, who work as counselors for people who experienced SHV, recounted examples in which universities refused to put their logo on a poster campaign against SHV or prevented the establishment of explicit sexual-harassment focal points, fearing that this would be interpreted as evidence that the university had a particular problem with sexual violence. This suggests that universities continue to see themselves as organizations that are supposedly free of sexual violence and that its occurrence is largely denied – out of fear for reputational damage (cf. Feltes et al. 2012; Whitley/Page 2015). This “institutional polishing” (Ahmed 2017) of academic reputation is incompatible with openly naming and addressing the problem of SHV. This goes hand in hand with the fact that the focus often seems to be on protecting those who are considered vital to the success of the university. In a process Alison Phipps calls “institutional airbrushing” (Phipps 2020), assaults are either downplayed and negotiated behind closed doors or, if this is not possible, perpetrators are airbrushed from the institution by being asked to leave (often with financial compensation) (ibid.). As discourse analytic studies from the U.S. have shown, universities bureaucratize, commodify, and privatize the topic of SHV through a neoliberal management discourse (Clair 1993). When specific cases of sexual assault become public, the dogma of academic freedom is strategically used to protect the accused (Eyre 2000).

Neoliberalism creates docile subjects who are characterized by “loyalty, belonging and acceptance, compensated by the rewards of self-interest and marked by the promotion of efficiency in the service of the inevitable” (Saul 2005, 13). As a consequence, there are not many options for action on the systemic level. Instead, everyone can choose individually “to become appropriate and successful within that inevitable system” (Davies/Gottsche/Bansel 2006, 308). The individualized rather than structural view of the problem of SHV at universities is closely intertwined with the logic of neoliberalism.

To succeed in the highly competitive neoliberal university system, students and scholars must somehow play the game whose rules leave little room to defend oneself against harassing behavior. This is reflected in the low number of institutionally reported cases. One reason for this is lack of trust in the institution (Feltes et al. 2012). Another is that students and junior scholars consciously or unconsciously perceive SHV at universities in the context of power structures. Survivors are aware of their own position within university hierarchies and know that those who question or challenge these structures will face consequences. Not only do universities follow neoliberal logic when they prioritize a clean image over a transparent approach to SHV, but students and young female academics also have to weigh reporting an assault against the consequences for their lives, studies, and careers.

As long as SHV are seen as individualized experiences rather than symptoms of an androcentric and neoliberal higher education system, and as long as SHV (at least in its everyday manifestations of microaggressions) is seen as a matter that an emancipated women regulates herself, as in the students’ quote in the beginning, nothing will change. Instead of non-performative policies and measurements that serve mostly the neoliberal project of institutional polishing to strengthen universities’ market positions, SHV must be challenged as a structural problem that demands collective solutions.


[1] The case study analyzes the extent to which sexual violence in the German higher education context has been normalized and tabooed for a long time and addresses the ambivalent way universities deal with the issue. Through an inventory based on the Internet presence of universities in Germany and telephone interviews with experts in counselling services, the institutional anchoring of the university approach to the topic is shown and discussed.


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Tanja Wälty is a research associate in the research project “Sexualized Harassment, Discrimination, and Violence in the Context of Higher Education” at the Margherita von Brentano Center for Gender Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin. She wrote her doctoral dissertation in Cultural Anthropology on the topic of bodies and body politics in the female punk movement of Mexico City. Her main research topics are sexualized violence, the body and body politics, social movements, and punk.

Further articles in the Gender, Sexuality, and Knowledge Production in Current Neoliberal and Authoritarian Regimes series on TRAFO:

Alena Sander, Reconciling Care Work with an Academic Career at the Neoliberal University, 11 Januar 2022

“Gender, Sexuality, and Knowledge Production in Current Neoliberal and Authoritarian Regimes”: Call for Contributions to the Series, 18 October 2021

Citation: Tanja Wälty, Dealing with Sexual Harassment and Violence in the Neoliberal University, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 25.01.2022,

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