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Disturbing Reports and Troubling Questions

November 25, 2011

Recently returned from the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (this year in San Francisco), I enjoyed renewing contacts with long-time friends in the field, productive meetings of various sorts, and some interesting presentations.  I may say more about these in coming postings.  But as I flew back I was troubled reflecting on a conversation with a female colleague from another university who related her experience of sexual harassment by a very, very well-known scholar years ago when she was a young graduate student.  I’m doubly troubled because this is now the second such conversation in recent years, in which I’ve been told by a fully credible woman colleague in the field of this sort of thing (and in the earlier case the reputation of the other scholar in question as a hound-dog when it came to his female grad students was affirmed by a male graduate of the same university).  So I now know of two such prominent men in the field who preyed on their female graduate students. (I won’t use names of anyone, mainly to prevent unsought attention to the women in question. And this posting comes entirely from me, with no impetus or collusion from the women in question.)

I’m 68 in December and I’ve seen a lot of the world, but I admit that in each case I found myself surprised and shocked, and then angry.  I just never expected that among senior colleagues, highly respected for their scholarly accomplishments in my field, there are a few (I trust only a few) who could also practice this kind of demeaning and damned wrong behaviour.  Yes, students can come on to their teachers, and there are various kinds of sexual shenanigans in academia.  But I’m talking about a particular kind of betrayal of trust and an abuse of power.

I also am left with some troubling questions.  How did these guys imagine that they had the right to impose themselves on these women (and others) simply because they were young, female, and within their reach?  How did they look at themselves in the mirror and not feel ashamed, not recognize that their behaviour was disgusting and harmful to the women?  How did they imagine that their power-trip sexual advances were welcome?  But I wonder also could the major universities in which these guys worked have been more effective in communicating to academic staff and students that such behaviour was completely unacceptable, that students should report such behaviour, absolutely safe that they wouldn’t be penalized and that action would be taken?

These particular events reported to me took place a number of years ago, but my final question is at least as troubling as the others:  Are there scholars out there today in universities and colleges who feel free to inflict themselves upon their students, students whose only mistake was registering for a degree in that institution and under that scholar’s supervision?  This isn’t an invitation for accusations here, by any means.  I merely indicate the concern that motivates this posting.

I share the offence of women who have been subjected to such unsought and demeaning advances and pressures.  The men who engage in this behaviour aren’t macho or admirable in the least.  This isn’t innocent sexual behaviour.  I repeat that it’s an abuse of power and of trust.  Whatever their scholarly contributions, in these attitudes and actions, these particular guys are a disgrace to their position and their universities, and a blight upon the discipline.  I’m embarrassed that they’re members of my sex and of my scholarly guild.  (For me, it’s even more embarrassing that these are scholars in my field.  Obviously, they are immune to the sexual standards advocated in the texts that they studied for many years.)

I’m confident that my feelings are shared rather widely among academic colleagues.  So let’s all work to ensure that these experiences become relics of a previous generation, and that women entering our field today don’t continue to face this kind of unwanted sexual advance from those who ought to set an example of responsible mentoring.

At all levels (and especially Department level), colleges and universities should make it clear that this sort of behaviour won’t be tolerated, and those guilty should be disciplined sharply.  Maybe academic colleagues (especially senior ones, who aren’t so vulnerable) should confront anyone they know to be engaging in this kind of exploitation.  This posting is intended as a small contribution to discouraging these abuses and to fostering an academic culture in which they won’t be tolerated.

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  1. Johannes Leitner permalink

    Yes Dr. Hurtado, one can feel your pain in these lines and such things hurt – primarily the victims of course – but many others too. Why in the world would men do such things and under what conditions would every one of us be vulnerable? May I attract your attention to Dr. Peter Rutter who in his book “Sex in the forbidden zone” offers astonishing insight concerning the dynamics that happen when poweful men work closely together with trusting women. These dynamics work regardless wether you are a believer or a scholar or a priest because men are men. Rutter offers a lot of insight what can happen and why and what can and should be done to avoid it.

    • I take it that Rutter’s book is about the *occasional temptations* that a man-in-power may feel toward women in his charge. The reports about which I complain concern men who (so it is alleged) *frequently/routinely* hit on their women grad students, as if they were commodities available to them by virtue of their status as profs. This constitutes a distinguishable category that I’d call a kind of sexual predator.

  2. Bak, Gyutae(translator of the Korean editon of "Lord Jesus Christ" permalink

    I am so shocked at the fact that such an sexual abuse(or crime)
    was made even in the field of theologians.
    In Korea a serious sexual abuse made by a famous pastor
    made a lot of people be plunged in grief and suffering last year.
    I do thank you for giving a motive to think about the meaning of
    the true “metanoein.”

  3. “Obviously, they are immune to the sexual standards advocated in the texts that they studied for many years.”
    Sharp, necessary, and spot on! O’ that the divine text would have its way with these men, and with all of us.

  4. Augustin permalink

    But Larry, isn’t that humanism rather than feminism? If not, feminism is a real misnomer. I promote equal rights for all humans, women and men. I don’t see that as feminism. Nor am I a “masculinist” just because I work for men’s rights in addition to women’s rights.

    • The difference is that a feminist is particularly aware of the disadvantaged situation of women simply for being women, and seeks specifically to address that situation.

  5. Peter Malik permalink

    Thanks for this post, professor Hurtado. I know that you can’t make the names known for the sake of those afflicted ladies, but I think these names should be known widely. Someone needs to speak up and show things in their true light. Isn’t the aim of critical scholarship knowledge, getting closer to truth, and an interaction with other equal human beings in the pursuit thereof? Some people think they can afford whatever their power (as you so correctly articulated) and reputation potentially enables them to. Disgusting.

    • Naming people involves legal issues, and big-time ones! I’ll simply settle for highlighting the issue and helping to develop an academic culture in which this sort of behavior is firmly treated by academics and institutions as unacceptable.

  6. Dr. Hurtado.

    Well said. And much needed. As academics, if we can’t be truth-seekers in ALL areas of our existence, we shouldn’t be so prideful as to think we can teach.

    God’s grace,


  7. Thank you, Dr. Hurtado, for speaking up about this issue. It’s hard for us women to respect “godly” men who behave in this matter.

    When you have that experience, it draws you into radical feminism. As a consequence, some women ministers/scholars become preachers for feminism, rather than for the gospel. Then these women can lose their effectiveness.

    I do think that women should confront the situation with elders present and work for confession, repentance and restoration of all involved. So sad that this doesn’t often happen because everyone wants to protect his/her reputation.

    • A few corrections, Carol. The men in question in my blog wouldn’t advertise themselves as “godly” men, but as powerful scholars. Abuse by men who claim some religious status is, if anything, worse still.
      Also, although I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “radical feminist”, I rather see myself as supportive of feminist aims. That is, I believe that women should have the same opportunities as men in virtually all areas of life and work, including ordained ministry.

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