Janice Dowell speaks out about her experiences as a survivor of harassment and assault

Philosopher Janice Dowell (Syracuse) has spoken out publicly in her ‘What is it like to be a philosopher?’ interview about her experiences of sexual harassment and assault in philosophy:

Although this is very unpleasant, I’d like to say something about my grad school experience, on the hoped-for chance that if folks can put a name to someone who has experienced some of the problems with harassment and sexual assault our profession has just begun discussing, it might dampen some of the truly damaging speculation about the motivations survivors have in coming forward that we see on some professional blogs.

There are too many bad experiences to list them all. I’ll mention two, as well as the effect they had on me. Early in my grad career, I was the object of a surprising amount of disturbing attention. Someone put a plastic erection in my mailbox in the department common room and a male grad student followed me home. He let me know that he had done this when I arrived home, telling me gleefully that he was glad to know where I lived so he could come see me whenever he wanted. As I said—disturbing.

The cumulative effect of this attention was pretty bad: I began to experience intense pain in my arms whenever I went to campus. Not surprisingly, I avoided campus as much as I could; no reading groups, student lounge conversations, no socializing before or after class. Also, not surprisingly, it was very difficult to concentrate on my work, particularly to follow lectures in class, given that they included some of the students I was having trouble with. In retrospect, it’s astonishing to me that I finished any of my classes.

Unfortunately, that was not the worst of it. I was subsequently raped by another philosopher, someone who is still in our profession and whom I occasionally see at APA meetings. I’ve already written about this experience anonymously, here.

You can read the whole interview here.

11 thoughts on “Janice Dowell speaks out about her experiences as a survivor of harassment and assault

  1. I have never met Janice personally, but I want to thank her so much for her brave testimony. To have such a prominent and respected senior woman describe the indignities and horrible abuse she’s suffered will, I hope, inspire more soul-searching in our profession.

    I am more junior than Janice, having recently completed my PhD, but I’m afraid to report that not much has changed. I myself experienced several kinds of sexual harassment while in the discipline, and some of my peers have endured worse. Certainly, I did not experience anything so awful as rape, but I have had senior colleagues touch or rub my leg or my foot at conferences, I have had my drunk peers put their arms around my waist whenever the opportunity arose (including at workshop dinners and other formal events), I have had these same drunk peers tell me how pretty they think I am (including at official events), I have had a professor make a sexualizing joke about my body in the middle of a lecture (everyone laughed), and I have been the recipient of a persistent email stalking campaign by one peer who couldn’t or wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer when I would not go out with him.

    I hope that those who have not experienced harassment first-hand will try to appreciate how difficult these incidents make life for their targets. Forming genuine friendships with one’s peers is incredibly difficult, so is being taken seriously as a philosopher.

    I hope those who have been harassed will not blame themselves and will know there is nothing “wrong” with their behavior or appearance that invited this behavior. You were simply a woman in a male-dominated discipline that has not dealt with its sexual harassment problem in any meaningful way. Until departments agree to regular (read: yearly) sexual harassment training; until they permit external guidance and oversight on these issues by those within their universities who are specifically trained on these matters; until conference organizers issue explicit expectations about harassment; until harassers are appropriately censured for their behavior, I cannot believe much will change.

  2. All my support for both Janice and Anon. But I don’t think there’s any evidence that sexual harassment ‘training’ (yearly or otherwise) helps anything and there’s some evidence it backfires. Am I behind on the literature? I know that’s kind of depressing but much as with ‘diversity training,’ I believe we need to face the reality that feeding people information in ‘training sessions’ doesn’t change behavior.

    I don’t know what does work, but I guess I have more hope for slow culture change and peer pressure – calling out offenses and censuring harassers as anon suggests, supporting one another, discussing what counts as being a good bystander, etc.

  3. Rebecca,

    I hadn’t heard of the evidence that such training backfires. Do you have some pointers towards it? I’m interested how to effectively counteract and change toxic environments, and trainings are all the rage at the moment. It’s important to know if we’re doing more harm than good.

  4. I know of groups of men in our profession right through the ranks who speak and behave in very demeaning and degrading ways concerning women generally and also women philosophers. I’ve witnessed the behavior and I’ve heard about through testimony of people present. The problem is that people tolerate it, even if they disagree. They don’t speak up. They don’t protest it with their actions. People in our field still socialize with, promote, and philosophize with men who openly display sexist behaviors. People should not engage in these behaviors because its wrong, but some need the social pressure to not conform to behaviors of their male peers because some are just followers. Tolerating the behavior sends the message that it’s perfectly acceptable. It’s not, and the way you let people know this is by shunning them. Do not invite them to participate in your conference, do have them as your speakers, do not invite them to give talks to your department, do not go out for drinks, do not write their letters of reference, do not hire them.

  5. Hi Rebecca,

    Thanks so much for your comment — I was not aware that sexual harassment training is ineffective. I’m not up on the empirical literature on this at all, and I would of course advocate for using methods based in evidence.

    I suppose that on reflection, it is not terribly surprising to me that mere training alone, e.g., faculty completing online modules because they have to, is ineffective (or even counter-effective).

    The reason I mentioned training is that I can’t help but think that one of the reasons sexual harassment persists is that many philosophers don’t recognize it for what it is, even when they see it. I’m not sure what the best way to spread better information is, but I do see a need. E.g., when a faculty member made a sexualizing remark about my body in the middle of lecture, everyone laughed (his remark was intended as a joke), and not one person approached me later to decry it, not even privately.

