Sexual Harassment in Philosophy, on Gawker

Gawker is discussing sexual harassment in philosophy. Holy shit. OK, so it’s not the most elevated discussion.

There’s an entire blog called “What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy?” (famous philosophical essay reference alert! Thanks, Philosophy of Mind class) where women in philosophy share… what it’s like, to be them. Spoiler: it’s pretty pervy. For example:

I attended a conference at my friend’s department where one of our former teachers, a well-known person, Professor A, someone we both admired and respected, was going to be a featured speaker.
My friend told me that when Professor A arrived, the first thing he said to my friend was “Show me a graduate student I can fuck.”
Haha, what a smooth-talking intellectual giant! Now, there’s a movement afoot to practice “shunning” of philosophers who everyone basically knows are sexual harassers—”not inviting them to publish, not conversing with them at conferences, advising students to avoid their graduate program, etc.” That seems appropriate. Females subject to harassment might also try tossing a drink in the dude’s face, and kicking him in the balls. Nietzsche would approve.

But hopefully all this attention will start making a difference.

34 thoughts on “Sexual Harassment in Philosophy, on Gawker

  1. Ok, so I’m probably going to be unpopular for this, but since I don’t understand, I’m asking. What exactly is the complaint here? Absolutely Prof A made the statement in bad taste. It was not the environment where people are comfortable carelessly disclosing their sexual thoughts. Also, Prof A surely exposed himself as lacking in maturity by showing moe concern for his biological urges than for the reason he had been invited, academic competence. There is no doubt he presented himself in an unflattering way and created an awkward situation for the person with whom he was speaking. But what’s wrong with tactfully replying “sorry, I don’t know who might indulge you” and walking away with rolling eyes over his unbecoming behaviour? His reputation is rightfully tainted in your view, entirely due to his own actions. What more is there that I fail to see?

  2. You know, to be honest I was surprised they chose that one for their story, as there are plenty of much more extreme ones on the blog. But the problem is (a) an environment where people don’t get called on that kind of behaviour, and where they can feel it’s totally acceptable; (b) the effects of this environment on– in this case– both women and grad students.

  3. What bothers me about the way in which this issue has been spun is that it’s been all about sexual HARASSMENT–randy old farts going after nubile female grad students. This isn’t the primary issue. It’s discrimination not harassment. I’m ugly. No one every tried to harass me. But I’ve gotten plenty of sex discrimination.

  4. HE– I have repeatedly been frustrated and amazed by the overwhelming focus on the SH stories on that blog. Sigh.

    Still, SH does need to be dealt with. But you’re right– so does everything else!

  5. Confession: I am a feminist anthropologist, not a philosopher (however, I really enjoy this blog!), so what I find esp. disturbing about the interaction described above is how apparently “casual” it is. I think it is important to recognize that sexism (like racism) becomes reproduced in and through taken-for-granted practices, like “jokes” that are intended to show the individual’s positive qualities. Think about how many times women or people of color being accused of having no sense of humor. I wish it were as easy as saying this particular individual behaved badly, but I think it shows again that sexism (like racism) is institutionalized.

  6. i don’t think nietzsche would find this significant.

    well, whatever. he has gathered for himself the particualr of grad-student for fuck consideration. keen. facile and not of an immediacy at hand.

    fuck consideration just ANNIHILATING company!

  7. I want to express a worry: What will this spate of negative press do to efforts to encourage women to pursue philosophy? Will promising women undergrads decide not to pursue grad work once these sorts of stories get highlighted. Why isn’t there more emphasis on the positive efforts to support women students, the changes that do seem to be happening slowly in the profession as women work their way up through the ranks? The efforts of some departments to have gender balanced entering grad classes? Things are far from perfect in Philosophy, but I think it is just as important to highlight the positive trends as it is to speak the truth about the bad behavior.

  8. HE: Sex sells more than justice? It might be that simple. Also, people outside the academy may think we’re all so privileged anyway.

    MS: Part of it at least is that it reveals the norms this older, well-known philosophy thinks prevails; in addition, displays like that tend to reinforce the norms. You might see it more if we were talking about a context in which racism is alive, if hidden, and a distinguished science researcher says, “Just make sure your blacks don’t ask any questions.” Awful as it is, his implied assertion that blacks can’t do science will affect attitudes, just as treating female grad students as sexual treats will.

  9. Lisa, I share your worry. That’s one of the reasons that I’m frustrated by the lack of attention to the positive stories on the What is it Like blog. I’m still trying to work out something to do about it. Being me, one obvious thought is to create a new blog devoted to positive initiatives.

  10. Was anyone else amused that the first comment asked if they were mostly “analytic or continental philosophers,” since “It makes a big difference”?
    At least for some we can safely consider the point missed.

