Hostile Work Environments and Unraveling Tapestries: A Follow-Up to Untouchable

Untouchable took me a month and a half to write, but I spent four years trying to articulate its content. As (the blessedly many of) y’all who read it probably saw, I referenced fifteen other pieces I’ve put out since early 2017. This morning, I piled all sixteen posts into a single document to check the word count, and it came out to just under 29,000 words—or about half of the minimum requirement for a full-length novel. It was 47 pages of material. While that bodes well for any potential doctorate I may choose to pursue in the future, it says some interesting things about the likelihood of being both believed and understood within our community.

You see, I don’t expect people to believe me when I start talking about most of the things I discuss on my blog. Part of why I started writing the thoughts down was because my in-person conversations with peers were so often derailed by some level of disbelief—sometimes in the form of “[other woman] doesn’t say that,” sometimes manifesting as “I’ve never seen that so it must not be too bad,” sometimes in other forms that are intricate and nuanced and harder to illuminate. I was only rarely allowed to communicate a thought beyond its first couple sentences and almost never given the space and time to puzzle through something that felt important. On paper, though, I had the freedom to do just that, to make sure an idea was complete and concise before putting it out into the world. And while no one’s obligated to read the entirety of anything I post, I find a lot of people do. (For this, I’m incredibly grateful. Yes, that means you, sitting at the screen.)

As I put out more and more prose and realize that people do keep believing me, I gain a little more faith in humanity, but I also recognize my responsibility within the music community: to be one of the people saying “hey, let’s talk about power imbalances, performance ethics, and violent misogyny” in a way that’s clear to those who don’t necessarily have the infrastructure of research and readings to understand the at-times-confusing terms therein. It’s part of why Untouchable referenced so much of my own writing—if a large concept wasn’t clear, I wanted to be able to send you back to a more bite-sized piece that might make more sense. Those pieces, assembled over years, are beginning to create a web of individual stories and topics that can be used to contextualize ideas that are harder to dive into all at once. That’s always been the plan, and as such, many of these will be used again and again as I explore different perspectives and power relationships within our large music community and smaller subsets of it.

Or, to put it another way, there will be more pieces like Untouchable. And many of them will begin in much the same way.

See, that post started in late January or early February. It had lived for several years in the back of my mind, a shadowy idea I wanted to unwrap for everyone to see, but the words didn’t come until I was really ready to start chewing on it. One of my earliest conversations on the topic came in the back corner of Rhythm Room with a couple friends as we waited for our turn onstage. At the time, most of what I had to work with was “no one wanted to sleep with me,” but the way I said it, with the inflection of an aha! moment, was enough of an indicator of its importance that the good folks around me took my words seriously.

While I wasn’t there to figure out all the minutiae of the post—most of that came later, at some ungodly hour of night—I do often use casual conversation to figure out if a topic is worth my time and effort based on where we’re at as a community. One comment struck me. “That’s a weird thing to be chewing on,” Keith Kelly told me, “but if you’re still stuck on it, there’s probably a good reason.” That validation, as quotidian as it seemed at the time, was enough to send me down the rabbit hole. Why was I stuck on it? What ideas did it lead to that I hadn’t yet learned to articulate?

In this way, writing Untouchable became very much like pulling insistently at the fraying thread on the edge of a tapestry. My only point of entry was “no one would sleep with me,” a sentiment that exactly zero of the men around me would recognize the significance of on its own. It wasn’t until I’d written over six thousand words (aren’t you glad some of them got cut?) and spent hours editing and rewriting with trusted friends that I realized what I’d stumbled into: diagnosing ASU Jazz as a hostile work environment without ever using the term.

Once that settled into my system, I realized it was probably best to wait a week before I introduced that concept. It’s been a week, so here we are.

For those unfamiliar, a hostile work environment is a legal term used in Title IX cases to identify regularly-occurring sexual harassment in a professional or educational sphere. Unlike sexual bribery, coercion, and sexual violence, which are illegal after a single occurrence in the workplace, hostile environment descriptors are given when a chronic pattern of gender discrimination and/or sexually-charged behavior forms. To really flesh this out for y’all, I brushed off some of the Title IX training I received earlier this school year. The events I included in Untouchable covered all of the following hostile environment components: generalized sexual comments, sex-oriented verbal kidding or abuse, sexual jokes that offend rather than amuse, asking about a person’s sex life, rumors about sexuality, directed sexual comments, highly personal questions of a sexual nature, blatant sexual discussions that refer to coworkers or others, and unwanted physical contact.

If not for the statute of limitations on Title IX complaints, I’d have a pretty strong hostile work environment case.

