There Is No Moral Relativity in Sexual Harassment – a Guest Post

I am still contemplating my own words in response to the Sexual Harassment in the Academy Survey. For now, I want to share some astonishingly beautiful and poignant words by Dr. Ani Kokobobo, who wrote the following for the Chronicle of Higher Education: There Is No Moral Relativity in Sexual Harassment. I share with Dr. Kokobobo’s permission.

Ani Kokobobo is assistant professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Slavic Department at the University of Kansas. She has written over twenty academic articles on questions of the body, violence, and sexuality in Russian literature and has a monograph forthcoming in February 2018. Her writings have also appeared in The Washington Post, Salon.comLA Review of Books, and the Chronicle of Higher Ed. When not writing, she teaches Russian literature and mentors graduate students.

In a recent article for New York Magazine, Rebecca Traister notes that the #metoo movement is as much about work as it is about sex, or the “economics of sexual harassment.” In other words, besides the punishable sex crimes and the harm sustained because of harassment, this movement also documents the harm done to women’s career aspirations.

Looking at the problem from this vantage point leaves less room for moral gradations. If the problem is primarily sexual, there is quite a bit of room for distinguishing, as Masha Gessen does, among degrees of sexual infractions. From this perspective, groping is less problematic than full-on sexual assault, being propositioned is less objectionable than groping and forceful kissing, and so on. The Al Franken case has been an important test of the moral relativity of the #metoo movement. In the end, some people, like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, who recently called for Franken to step down, are uncomfortable with the idea of gradations.

Yet when it comes to professional damage, the financial impact of sexual harassment is an issue no matter how seemingly minor the incident — and this is markedly apparent in academia. A recent survey conducted by Karen Kelsky, founder and president of the consulting firm The Professor Is In and a columnist for The Chronicle, has elicited some 1,600 stories* of sexual abuse in higher education. The number of these #metooPhD stories is growing daily, capturing a problem of enormous scope.

As Kelsky writes about the database of stories, her objective is to make “visible” the “systemic, institutional, and patterned nature of sexual abuse in the academy. … You cannot solve a problem if you can’t see it.” What her survey makes visible is the astonishing array of examples of trust-based mentoring relationships — intended to guide and empower — that have resulted in the objectification and sexualization of students.

At times the entries relate incidents of outright sexual assault. At times they consist of grooming for a sexual relationship. I wondered what was worse: the random groping at a conference or the inappropriate sexual conduct of a trusted mentor whose intellectual approval someone cherished.

The survey also tells an equally devastating story of professional and economic loss. The worst predators systematically sought to destroy the academic careers of their victims, discrediting their dissertations and research interests. Often the sheer presence of the harassment pushed women off their career paths. Many respondents noted being forced to switch fields or advisers, transition out of hard-earned tenure-track jobs to escape their predators, or simply giving up on academe.

The survey suggests that even in cases of mild harassment, in the form of indirect remarks or a timid proposition when rejection was immediately accepted, the damage done to professional lives could be overwhelming. Often in these reports, colleges protected their investment in superstar professors, while the harassed saw their careers derailed, with the loss of both time and money.

The economic detriment to harassment victims exists in every profession where #metoo stories are emerging. In higher education, and particularly in fields like the humanities, where economic factors are already stacked against aspiring scholars, the professional damage seems all the more disturbing.

Kelsky’s survey also reveals the considerable mental-health damage done by the harassment, as virtually all participants listed themselves as sufferers of anxiety, depression, or PTSD. Even if the immediate sexual trauma was not overwhelming, the resulting impostor syndrome and general sense of failure were crushing.

Power is an essential element n most of the harassment and abuse cases being reported. But at colleges, the classroom considerably amplifies that power. Besides the expectation that professors be experts in their fields, they are simultaneously ascribed larger roles — not only scholars and teachers but also priests, therapists, life coaches, parental figures. These roles intensify both the conventional power dynamics involved in most stories of harassment and the vulnerability of our students and subordinates.

I remember my own lack of professional self-esteem when I entered graduate school, at Columbia University, many years ago. In a small humanities field with marginal job prospects, I needed desperately to believe that I could succeed, even though employment statistics said otherwise. In retrospect, the #metooPhD stories suggest that I was extraordinarily fortunate to find mentors who showed enthusiasm for my ideas and the intellectual contributions I could make.

I recall being considered an intellectual with worthwhile new ideas by a faculty member who went on to advise my dissertation. I cannot emphasize enough how important this endorsement was to me at 22. It helped me keep moving forward, past the crippling self-doubt and career uncertainties. Anything other than absolute support and encouragement would have altered my path.

Kelsky’s survey suggests that many other students were not so fortunate: Some found ways to survive despite financial and psychological damage, but many voices have been lost.

So I wonder: Is there really any room for gradations of sexual harassment and abuse in higher education, at least where students are concerned? The result ends up being the same — victims fail to live up to their potential. Can we afford that failure? Should we not hold ourselves to a higher moral standard? I don’t have all the answers, but the questions must be asked.

*Now about 1850 (12/17/17)

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


There Is No Moral Relativity in Sexual Harassment – a Guest Post — 1 Comment

  1. The power dynamics in academia allow for harassment, intimidation, and mistreatment that can be career damaging whether the incident is sexual in nature or not. Unwelcome innuendo has much in common with disparaging remarks made on the basis of on some other characteristic. Physical harassment and attempted rape are another matter entirely. Even if the career impacts are the same for physical vs non physical harassment, the impacts of physical vs non physical harassment on other aspects of the victim’s life cannot be ignored.

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