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Power, Sex, and Academia: Still a Problem?

October 18, 2017

The recent (and justified) furore over the sexual aggression against young women by the Hollywood producer raised two thoughts again.  First, it hasn’t been mentioned that the US President is himself an admitted sexual predator who bragged about his own sexual aggression as a “perk” that came with being a media star.  You know, with all the justified outrage over Weinstein, maybe some recollection that the problem isn’t on the West Coast alone!  I don’t like bullies, whether Hollywood moguls or obsessive reality-star-cum-President.

But my other thought was the first-hand accounts from women who have told me about their own experiences of unwanted sexual aggression during their time as graduate students, and from very prominent NT scholars (which I posted about earlier here).

The figures in question are now deceased, so no more worries about them (except for the continuing effects of their offences).  But I’m left still with the uncertainty over whether such despicable actions remain part of academia, with particular concern about scholars in my own field.  Yes, the women who come forward to expose such actions and individuals in any area of life are brave and should be supported by the rest of us.  But I also think that my fellow males in academia who share my abhorrence about this sort of behaviour should help to promote an atmosphere in which it is clearly not tolerated, not overlooked, not excused.  Men need to talk, among themselves, about how unwanted sexual advances are just not on.  Perhaps also, as I suggested in that earlier posting, especially senior academics (who aren’t so vulnerable to intimidation) should accept the responsibility of speaking with known offenders, and help to expose those who persist in their offensive actions.

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  1. Donald Jacobs permalink

    I’m curious if it affects how you, or other scholars interact with the academic work of such known offenders. I imagine, once known, it may be difficult to bracket out.

    • Of those senior scholars reported to me as sexual harassing women, none was publicly identified, and the reception of their scholarly work was not affected, to my knowledge.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        But does it affect how you interact with their work? Is what I’m asking.

      • Well, my engagement with their scholarly work preceded my knowledge of the claims about their conduct. I continue to engage their scholarly work on the basis of criteria appropriate to it.

  2. Tim Henderson permalink

    My own opinion is that this problem is far more pervasive than most people realize. I finished my Ph.D. in 2010, and I personally knew/know female graduate students at three different institutions who were the victims of sexual power politics during the past decade. In all three cases, the alleged perpetrator had a longstanding reputation as a sexual predator. But nobody ever confronts these losers. Where are the colleagues, department chairs, and administrators in this? Sitting in their offices with their eyes closed and hands over their ears.

    • Peter Malik permalink

      Why don’t you name the darn man?

      • Peter: Caution here. “Naming” someone = accusing them of what is in some circumstances a crime, and/or defaming them. It could generate a lawsuit if the accused feels unjustly accused and his reputation damaged maliciously. This would be especially dangerous if the accusation were made second-hand.
        The proper way to proceed would be for allegations to be made to the respective university authorities, or to file a suit or report the matter to the police for criminal investigation.

      • I am confused. Are the perpetrators already dead (as suggested by the post), or are they still around and potentially preying on others (suggested by the caution warning)? There would be no legal danger if the men are deceased.

        Prof. Hurtado, I don’t have *any* special intel here and I sit atop no high horse, but I do want to ask you: please, if you know something about an ongoing problem, say something. Not necessarily here, on the blog (unless that’s the best place for it), but somewhere. I appreciate your broaching the subject at all here on the blog — thanks for starting to bring some of this into the light.

      • Those senior NT scholars reported to me by women are both deceased. My purpose in my posting was to highlight the problem, and to contribute to an “atmosphere” in which this behaviour is condemned.

      • Peter Malik permalink

        I agree, Larry, that it could involve considerable difficulties (and I might be speaking out of anger here, which could, of course, colour my judgement). But I’m talking about guys whose harassing behaviours are known by ‘everyone’ (i.e. senior people in the field that have heard enough from their female colleagues) without receiving public confrontation. Yes, it would damage their career and, yes, they could sue the whistleblower—and potentially even win the lawsuit. I think the latter course you suggest might be more fruitful than the former. My understanding is that—referring back to Harris and other Columbia predators (of whom there were several)—the Columbia administration did little to follow on the reports of the victims. Go figure.

  3. Mary Eliot permalink

    Thomas, how about admitting your complicity by minimizing and normalizing violence (harassment, abuse) against women instead of expecting others (presumably women) to forgive abusive men, who, by the way, are not you (your lack of compassion for the victims and sympathy for the perpetrators is notable).

  4. Matthew G. Zatkalik permalink

    The predatory nature of humanity has not and will not change by the donning of apparel, the acquisition of academic degrees, money and positions of influence and power. In fact it may increase – as we have seen. Prosecution for the perpetrators and their removal from standing within the organization that gives them accreditation – sans the ‘rule of exception’ for us and our cohorts!

  5. eliadefollower permalink

    Sexual exploitation is a huge problem, and the person who claims not to understand how it could be is probably lying to themselves. It is a means of confirming that one has power, that one can bend others to one’s own will. Sadly it seems far too often that it is a man in the position of having the apparent power and exploiting that position. I only hope that I have not been guilty of doing such. I would not dare state with certainty that I have not though, as there are far too many ways to do such.
    But, unless something has changed in academics, it is not always the male who is abusing. Unfortunately I do know of a few females (far fewer than men though) who have actively encouraged the swapping of favors for academic credit, and this is a despicable when it is initiated by the woman as is the (probably) far more common initiation by the man.
    We need to take a stand against any who are abusing other persons in this manner. My personal preference would be a private confrontation if at all possible, with a public confrontation only if private ones (very limited number but at least 1 very private and 1 semi private, that is limited number of additional persons) have failed to produce acceptable results.