And this is where the current approach can fail us—because it can take, say, four years to form that argument completely. When you’re living through a hostile environment on a day-to-day basis, you oftentimes can’t articulate why things so consistently feel awful; all you really have are individual stories, which are almost never enough to persuade anyone around you. Even if you are believed on the micro level, proving the macro in the six months or so you’re given to report is damn near impossible. When I was nineteen and twenty and twenty-one, I did not have the vocabulary to put those things together, and I didn’t have the resources to understand the legal definitions of hostile environments as they applied to my educational spaces at ASU.

You know who had those resources, or who should have been able to get to them? The faculty members and TAs, plural, I discussed these things with. They weren’t always serious, sit-down-and-tell-me-a-thing conversations; some of them happened in hallways and at the ends of lessons. I didn’t know anything about mandatory reporting at the time. I didn’t realize what I was recounting was systemic behavior that was criminally interfering with my right to an education free from sexism and bigotry.

Then again, I was a presumed-female composer, brass player, and jazz musician. I don’t know that I ever truly believed I had a right to an education free from sexism and bigotry. It was always the carrot at the end of the stick, never the starting point on which to base all my other hopes and dreams.

Instead, I spent much of this time explaining myself to death, educating my instructors—most of whom were two decades or more older than me—on my own oppression in the (mostly misplaced) hope they’d feel strongly enough about it to act. I devoured article after article about sexism and its manifestations in the workplace, about trauma and recovery and sexual assault, about things I hoped would allow me to heal and strengthen myself so I could be the figurehead everybody seemed to want me to be. And though this messaging may not have been what my teachers and peers wanted to communicate, it was what I understood. I was never allowed to speak solely for my own experience, and from the beginning, I struggled to carry that burden. The same, I suspect, is true of my female peers, though I can’t and won’t speak for them.

But you have to remember: all I had were little entry points, tiny stories like “nobody wanted to sleep with me” that I didn’t have the vocabulary to properly contextualize. (And even if I had, try telling an all-male faculty that you feel forcibly hypersexualized even though no one hits on you.) I needed a female mentor in the jazz program that I simply did not have access to—or I needed the faculty I did have to have done the self-education to be able to know those threads were worth pulling on.

I don’t need the men around me to understand how I got from point A to point B all the time. I am, and always have been, happy to help bridge the gap with the words I have available. But moments like Keith’s “if you’re still stuck on it, there’s probably a good reason” are critical for marginalized students. Not only are they inherently validating, they explicitly introduce the possibility of larger, more nuanced concepts and conversations beneath that point of entry. They acknowledge the personal importance of the statement and leave the door open for further discovery. Most crucially, they assume the single idea presented is not the whole story, because if a student asks for time and attention and shares fear and vulnerability with you, chances are there’s more lurking.

Usually, though, we are either dismissed or referred to the shadowy land of the Title IX office. (In my mind, I imagine it as something akin to the elephant graveyard in The Lion King.) I talked at some length last year about this commonality, but just to reiterate: a Title IX report is not enough. Title IX reps often don’t follow up with people who don’t name names and weren’t assaulted (hello, it’s me!). It’s insufficient for faculty to refer a matter up the food chain and proceed to sit on their hands. Check back in with the affected student(s)! Follow up! And, regardless of if nothing or everything happens, use the intervening time to take a long hard look at how you’re encouraging equitable, kind treatment in your classes and studios. The Title IX office can’t roast you over hot coals for a two-minute “hey, this time of the semester’s really stressful, so be kind to the people around you” lecture at the end of class. They can’t discipline you for making an overarching request for compassion. Nobody can get you in trouble for taking your classes through the legal definition of hostile environments at the beginning of each semester. And those moments, chances are, will go a lot further in your students’ minds than anything that comes down from that office.

And if a student comes to you, for any reason, a general shrug of the shoulders and a little sympathy is not sufficient. I lived and worked for two years in a hostile environment mostly crafted by my peers, but it could have gotten better if my mentors and teachers had acknowledged that the poor treatment wouldn’t just go away after one discussion and a fruitless Title IX referral. The act of mandatory reporting itself didn’t fail me; the fact that that was the end of the faculty’s involvement did.

It took me four years to gain both the insight and the courage to publicly call this a hostile work environment. That knowledge came at a massive cost—of time, of education, of opportunity, of mental health. Untouchable is my tribute to the things I’ve lost. I’m documenting them now because I will not allow myself to become complicit in the same systems that failed me.

And I’m consciously saying this now, while newly-admitted potential recruits are still making their decisions about what programs are worth their time.

Thanks for reading! If you learned something from this post and would like to tip me, head on over to my Ko-fi page. For more analysis and commentary like this in your life, come back every Saturday at 8pm MST. To support the long-term work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @honestlyeris on Instagram.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and as such, I’ll be covering topics relating to assault and violent misogyny for the next four weeks. It’s heavy stuff, but if you’re able, I’d love to have you back. Check out last year’s posts here (1, 2, 3, 4).