There is a long and distinguished history of conceptualising liberal democracy in terms of basic rights to which, all other things being equal, everyone is entitled. Sexual freedom is rightly counted among these. But should this right apply where one person is in a position of power and authority over the other? Doctors are sanctioned if they have sex with their patients, as are lawyers who sleep with their clients. Should sexual relationships between professors and students in the same department also be off limits?
The Northwestern Philosophy Graduate Student Association has published an open letter on Kipnis’s book.
Several people, including a graduate student in the department of philosophy at Northwestern University, were recently targeted in a book by Radio, Television and Film faculty member Laura Kipnis. In “Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus,” Kipnis constructs a narrative around a series of events — which have been largely centered within our own department — to support her claim that Title IX fosters a sense of sexual paranoia and creates an environment hostile to academic freedom.
In doing so, Kipnis dedicates a chapter of her book to questioning a sexual assault allegation our fellow graduate student brought against a faculty member. Kipnis questions this allegation on the basis of a limited set of evidence, without consulting with our colleague or those close to her to check a number of important details in the case. Moreover, Kipnis reinforces her claims with unsubstantiated speculations. Her construction of the narrative is, as a result, irresponsible. We feel compelled to express how dissonant Kipnis’ retelling of these events is with our first-hand experiences of them and with the people involved in them, and to express our concern for Kipnis’ conduct, both as an author and as a faculty member at NU.
What kind of sexual conduct is appropriate for philosophers within the academy?
Anyone with even half an ear tuned to the outside world will know that there have been some high profile cases of sexual misbehaviour of late. These have been accompanied by a sense from many folks within the discipline that it’s time to get our house in order. This is a good thing. For a long time, all sorts of egregious sexual behaviour has gone unchecked, and people have been harmed as a result. Given this sorry state of affairs (no pun intended), it’s good to see a new resolve to sort things out. However, we’re now faced with this question: how should philosophers behave towards their students and other members of the profession, when it comes to matters of sex and romance?
This is a question that we, as a profession, need to address, and I’m going to start attempting to do that in a series of forthcoming posts. These don’t represent my finished thoughts on the matter, but are, instead, an attempt to come to a view.
Today I’m going to think about consent and sexual relations* with students.
*(I’ve chosen to use this maybe – for those of us who remember a scandal involving a certain US president – slightly comical phrase, because it seems sufficiently broad to encompass both fleeting sexual encounters and much longer-term relationships, as well as sex acts of all sorts.)
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Some things in academia never change. Even in an age when the feminists apparently control everything, it seems that the practice of older (usually male) scholars sleeping with much younger (usually female) graduate students is alive and … well, I wouldn’t say “well.” With two such relationships making recent news in the discipline of philosophy alone, for some of the older generation of male professors (again, mostly male), the grad students are still a dating pool—and vice versa. This is not just icky—it is highly damaging to the profession.
It is appalling to read about philosophers sexually harassing/assaulting vulnerable people, but is it surprising? An article in yesterday’s New York Times argues that we should not expect better.
The life of an intellectual, Mr. Ignatieff [Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian academic-cum-politician] claims, provides a petri dish for the universal human experiment of thinking, being and doing. It’s a lovely idea. The trouble is that intellectuals seem no better at it than anyone else. They often think great thoughts, while being ignoble characters. Maybe Mill and Berlin and John Dewey were noble characters. But Marx was a serial adulterer, Karl Popper was a pompous narcissist, and Heidegger was a fascist. Elite thinkers, maybe: but as amateurish humans as the rest of us.
I’m not so sure, but there are a lot of issues that need clarification before we’re in a good position to accept or reject the article. Still, there are some points we can make. Great achievements typically require concentration and caring. The idea of caring that extends to what one says and not at all to what one does is puzzling. One expects a great scientist to care very much about the truth of his words. But then what does that care look like if it allows lying in letters of reference to reward sexual compliance?
And isn’t philosophy, at least when it is about human life, different? On the other hand, maybe moral behavior requires more than morally apt thinking. For example, perhaps a capacity for empathy. And a love of truth in one area may co-exist with a capacity for self-deception that enables a lot of borrowing from others. E.g., plagarism.
Perhaps, then, we need to recognize that there are many character flaws that can disconnect behavior from thought. I myself would still, at least at this point in time, like to think that at least for some areas really vicious behavior will mean one does not have the capacity for some great intellectual tasks. But is that really true?
What do you think?
A remarkable example of disconnect was explained recently by Bob Dylan. I thought of him as the voice (or a voice) of a generation of protestors. But, as he has said, that’s not at all what he was doing. He was just a musician. So where did those wonderfully apposite lyrics come from? It was, he says, simply magic.
In fact, many people report a similar experience (I think). As Feymann put it, suddenly boom, boom, the answer is there. Ownership may seem tenuous, and connection with character very problematic.
Despite the vicious outpouring in comments on her first post, there is another post. She tells us much more in this post– much more about how the coercion and manipulation work and why it is so very morally repugnant. Feminists know that the mere utterance of the word ‘yes’ in contexts of enormous power imbalance is not enough to alleviate moral concerns– and we should know enough about our profession to realise that there are indeed enormous power imbalances even between people not at the same university. This post spells all that out beautifully. (It also makes it clear that there have been incidents even within just one university.)
A reader writes:
About 6 months ago, I learned that my undergraduate mentor in philosophy routinely slept with his female students, during my time at the university and for many years beforehand. He never made any even slightly inappropriate advances towards me, and he spent an enormous amount of time and energy mentoring me and supporting me through grave doubts about my abilities as a philosopher – indeed, had it not been for him, I would never have considered graduate school, and would not now have the Assistant Professor job that I love so much. He was always exceptionally kind, supportive, and sensitive to (and indeed often a champion of) feminist concerns. Over the past six months since learning this information, though, I’ve felt deeply hurt and betrayed, and have at times started to doubt myself in all of the old ways. Was I not in fact a good philosopher in undergrad? Was he only as supportive as he was because I was young, and female, and conventionally attractive? Did my other professors take me less seriously as a philosopher because they assumed that I was sleeping with him, too? The part of me that remembers how close our relationship was believes that he would feel deep regret if he knew how his actions affected past (and present?) students like me, but the part of me with more distance doubts that anyone who routinely slept with the 20-year-olds he taught could possibly care. I’ve wanted to get in touch with him recently, to tell him how hard his behavior has been even on students like me with whom he had a fully appropriate relationship, in part because I feel a responsibility to try to get him to change his behavior if he still does this to students. But is it utterly naive to think that getting in touch with him would have any positive affect? And might there be any negative repercussions to doing so that I’m not thinking of? (He’s not a particularly successful or influential philosopher, so I don’t think that he would have any ability to harm my career.)
Please leave your thoughts in comments, but absolutely DO NOT reveal identifying information about other similar situations (or this one, for that matter).