This week’s post on what to do about sexual harassment by Mark, John and Eric has clearly hit a nerve (it's even been mentioned in Inside Higher Ed). We’ve had many interesting responses, and predictably also some responses questioning the gist of the suggestions put forward in the post (for example, the term 'witch hunting' has been used; if only it were true... Witches don't exist, harassers abound). Many have raised the crucial question of the kind (or level) of epistemic warrant required to set in motion mechanisms of social sanctions, but at least I think we can all agree that, if one witnesses an occurrence of sexual harassment in the making, as a bystander, then it is not too much to say that one has the moral obligation to intervene (although it is by no means easy to do it), just as one would have the moral obligation to intervene in other forms of wrong-doings (e.g. seeing somebody being beaten up). In fact, in the case of sexual harassment, one does not even have the excuse of fear for one’s own safety, as typically the harassment will have a specific target rather than being likely to spread and include other victims.
(Robert Paul Wolff says in comments: "When I was a little boy, my mother told me that if I was ever at a dinner party where someone made an anti-semitic remark, I should speak up. I never got to use that advice, because I never got invited to dinner parties. But the principle remains sound.")
But what some of the comments in the post make clear is that many forms of sexual harassment are still largely perceived as ‘mostly innocent’, not really on a par with other forms of violence and wrong-doings. After all, what is the actual harm done, one might ask? Deep down, isn’t it flattering to be the object of courtship? Now, while not having been directly involved in the drafting of the original post, I thought I should say something on what appears to be a still widespread tacit assumption, namely that sexual harassment (as long as it does not go all the way to the level of rape) is not really ‘that bad’; otherwise, what could possibly explain the tolerance that harassers often encounter? As some of the comments rightly point out, the behavior is often put under the heading of eccentricity. Concerned Anonymous hit the nail on the head when s/he said: “The general line of thinking at play here was that this professor's tendency to grope students (both grad and undergrad) is akin to the kind of eccentricity we ought to laugh at and relish in 'geniuses'.”
This is precisely the kind of thinking that needs to be changed. Everybody must understand, and not only consciously, but also deep-down, that sexual harassment is a profoundly damaging wrong-doing, with potentially devastating consequences. I cannot urge you enough to read the stories of sexual harassment in the ‘What is it like to be a woman…’ blog to get a perspective on what it can represent for the victim, in particular (but by no means exclusively) when the harasser is in a position of power (senior faculty, supervisor). Sexual harassment is not funny, it is not endearing; it is despicable.
I hesitate to add a personal experience here, but here it goes. I’ve never been seriously harassed in the profession so far, but I have been sexually abused during a night flight from Europe back to Brazil , when I was 18 and was flying on my own (I've had to deal with other forms of harassment along the way, but this is the worst I've been through). I was sitting next to a horrible man, who deemed it a good idea to touch me in all kinds of inappropriate places when the lights went off. I can’t say it traumatized me for life, but I do remember absolutely not knowing what to do and being too scared to call the flight attendants; for all I knew they would belittle my complaints and I would still be stuck sitting next to the guy! So what did I do? I pretended to be sleeping… I don’t need to add that it was a horrible, horrible experience, but at least when the flight was over, I walked away and never had to see the guy again. By contrast, cases of sexual harassments in professional settings usually involve victim and harasser having to keep on socializing with each other, with potential damages for the victim’s whole career (not to mention the potential psychological damage). So I just want to make sure (at the risk of sounding trivial and redundant) that everybody truly understands that there is absolutely no excuse for harassing behavior; it is despicable, unacceptable behavior, which must absolutely not be tolerated, even in its 'mild' forms.
(Of course, none of this is incompatible with the observation that in at least some cases the sexual involvement is consensual, and even that some women benefit professionally from relationships with more senior male philosophers. But to take these cases as the paradigmatic ones is a gross mistake.)
UPDATE: M 4 April 1:24 pm CDT: we have published a follow-up post here.