  11. A few scattered thoughts – I don’t doubt there are problems in our profession concerning the treatment of women.

    But I’m surprised that people who are willing to speak out confidently and firmly on this issue are unwilling to name even one name of a well-confirmed harasser. Mark Lance gives one example he witnessed first hand and yet even he so far will not say who the harasser in his story is.

    I have been in the profession for a long time and have taught in more than one high ranked department. I privately asked one person who has been commenting about these issues for an example of a well known serial harasser. I was given a name and told that the person had dated quite a few female graduate students and then married one. This person worked at a university with a consensual relationship policy which did not forbid such relationships. I asked why this was sexual harassment and was told that dating students was harassment even if the university’s policy did not forbid it.

    The cases people have sketched to illustrate sexual harassment range from cases of sexual assault to cases of unwanted sexual attention to cases of negative professional treatment based on negative attitudes towards women, to a whole lot of other kinds of cases too. Some of the examples do not fall under most university sexual harassment policies which are modelled, in the US, on federal employment law’s sexual harassment policies.

  12. You know what’s fascinating? That the Gawker discussion is so much better than the Inside Higher Ed one.

  13. Dammit, dammit, dammit, Anonymous: this chief issue isn’t harrassment–it’s discrimination. And I–who am named and can name names can give you data.

  14. Many important points are raised here. Thank you all for them. Two in particular struck me and my co-bloggers and I will address them in a follow-up post.

    Yes, discrimination in addition to harassment needs discussion and action.

    And yes, emphasizing the positive steps and initiatives already under way is very important too, especially with regard to the number of women applying to graduate programs in philosophy.

    And yes, Jender, the IHE comments are mind-numbingly bad. Better some good philosophy puns at Gawker than what’s going on at IHE.

  15. HE Baber — you may well be right that the “chief” issue isn’t harassment. Maybe the chief issue is discrimination. But even if you’re right, this particular discussion started, I think, with the NewApps post about harassment, continued with Brian Leiter’s post about harassment, and continued further with this blog’s post about Gawker’s post about those posts and about harassment. I hope under these conditions it’s ok to talk about, well, harassment.
    I don’t doubt there could also be a great discussion about discrimination that does not involve harassment. Perhaps there will be one soon.

  16. Sorry, Anonymous, but I’m not going to buy this. The chief problem women face is plain old discrimination. And the notion that women are being singled out for sexual harassment is a two-edged sword because you can point to cases where women have gotten advantaged by taking advantage of sexual harassment.

    Frankly, I’d have LOVED to be sexually harassed if I could have gotten professional benefits from it. But I’m ugly so I didn’t have that option.

    So let’s get back to the real issue: discrimination.

  17. It is making a difference. Reading the blog gave me the courage to speak up about some terrible things that happened in my former department. Granted, I don’t know if anything will be done about the situation, but its better to not stay quiet in my opinion.

  18. HE Baber now seems to think that she gets to decide what topics it’s ok to discuss and that the real topic right now is discrimination and not harassment. I guess I’ll leave it to those who control this blog and the NewAPPS blog, and Gawker to decide if it’s ok for some of us to follow up the posts on harassment with some discussion of harassment or if we’re supposed to instead do what Baber wants us to do. Moderators? Is it ok here to discuss harassment since that’s what you posted about?

  19. What kind of bs is that? I never suggested censoring discussion on this board. If you want to discuss harrassment that’s fine. It’s a problem, and no one denies it. I just suggested that the take of the article cited fails to recognize that discrimination is a broader issue and suggested some more discussion of that.

    So Anonymous shouts for the Moderator: “Mommy!” Ok, I’m a fat, ugly women. Shut up and eat it, Anonymous.

  20. the whole thing is just sunk Deep in Critique.

    but the topology of its structure continues. at least something has structure. if you’ve seen these ‘Issues’ before, you may have recognized that they are more structural than most Academic fare, and is this the beginnning of becoming Academic?

  21. I think I’m mostly with H.E. Baber on this one. The central issue *is*, I think, discrimination: sexual harassment is one tool by means of which that is accomplished. I got really irritated, e.g. (but had no time) when I saw some fellow on the original blog refer to sexual harassers as “sexual deviants”. They’re not sexual deviants (as though the behavior at issue is like having a fetish??). They’re predatory, discriminatory jerks. And ‘predatory’ is (at least one of) the preferred means of discriminatory for those who behave in such fashion.

    Actually that’s one way in which I too thought the gawker discussion amongst was smarter than the inside higher ed one– a good number of the former folks immediately saw the connection between predatory sexual harassment and other forms of discriminatory behavior.

    Lisa– I completely get it. But what should we say? What should I say? We want them in the field, and I can tell them with great warmth and honesty about the amazing men in philosophy who have been (and still are) such great support to me personally, & who are real actual feminists in practice. So, yes, absolutely you’re right we should tell those kinds of stories. But as much as I want more women in the field, we can’t white wash either…
    I worry about it in both directions.
    Last incredibly bright undergraduate student who asked me, point blank, about the atmosphere for women in the field, I just told to read this blog. (hi!)

