Sexual Harassment in Universities

The Guardian this morning reports an ‘epidemic’ of sexual harassment cases in British universities. What defines an ‘epidemic’? More, surely, than the handful that are enumerated in its tables on page 7. To take the three British universities I have been most closely associated with, and just the ‘staff on student’ category: Cambridge (with a very large student body) reports six cases in five years; the University of Hull (medium-sized) two in the same period; and the University of Newcastle another two. I really don’t think these figures qualify as an ‘epidemic’. Of course there will be many cases that remain uncovered; but to set against these there will be at least a few trivial or false accusations. I was the target of one of those once.

In all my years of teaching in several universities, although sexually predatory lecturers were a staple theme of TV dramas (like The History Man), I never heard – officially or through rumour – of a single genuine case of sexual harassment; until the very end of my time at one of them, when I had to deal with it, as Head of the Department that both the teacher and his post-graduate student victim were members of. That turned out to be a subtle and complex case, which took up most of my time in my last year. (It was I who was put in the dock, to determine whether I had handled the case properly when alerted to it by the student. I had; but it was a trying time for all of us. It was one of the factors that  decided me to take early retirement shortly afterwards.) But that was unique, in my experience – of forty years.

I did know of a couple of young lecturers who developed romantic attachments to students, both of which culminated in marriage. Very early on I even had an affair with a student myself, who was – believe me (or not, if you like) – the one who ‘came on’ to me, and who threatened to kill herself when I tried to break it off. (I’m not proud of that.) That was considered to be OK then, so long as I didn’t teach her and wasn’t in any way responsible for her grades. Now it wouldn’t be tolerated, and I would studiously avoid it, on the grounds that the simple differences in our ages (I was just five years older than she) and our statuses made the relationship unequal, and so intrinsically abusive. But those were different times (this is the late 1960s), when we were more relaxed about these things. As an older and better man now, and much more aware of the enormous pressures on young women, and the difficulties they used to encounter in getting their charges taken seriously, I’ve come to totally accept the ‘unequal’ argument.

But I am worried about how widely the definition of ‘harassment’ can be taken these days. Sometimes, if a girl or woman has been ultra-helpful to me (generally in sorting out my i-phone problems), I ask if I can give her a kiss on the cheek as a token of my gratitude. (I should make it clear that I’m a wrinkled, grey-haired oldie, and so no possible physical danger to any young woman.) In England they seem to like that. I like it when they do it to me. But I tried it in a Swedish phone shop the other week – just the request – and she treated me as if I was a rapist. Then the same thing – the same reaction – in another shop a few days later. No wonder the Swedes are so stiff and formal (my friends excepted). The sex-police have taken all the innocent pleasure from their lives.

Then, of course, there’s the whole matter of entirely false accusations, many of them ‘historical’, perhaps to wreak revenge on men like me. It does happen. You never know, it could still happen to me. I wonder if I’ll be allowed to blog my innocence from a prison cell?

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6 Responses to Sexual Harassment in Universities

  1. There is a mountain of evidence showing the disastrous effects on the victims of adult-child sexual relationships. There is no such evidence in the case of adult men of high social status in sexual relationships with women of lower social status. Using your logic, Murdoch should not be ‘exonerated’ at all because there was a huge power and age gap between himself and Deng.

    In any case, defining ‘power’ in intimate relationships is far from straightforward. A man might possess considerable power at a university or company, yet be pathetically lacking in confidence in his social life. A self-assured and sophisticated woman would be able to dominate such a figure in their affair or marriage. It turns out that no amount of social power was able to prevent Deng from doing rather well out of her years with Murdoch.

    I think a much better explanation for abuse can be found in two areas: traditional cultural settings and individual pathology. Russian history, for example, is a story full of the ingrained use of coercion in all forms of social life. Patriarchal violence against women – and gays and others considered deviant – remains a significant problem to this day, because of the continuing weight of the past.

    In the West, patriarchal culture is alive and well; however, individual pathology plays a very prominent role – as it does no doubt in places like Russia. Those who have suffered abuse themselves in their childhoods; those with weak impulse control and puny superegos; substance abuse addicts; and those whose sexuality is connected to sadistic impulses are likely candidates for the role of abuser.

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    • Agreed, Philip, especially on the ambivalent role of ‘power’ in intimate relationships. I’d just like to add:
      (1) The particular problem in universities (and also in schools) is that the senior person has a direct and very material power over the student they may be harassing, with the latter’s grades and degree results potentially depending on whether he or she submits to the senior person’s advances. This is more of a problem in American universities, where – in my experience – grading for any particular course is in the sole hands of the single professor teaching it, and not mediated by ranks of ‘double’ and ‘external’ examiners, as is invariably the case in Britain.
      (2) Child sexual molestation is of course an entirely different issue. But I feel that the debate over ‘harassment’ has been bedevilled by its being put in the same category with that, and with rape. Apart from anything else, this tends to infantilise and even disempower women and the young male victims of ‘harassment’.

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  2. part 2.
    What about a friendship between a person of high status with a person of lesser status, where there is a corresponding disparity in age? Is that relationship also “intrinsically abusive”? I would presume you would take the view that it is definitely not; the abuse, you would have to argue, only arrives when the friendship is consummated. Such a logic is only sustainable if you assume – in the manner of Catholicism and other strains of Christianity – that there is something inherently sinful, predatory or abusive in the sexual act itself. This perspective is also sexist, taking for granted that sex is something the male wants and the female merely submits to.

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  3. A very brave and interesting post, Bernard. Another year of these reminiscences and your readers will be able to write your memoirs for you.

    “I would studiously avoid it, on the grounds that the simple differences in our ages (I was just five years older than she) and our statuses made the relationship unequal, and so intrinsically abusive.”

    Of course, only a fool would engage in such a relationship these days, for pragmatic reasons; however, I think it is hard to redeem a claim as emphatic as the one I have quoted. In countries where there are systemic inequalities between the sexes, that is, in every country, the average relationship between a man and a woman is going to entail a disparity in status and age. You have failed to establish why this typical relationship is inevitably abusive. Surely, the presence of abuse has to be decided empirically, not theoretically. By your calculus, the two marriages you point to were necessarily abusive, irrespective of the actual way the male partner treated the female partner.

    The claim is reminiscent of the a priori arguments made against homosexuality, and marriages between people of different races and religions.

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    • I take your point about ‘disparities of age’. I think I meant disparities of power; and in cases where the ‘victim’ is not quite an adult. (The latter would exonerate Rupert Murdoch and Wendy Deng, who came into my mind as I was writing this.) This sort of disparity would at least open up the strong possibility, if not probability, that the relationship was abusive, even though it might not seem to have been at the time; and so be a reason for the older and more powerful partner to avoid it, as well as pragmatism (the danger of being hauled up before the beak). And there are stages in a relationship short of ‘consummation’, where the same would apply. As regards ‘consummation’ itself: I would dearly love to live in a society where sex was taken more lightly; though it would be too late now for me.

      Incidentally, gender doesn’t need to be involved here. Young men or boys can be sexually harassed too. That, in fact, was the case with the incident I had to deal with as Head of Department.

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      • I might add: haven’t most of us been ‘harassed’ – short of ‘abuse’ – at one time or another in our youth? At least one of my children has been. And so was I, when I was a teenager (and maybe quite attractive, then), but had no idea about homosexuality, or anything to suggest to my mind that the nice chap I met on a cycle ride didn’t want me to come back to his cottage simply to look at some art magazines.

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