  6. Peter Malik permalink

    I’m sorry, but senior academics who know about such predators should name them publicly and explicitly. That was the only thing that helped uncover people like Weinstein. ‘A renowned NT scholar’ just won’t cut it. The people will not know and will work with such people until sh*t will hit the fan again. I know there’s a counterargument concerning potential ‘legal’ issues (‘and big ones!’, as I was told last time I made a similar comment here), but I think that if someone speaks out, others will follow. Those who uncovered other predators were also at risk. If no one risks, then jerks will risk raping—as they have done with much success.

  7. Juan Hernandez permalink

    Hi Larry,
    Regarding your statement, “But I’m left still with the uncertainty over whether such despicable actions remain part of academia, with particular concern about scholars in my own field,” I would only add that from my vantage point at least–as a fairly recently minted Ph.D from the States (if you can call a decade recent!)–that I was aware of some of these actions by known names in the field. Everybody knew it and it was “water-cooler” conversation. I thus tend to assume that the opposite is the case: those actions are entrenched. In fact, when I have students at Bethel talk to me about going further, particularly women, I include remarks about power-dynamics in Ph.D programs, which are often manifest in sexual pressures and exploitation. In fact, I had this conversation with one woman because I knew she was going somewhere where an individual with a known reputation was employed. There’s no way I would be able to have a “man-to-man” conversation about curtailing improper behavior with such a person–let alone that it should be admitted. Institutions are powerful and should have rules in place with real teeth to deal with such matters. I think the rising awareness is good and the increased vigilance on the part of institutions is welcome, but it is institutional accountability that can make a real difference. Unfortunately, their record on turning a blind eye is well known. But once we start telling professors, Yes you’re tenured, but that can go away in the face of sexual harassment and assault (which of course must be demonstrated), perhaps people will start keeping their hands to themselves.

  8. I heard about a well known NT Schliemann at the East Coast school where I once taught. He even had a nickname that rhymed with his name. Very sad.

    Larry Burton Little Rock, AR

    A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart, and will sing it to you when you have forgotten the words.” Camus

  9. Beatrice permalink

    Dear Larry,
    I think it would help to also note the structural dimensions of the problem. I.e. this isn’t just about certain “rogue” males, but actually a systemic byproduct of patriarchy. Like so many things, there is a certain danger in individualizing sexual assault rather than seeing it within the context of wider social and political forces. The same applies in NT scholarship.
    Kind regards,

    • Beatrice: Without denying “patriarchy”, I think that we also have to identify the specific offences of individuals. If all we talk about is large social complexions like “patriarchy,” the offenders keep getting on with their activities.

      • Beatrice permalink

        Thanks for your reply. However, I find your dismissive tone both “offensive” and a clear outworking of “patriarchy” but don’t expect you to see the problem.
        Good day,

        P.s. what is a social complexion? Is this some kind of skin condition?

      • Beatrice: I wasn’t “dismissive.” I was urging us not to neglect specific offences of specific people. I hope that you can see the potential problem in failing to do so! I find it curious that my posting attacking the abuse-of-power treatment of women could be taken as “patriarchy” in any meaningful sense. Your demeaning and dismissive tone is a problem! But I don’t know if you can see it.

      • Beatrice permalink

        If mansplaining doesn’t count as a symptom of patriarchy then I don’t know what does! But in any case, the problem as I see it is the “specific” offenses you isolate aren’t specific at all. They fit a pattern. A systematic analysis of patriarchy can make sense of that pattern and provide more specificity to your individuated examples.
        Please do take care to reign in that privilege of yours in future,

      • Beatrice: Ah what bliss it must be to dwell in the lofty heights of such transcendent enlightenment! Do be patient with poor, lower-level souls such as moi. While we await the full analysis of patriarchy and its . . . abolition? dissolution? replacement? whatever, in the meantime perhaps we can agree that taking advantage of women by men in superior power-positions is a bad thing and should not be tolerated. In addition to analyzing these offences, we could also discourage them. Just a thought.

  10. I agree completely but I think something is missing. Sexual harassment will not end until we are all transformed. in the mean time, we all need forgiveness. I am not here confessing to sexual harassment. What I am saying is that it is not beyond me, and I do not think it is beyond any healthy male. It’s human nature, and it’s the nature of sex.

    The best we can do for offenders is to exhort them to repent, offering them God’s forgiveness when they do so, mourning with them, identifying with them, as Jesus does, and rejoicing with them that the Holy Spirit empowers us to live unto God. If there is a solution in this life, that is it. The rest — zero tolerance, setting a good example — it’s all hypocrisy, for it fails to acknowledge that the problem does not lie only with those who happen to get caught. It’s not them: it’s us, and I mean both women and men.

    • Thomas, Your pious-sounding language aside, I’m afraid that your comment seems to reflect the sort of male-problem that I criticized: It’s NOT a “healthy male” thing to commit sexual aggression–and it’s not “the nature of sex.” It’s a corruption of sex, a use of sex to achieve dominance and to express power.
      And, sure, we can offer forgiveness to REPENTANT offenders . . . but not to those who brag about it (a la Trump!) or those who persist and think that it’s “natural” or otherwise ok. It’s not “hypocrisy” to condemn these offences and to work for an academic culture in which they aren’t tolerated.

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