Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: When Will We Stop Elevating Predators?

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I’ve set aside the usual job-search questions from readers to talk in today’s column about the Sexual Harassment Survey I created on November 30. It quickly went viraland gathered — in the space of about two and a half weeks — more than 1,800 responses from academics who shared their experiences of sexual misconduct in higher education.

I have been horrified but unsurprised by the nature and amount of responses I’ve received — both in the Google document I set up for the survey and in the additional emails in my inbox. They detailed stories that people (women) did not feel comfortable sharing publicly, and included, at times, names of perpetrators (men) — some of whom have passed away and others who are alive and well, and still receiving promotions, accolades, chairs, and deanships. (For legal reasons, I removed the names from the Google doc as quickly as I saw them. I’ve kept a running list, and some people also have emailed me names privately.)

First let me explain the survey document (and it’s still open, so please feel free to contribute using this form). It is a nonscientific, crowdsourced survey aimed at gathering anonymous stories of sexual harassment in academic settings. I intentionally left the definition of "sexual harassment" open; contributors may share anything that they feel merits inclusion.

My goal was not to execute a research study, but to make visible the unacknowledged scope and scale of the problem of sexual harassment in academe in the aggregate — with complete anonymity for all who participate. I also hoped the survey would help victims know they were not alone and raise awareness about this scourge in academic settings.

I will not use this information for any purpose except to increase public awareness on my blog and in my other writing, and I will make no effort to identify the contributors or the actors in their stories in any way. Anyone who wishes to can also email me privately, and I hold their information in complete confidentiality. More than 150 women have emailed me to share their stories in greater detail and name their rapists and stalkers as well as the university administrators (both male and female) who excused the abuse and protected the predators. I have a long list of names.

Almost every single one of the hundreds of stories in the spreadsheet show abuse perpetrated by those in power against those advised or supervised, personally and institutionally. In a tiny fraction of cases (about 3 percent), the perpetrators were women. And in an even smaller percentage, the victims were male. The abuse can happen along LGBTQ lines, as a handful of stories show. Of course it can. This abuse can occur any time one party has almost total power over the other party, and uses that power to extract sexual access. In a heteronormative patriarchy, the white men at the top constitute the overwhelming majority of perpetrators.

Truly grotesque is the range, scope, variety, and, at the same time, numbing repetitiveness of the attacks of senior men on junior women — particularly women of color — that the survey has revealed.

The survey shows that these incidents occur at every type of academic institution and in every discipline. While the humanities are most widely represented in the survey, I believe that’s an outcome of my humanities-leaning readership. There isn’t a corner of higher education that is somehow immune.

And let me be clear: Sexual harassment in academe is a spectrum that ranges from rape, assault, battery, and stalking to looks, hand-brushing, and innuendo delivered just on the edge of plausible deniability — but, contra Matt Damon, all of those behaviors do incalculable harm. Often the harm isn’t apparent until later. Part of being socialized in a patriarchal society is a mechanism of internalized gaslighting in which women are conditioned to second-guess themselves, to doubt, to minimize, to do the emotional labor of both defusing situations and reinterpreting them in such a way as to exculpate their harassers — by squinting in just the right way to make plausible deniability, well, plausible.

The stories reminded me of a 2012 post written by a blogger named Cliff Pervocracy about what the author called the "missing stair" logic. The missing stair was a man in the blogger’s social circle who was known to be a rapist, but who was actively and intentionally protected by some people. Aside from his active protectors, there were others who treated him "like a missing stair. Like something you’re so used to working around, you never stop to ask, ‘What if we actually fixed this?’ Eventually you take it for granted that working around this guy is just a fact of life, and if he hurts someone, that’s the fault of whoever didn’t apply the workarounds correctly."

The missing-stair logic can be imposed by women as well as men because, as bell hooks reminds us, patriarchy has no gender. So hundreds of the accounts I’ve received talk about female senior professors doing no more than warning their young female mentees to "play along to get ahead," or, at best, to "try and avoid" a certain male professor.

At worst, the survey and email responses showed, some senior women circled the wagons to protect a male colleague against student grievances. Indeed entire administrative infrastructures come into play to execute: (1) scheduling machinations aimed at keeping certain male professors from teaching undergraduates, and/or (2) workarounds to make sure perpetrators advise only male students. What moral leadership indeed.

From the bird’s-eye view afforded me by the survey, academe seems like a massive house with missing stairs everywhere — and not by accident. They are an inherent structural feature of the architectural design. Academic culture gives powerful older men access to, and almost total power over, vulnerable younger women, The structure of the academy excuses and protects those men even when their behavior — some of it actually criminal — destroys young women’s lives and livelihoods.

As I wrote in my book, The Professor Is In, academe is like Hollywood in its desperate mismatch between available jobs and eager candidates for those openings. But I can’t say I fully understood until now how much academe is also like Hollywood in its systemic culture of sexual abuse by obscene male power brokers given complete latitude to destroy lives and careers.

Reactions to the survey have been overwhelmingly positive, and it has been featured in a number of interviews and articles (here, here, and here).

Other responses, however, have made it equally clear how deep misogyny and rape culture run in academe. I’ve received emails of the men’s-lives-matter and why-are-you-making-men-out-as-bad variety. A thread about the survey in an online forum called Political Science Rumors — whose members are presumably Ph.D.s in political science — included comments that read like something out of a 4Chan troll factory. (Example: "Fake news. If these stories had actually happened, the ‘victims’ would have come forward. And in the off chance any of these stories are true, the purported victims should be prosecuted for allowing these creeps to assault others.")

I hope the survey makes academic men profoundly uncomfortable. I hope it makes them second-guess every word and gesture they’ve ever made. I also hope it removes all plausible deniability from academic institutions. You are all on notice.

My ultimate goal for the survey, however, is for victims to gain strength and power as well as some clarity about how to move forward with their lives. Sharing a traumatic experience in a public forum — even anonymously — can be healing. Witness these comments from women who took part in the survey and later emailed me privately (I share them here with their permission):

"This was the first time that I have told the full account of what happened to me to anyone, and it has been hugely therapeutic in helping me to process the experience." "Seeing how many others have experienced PTSD from similar situations has helped me to believe myself and that is huge, because five years later I am still ashamed. I just needed one space where I didn’t have to pretend, downplay, excuse, or minimize the harassment." "I just wanted to state how important it was to be able to complete the survey, but also to have the opportunity to know I can speak confidentially to someone in the know about this. The burden of having no one believe you, because no one can talk about these things, had been soul-destroying."

I encourage all of you to go to the survey and notice, in particular, the long-term effects on the victims. Because those long-term effects coalesce into cumulative effects on academe itself and on the production of knowledge. When you read about the women whose career trajectories were thwarted, who fled academe altogether, who avoided scholarly conferences, who lost grant funding, or who experienced PTSD, suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety, and other mental-health conditions — what that all adds up to is an incalculable loss of women’s contributions to scholarship. What have we lost? What cures? What solutions? What insights? We will never know.

Patriarchal logic means that these hypothetical contributions will be devalued in their absence, but they are nevertheless real. In the end, sexual harassment is a means of keeping women "in their place," punishing them for having the temerity to seek to enter what men wish to believe are their own special places of privilege. Until women’s potential is accorded true value, lackadaisical Title IX officers, old-boy administrators, and complacent colleagues — both male and female — will continue to silence victims and elevate predators to ever greater status.

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