Anyone who spends a modicum of time on the internet will have been exposed to the recent hashtag battle opposing #NotAllMen and #YesAllWomen, so I don’t need to rehearse the details here. What I think is significant is that there may well be a sense in which both camps are right: it may well be the case that the proportion of men engaging in the more extreme forms of sexism and violence against women – the limit cases being sexual assault and rape – is relatively small, while the proportion of women being victims of these assaults is very high. There is no contradiction between the two.
Indeed, a 2002 study mentioned in this recent Slate article (which Eric W also linked to in a recent post – btw, it’s Eric’s post that got me thinking about this issue) on the sexual histories of college men found that ‘only’ 6% of those interviewed had attempted or successfully raped someone. But the catch is that there was an average of 6 rape attempts per perpetrator. So the math is simple: in a population of 100 college men and 100 college women, if 6 men are rapists but each engage in rape attempts 6 times during their college years, then it is perfectly possible that 36 of the 100 women, so more than a third of them, will have been the victims of successful or attempted rapes. (Naturally, there may also be cases of men sexually assaulting other men, but it seems that, in the college population in particular (as opposed to the prison population, or among younger male victims), the wide majority of cases is of male perpetrator and female victim.)
But this observation may also explain why many well-meaning people, in particular men, have a hard time accepting the claim that 1 in 5 women are raped in their lifetimes (data taken from here). (For the sake of comparison, the estimate is that 1 in 71 men are raped in their lifetimes, which is still much too high but definitely pales by comparison.) Perhaps on some subconscious level they translate this into the claim that 1 in 5 men are rapists, and this clashes with their perception that the wide majority of men are not rapists. Well, if these statistics are to be believed, these men’s perception is to some extent correct, but they are not doing the right math: it is not a one-to-one correspondence between perpetrator and victim.
To conclude, I would like to conjecture how these considerations, which are based on a study with college men, generalize to the situation of (male) faculty engaging in inappropriate sexualized behavior with (female) students. Many people seem to evince the observation that the majority of male faculty does not seem to engage in this kind of inappropriate behavior as an argument against the claim that there is a systemic problem of sexual harassment in philosophy. But if these data generalize, it only takes a small number of well-placed, powerful perpetrators to harass and possibly traumatize generations and generations of (female) students.
What I think is the systemic problem in the profession is the way in which this behavior is tolerated when it comes to these ‘big shot’, powerful philosophers, even if there is only a small number of them (but that’s not even something we can reasonably be sure of). Most of us can probably think of quite a few departments where there is only one individual regularly engaging in harassing behavior, but where the climate for women is thereby inevitably difficult. (One of the worst cases I know of also happens to be the placement officer of a 'high-ranked' philosophy department, giving him an entirely unreasonable amount of power over graduate students – with predictable disastrous consequences.)
Why do we tolerate this? We should realize that even a single individual can cause serious damage to a large number of victims if the individual engages in serial behavior (which apparently most of them do, at least judging from studies with other demographic groups). It takes only one to endanger many careers and lives.