On Friday, Nov. 8, the Hopkins African Students Association (ASA) hosted a screening of Sex for Grades, a documentary recently published by the BBC about endemic sexual harassment in African universities.
Although the documentary painted a pessimistic picture of the extent of the phenomena, it ultimately served as a call to arms, a symbol of the filmmakers’ resolve to end the abuse of power in African universities once and for all. Likewise, the student-led discussion after the film emphasized both the presence of similar abuses in American society, as well as several potential avenues for change.
In Sex for Grades, a team of investigative reporters led by Kiki Mordi examined the widespread harassment of female students by male faculty at African univerisities. Through interviews with current and former students and horrific video footage from undercover reporters, Mordi examined the extent of the harassment, the debilitating effects that it had on female students and the underwhelming response from universities.
From the start, one of the documentary’s greatest strengths was its emotional intensity. Almost every individual in the narrative had been affected by harassment in some way, and the camera forced viewers to sympathize with the survivors.
Early on, Mordi relayed her own experiences with sexual harassment. In one instance, a faculty member at her university threatened to withhold her test scores unless she had sex with him. Her visible anguish over her treatment drove home how unbearable and unavoidable the harassment felt to her. As a result, it was impossible not to empathize with the women both in front of and behind the camera or to look away from the horrific ways that they were treated.
Overall the documentary’s incorporation of interviews with the survivors of harassment was an incredibly effective way of revealing the intensely negative effects of the harassment. The filmmakers included countless tales of men grooming young women and forcing their affections upon them, and all of those stories hit incredibly hard. At one point, a young woman — her face covered by a white mask and her voice distorted to prevent identification — breaks down in tears and stops the interview, too overcome by the memories of her abuse to continue speaking.
Later, another person reveals that she attempted to commit suicide four times after a university member sexually abused her. Although the filmmakers clearly took great care not to dramatize these events or exploit the survivors, they never shied away from depicting the horrors of sexual harassment.
The documentary’s greatest tool, however, was the footage from their undercover reporters of the harassment that they faced. One reporter was forced to go on a twisted date with a university lecturer after she approached him asking for mentorship; another was locked in an office by a university priest after she repeatedly denied his advances.
This footage was incredibly difficult to watch, and the camera provided an unflinching look at both the lechery of the male faculty and the fear of the women that the faculty targeted.
Finally Sex for Grades examined the mixed responses to abuse allegations. On the one hand, they emphasize the failures of the university administrations to actively address the issue in any capacity. Despite a multitude of allegations against faculty members, few ever faced repercussions or were even identified to the public.
One school did not implement a formal code of conduct until summer 2019. Even then, the filmmakers revealed the ease with which faculty could subvert that code without fear of punishment.
However, they also discuss efforts outside of the universities to protect female students, such as free self-defense courses specifically geared towards protecting oneself from harassment. Overall, the depiction of the situation was pessimistic, but it was also fiercely aware of the need for improvement.
After the screening, the ASA hosted a student discussion of the film that touched on the role of power dynamics in sexual harassment and the prevalence of harassment in American society. At the same time, students also identified potential routes for improving the situation, with particular emphasis on the ways that men can speak up about the situation and serve as allies and resources for survivors.
Representatives from the Sexual Assault Resource Unit and A Place to Talk also provided information about the various resources for survivors on campus. Just as in the film, the discussion did not shy away from the realities of harassment but also emphasized the urgent need for change.
In the end, both the documentary and the discussion that followed balanced unflinching realism with the fierce drive to end injustice. Both conversations were insightful and thought-provoking, and together they provided a devastating overview of sexual harassment.