  22. which, just to be clear , anonymous– I don’t in any way mean as in any way a call not to talk about harassment. I just think it’s important to see that it’s a form of discrimination (& of setting up a discriminatory/hostile atmosphere)– all of which, sadly, can be accomplished in many other ways as well.

  23. I think the question that needs to be asked is “Why are women sexual harassed?”–I think the answer to this question will inevitably involve a discussion of sexual discrimination. Sexual harassment is and will always be a symptom of a larger underlying problem. If we want real progress, and some would argue we will never have “real progress,” we must retialiate against sexual harassment in philosophy but we must also always remember that is not truly solving the problem of discrimination and the power differential between men and women in the workplace and outside the workplace.

  24. Anon. 8:15: As Brian Leiter pointed out on his blog, naming names opens you up to a host of potential legal problems WRT defamation, even when it’s perfectly true.

  25. I just saw the other Gawker comments Jender was referring to. (For some reason the first time I visited the page opened up onto a string of philosophy puns.) But the first ones are indeed insightful and MUCH better than the truly depressing IHE ones.

  26. I appreciate and understand Kate Abramson’s post on harassment and discrimination and their relation.

    HE Baber – I took your response “I’m not going to buy this” and your call to “get back to” the “real issue: discrimination” to be your response to my thought that “under these conditions [replying to posts about harassment]it’s ok to talk about harassment”. But apparently you didn’t mean it in the way I took it. And maybe you don’t mean “shut up and eat it” in any hurtful way either; probably not since this blog prides itself on respectful communication. And of course you don’t mean “shut up” in any censoring way:. you probaly mean “shut up” in its more common meaning where it means “welcome, and feel free to talk about the issue the owner of the blog posted about”. (Here we get an example of someone who has always been quite nice to me in person behaving a bit differently in an online discussion.)

    About the harassment discussion here at at NewApps and in the range of examples at the “what it’s like to be a woman in philosophy” blog, some of the examples are so outrageous that the obvious remedy is to bypass university procedures and report a phyiscal assault. I encourage anyone who faces unwanted physical groping to do just that. This leaves a wide range of non-criminal conduct to sort out and deal with but it’s a start. Another category of behavior is a category I think is best dealt with under existing university harassment policies: harassment in which consent to sexual demands is made a condition on academic continuance or success by a person in a position of authority. I have seen several cases of this sort processed to conclusion at two universities I have taught at and things were handled quite well in both cases. Perhaps others haven’t had the same positive experiences with internal university procedures in cases like these.
    The rest of the many different kinds of harassing behavior seem to me mroe difficult to address. I came to these discussions hoping to learn more about what others think will work for dealing with these other problems.

  27. Frankly, I’d have LOVED to be sexually harassed if I could have gotten professional benefits from it. But I’m ugly so I didn’t have that option.

    I’ve composed and deleted a response to this several times on the grounds that I was unlikely to stay within the civility guidelines on this blog, so let me try again: a) being sexually harassed, which as the “What It’s Like” blog tells us sometimes includes outright assault, is not a “perq” of being an attractive young woman (nor is it limited to the conventionally attractive) and b) the claim that you would have LOVED it is no more convincing coming from an ostensible feminist than it is coming from the boorish fratboy who claims that he would LOVE being catcalled, or the clueless colleague who helpfully suggests that the harassed woman learn to take it as a compliment.

    I get that tempers are flaring, and that it would be excellent to see more talk about other pervasive forms of discrimination, but that’s not a reason to describe these incidents as a benefit for pretty girls.

    Sexual harassment is only one problem, and I don’t think it’s the biggest one facing female philosophers. But I do think it’s more likely to affect undergraduate women, who may not see all the effects of more subtle discrimination yet, but will know that Prof. Y groped their friend and makes comments in class, and everyone else looks the other way.

  28. thanks, mb, i composed two or three responses myself, but yours is spot-on. the sentiment you are responding to was cited as precisely the reason that the philosophy department a friend was in did not have a policy against trying to sleep with grad students. that is, the pretty girls won’t mind, and the ugly ones won’t get harassed, so what’s the problem?

  29. Was anyone else amused that the first comment asked if they were mostly “analytic or continental philosophers,” since “It makes a big difference”?
    At least for some we can safely consider the point missed.

    I thought that was a very funny joke.

    I assumed that the general Gawker audience would think of philosophers as the Other, so the joke is about philosophers making convoluted arguments to rationalize whatever they want.

    Another joke comment along the same line was someone saying that it is not surprising coming from people who would have discussions about “When does ‘No’ mean ‘Yes?'”

    The ‘top’ comments appear to have degenerated now, so those funny comments are no longer prominent or publicly viewable. There were also informative anecdotes from female students in philosophy, but I can’t see them anymore, either.

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