    My general impression from talking to and interacting with my male peers and from reading online comments is that at least many philosophers think harassment can only occur within a relationship of asymmetrical power, e.g., between advisors & advisees, or they think harassment necessarily involves quid pro quo type behavior. Incredibly, many seem not to realize that unwanted sexual advances by one’s professional peers is harassment. They also don’t seem to understand that verbal remarks and jokes can constitute harassment. They also seem to think that highly persistent, chronic remarks are necessary for harassment, even though in the U.S., the courts have not claimed that a minimum threshold on harassment must be satisfied, i.e., any remarks of a sexualizing or denigrating nature constitute harassment. And finally, they seem to think that malicious intent is a condition on harassment, even though the courts in the U.S. have consistently rejected this as a criterion on harassment.

    Another problem, especially with peer harassment, is that philosophers seem to be about as slow as the larger culture in understanding that consent requires explicit consent, i.e., that ‘yes means yes.’ This might seem incredible, but I can’t count the number of times that one of my peers has drunkenly put his arm around my waist or around my shoulder when I was certainly not inviting it. Because these guys were sort of my friends and because the contexts involved other people, I didn’t wish to make a scene, I didn’t tell them to stop, though I might have frozen and tried to pull away or made an excuse to move my body (e.g., “anyone want a drink? I’m going to go get one”). I wonder if any of these men realized they were sexually harassing me. I sort of doubt it. Because their actions were not in the context of a larger attempt to seduce me, and because I didn’t positively rebuke their unwelcome touch, they might have thought we were just innocently flirting in a mutually reciprocated way. But they touched me before and without any explicit consent (and, to my embarrassment, these were all professional or semi-professional contexts).

    If I am right that many who are still incredibly ignorant about what harassment is, how do we make them better understand? If not formal training, what? I don’t myself have the emotional energy or patience to have intensive one-on-one conversations with men about what is wrong with their actions. I think they should know better, even if they don’t, and I don’t think women philosophers should be burdened with the enormous task of educating them. I suppose one thing that would help take this burden off women is if senior males were to speak out against harassment. Many already have, and I really laud their efforts. I also wonder whether training might be effective if coupled with the strong explicit approval of relevant empowered persons. E.g., here’s two ways training could go. 1st Situation: Department Head, “We have to undergo sexual harassment training” (eye roll). 2nd Situation: Department Head, “We are inviting you all to an optional sexual harassment info session. We are doing this because we deeply value equal opportunity and want our department to be a comfortable place for everyone.”

    Any thoughts are welcome! And if there are readers who have done some interventions that were very effective, I would love to learn what those were.

  6. I’m pretty sympathetic to the reasoning in Anon’s reply here, and do suspect that a lot depends on what sorts of harassment we’re considering. No training, of course, will stop all of it, but it would be surprising if none of it made any difference to anyone, or if the over-all impact was negative. I did find this recent discussion from blogger Kevin Drum about doing a sexual harassment training for people at _Mother Jones_ to be somewhat interesting: http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2016/02/im-now-certified-and-legally-responsible-non-harasser-women

    I do, however, worry that some training programs are mostly designed to limit legal liability for the employer, rather than to be very helpful. The idea would be that they might be better able to fight a “hostile workplace environment” sexual harassment claim if they have put on a training, thereby showing themselves to be “responsible”, and so putting the blame on the individual harasser. Labor and employment law isn’t something I’m a specialist in, though, so I can’t say this with certainty.

  7. Well, all of my sexual assault experiences occurred prior to my involvement with philosophy. But, still, the sexism and harassment has occurred since I have become involved — much milder than Janet experienced, but still…

    In undergrad:
    Exhibit A: Was inappropriately propositioned and flirted with by my professor. Led to a long term relationship that was very sexually abusive — complicated case, yes. But it did start in a philosophical/academic context.

    In grad school:
    Exhibit A: Fellow friend in grad school tells me the only reason I am getting A’s is because the professor wants to fuck me.
    Exhibit B: Prominent philosopher insists on pressuring me for sex for hours while a grad student.
    Exhibit C: Male prof says in a class after making a joke: well, you know what women are like.
    Exhibit D: Male prof running a sexual harassment teach in makes fun of it.

    After grad school:
    Exhibit A: Constant insinuations that I got interviews and jobs merely because I have a vagina.
    Exhibit B: Being expected to want to teach feminist philosophy merely because I have a vagina, and being required to.
    Exhibit C: Being continuously asked what it’s like to be a woman on the job market — followed by the comment that it MUST be easier.
    Exhibit D: Expecting to know what it’s like to be a woman in philosophy.

    Now what to do about this. I definitely do not think that shaming people into going underground is the right thing to do — will only lead to backlash and is a bit morally smug and simple minded. Definitely not top down legislation either. How about working on our unconscious biases by using the studies that show how to influence these to be non-sexist?

  8. I haven’t heard of any assessments of the effectiveness of training (though I would be very interested in hearing about any studies done). It doesn’t surprise me that there are kinds of perpetrators who aren’t rehabilitated by training. But it would surprise me if its not helpful at all, at least in the kinds of case Anon mentions.

    Setting that aside, though, I really think things would be much, much better if we would each commit to being better bystanders. One problem I’ve with being a good bystander is that I’m sometimes too stunned to respond effectively. The page below offers some good strategies for common situations, making it easier to be ready.


    Even when caught off guard, though, it’s always possible to reach out to the the injured party later to say that you thought what happened was uncool. The simple recognition of a wrong done can make a huge difference.

    Also, thanks, everyone, for your kind words. The outpouring of support I’ve received gives me a lot of hope. I hope this gives other survivors, like Anon, a sense that we really do have a rather large community of supporters.

  9. Jan,

    Thanks for that recommendation–very helpful.

    And let me add my voice to the chorus thanking you for speaking out.

  10. Aspasia, thanks for sharing. I think speaking out like you have is a step in the right direction.

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