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The Politics of Sex at Universities

Cases can be closed by firing faculty, but conversations shouldn't be

In this column, I like to write about the conversations that I imagine might restore our political culture in the United States. Yet in the past several weeks, the wave of sexual harassment revelations that have hit educational, along with media, corporate, political, and athletic, institutions has claimed my attention over and over.

Readers of Public Seminar know that the New School has not been exempt from the spotlight trained on private behavior that has public consequences. If you don’t mind, I will not repeat our tale of woe here. My information is incomplete and unreliable. As importantly, the people who have been most immediately affected may be understandably fragile and resent new attention, while the rest of us are — well, very tired.

But it really doesn’t matter whether I tell you one sexual harassment story or another, does it?  If we have learned anything since the Harvey Weinstein case emboldened women to speak out, while charges of sexual harassment can differ in their narrative details and settings, the thematic categories are numbingly similar and recognizable to all of us. So it is at The New School: you already know our story. I don’t have to tell you. What? You say that you want to tell me your story? Alright then: here are some guidelines for submission that publisher Jeff Goldfarb and I posted last week. We have one letter from our colleague in sociology, Andrew Arato, that published this morning, and at least one contribution on the way from outside The New School. Keep your eye on this page.

To return to my theme, as in contemporary politics, there are crucial divides among good people about how we understand, and respond to, the politics of sex across lines of status and power. This has been brought into sharp relief in higher education recently, as Title IX (a federal law that regulates gender equity in schools that rely on federal funding, which is almost all of them) has merged incompletely, and confusingly for some, with sexual harassment law (civil codes that define and punish unwanted sexual advances in the workplace) and felony sexual assault on campus. While the vast majority of Americans understand Title IX as an instrument for gender parity in athletics, many do not realize that sports were simply one vehicle for Title IX’s actual objective: equal access to education. Why sports? There’s an easy answer: at public institutions, athletic scholarships, a path for under-resourced and poor students to attain college degrees, skewed almost entirely male because most women’s sports did not have varsity status, and female athletes were thus ineligible for a key financial aid pool. Similarly, talented athletes have always been the object of admissions preferences, or even reserved spots, at private colleges and universities. It was not until 2013, when University of North Carolina anti-rape activists and sexual assault survivors Andrea Pino and Annie Clark decided to file suit against the university using Title IX — on the logic that being raped had limited their access to education — that Title IX became closely identified with sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Other than creating a new kind of job (the Title IX coordinator, whose task is to locate and remediate gender discrimination) this new use of Title IX has had two major implications for adjudicating sexual conflict on campus. The first is that a variety of actions associated with sexual violence and harassment (groping, coercion, verbal abuse, flirting, shunning and stalking, to name a few) are now understood to induce diminished self-confidence, depression, and anxiety — even in the absence of rape. As importantly, these psychological states are now recognized as barriers to accessing the educational resources of the university. For example, at a school where I used to work, the Title IX lawsuit was partially triggered by the fact that, subsequent to a fraternity house rape, fraternity members followed the accuser around campus, threatened her verbally, and stood outside her dorm window chanting insults, all of which the university decided (inhumanely and foolishly) to categorize as free speech. Understandably, the student herself became demoralized and decided to drop out. The second implication of Title IX has been to expand the definition of sexual harassment to cover actions that may or may not be sexual, and are open to interpretation by the student: an invitation by a faculty member to lunch or to participate in an exclusive event, or an offer of domestic employment such as house, pet or baby sitting, might be viewed in retrospect as grooming a student for seduction. Since 2013, the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education has found “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature to constitute sexual harassment,’ regardless of whether a reasonable person would find such conduct severe or pervasive. To comply with OCR’s interpretation, institutions should revise their sexual harassment policies to define sexual harassment as any unwelcome conduct of a `sexual nature.’”

In part, it is this phrase — regardless of whether a reasonable person would find such conduct severe or pervasive — that has launched the adjudication of sexual harassment in higher education into new territory. What it argues is that I, or we, or any faculty, or even administrators, no longer get to say what the effects of sexual boundary crossing on the individual are — or even whether the intent was sexual. In addition, efforts to dispute charges of sexual harassment might be part of a case that a “hostile environment,” one that has effectively foreclosed the student’s equal access to education apart from specific acts, has been created.  And that hostile environment might, as feminist Laura Kipnis has argued in her controversial book Unwanted Advances (2017), emerge long after a consensual relationship — or set of encounters, sexual or not — has been concluded.

It is this shift in the law, currently being scrutinized by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, that has finally caused universities to begin severing their ties with faculty who have been well known, often for decades, for pursuing sexual or otherwise erotic relationships with students. This is a huge change. In fact, until this year, although I have known and worked with dozens of people who have routinely pursued sexual relationships with students, and a few have been investigated or sanctioned, I have never actually known a faculty member at the college or university level to be fired for sexual harassment or sexual assault — until now.

So without further ado, what are the issues that we need to address? Let me name a few, and you can join me in the comments section.

  • Gender seems like a persistent source of division — until you look more closely. I felt I was in an ongoing state of eye roll when then-candidate Donald Trump protested that the Access Hollywood tape was “locker room talk;” men all over the country protested that they had never heard other men talk that way. This was very hard for me to believe, and I have recently realized that this stems from my longstanding assumption that male colleagues are universally complicit in making excuses for each other. Conversations with male colleagues in the last few months, however, have led me to conclude that I was not only incorrect, but that my thirty years in academia contained plenty of contrary evidence, as well as examples of women faculty who were the perpetrators and enablers of sexual boundary crossing. This requires more thought, but  I am clear that —
  • University control over our private lives should not be expanded — but when does a private act have public consequences? In a letter published earlier today, my colleague Andrew Arato posits that The New School, where we both work, “should make much clearer that sexual or romantic relations between people of significant power differentials (not just faculty and students) are banned at our institution, as in effect they already seem to be.” If we imagine a kind of Kinsey scale for feminism, in which 0 represents someone who is feminist to the core and 6 a complete and utter misogynist, I think you could find people who were 0’s, 6’s, and everything in between, who would agree with that statement. But should they? I don’t think so. The policing of consensual sex is something that we should vigorously resist, even as we evolve to recognize abusive behavior that is sexual, that must be addressed through well articulated community standards, and that sometimes might cause us to recognize that abuses of trust render someone unfit for a teaching career. In addition to the number of people who have found, and will continue to find, love in university or other work settings, and who seem to be capable of not abusing each other, take it from a veteran of the homophobic 1970s, that banning sex leads to —
  • Tolerating secrets and lies, about ourselves and others. Or worse, secrets that aren’t really secrets, an atmosphere of suspended moral animation that is otherwise otherwise known as hypocrisy. One of the most complicated lies we tell ourselves is that we have no right to interfere with student-teacher relationships because many result in marriage. It’s true! So why is it also a lie? Because marriage is, in the first place, no promise of equality, no guarantee that there will be a happy ending, or even an indication that the relationship is emotionally healthy. Is that not obvious? More important, however, is that the apparently factual quality of this statement is at odds with another, equally important, truth: that most love affairs (and fifty percent of marriages) end, and that there is a good chance that they will end in emotionally ugly ways, acts of vengeance, and spiteful exchanges that create a toxic environment for everyone in the vicinity. This has different consequences for a school than for a widget factory. I don’t say this to make a back-door argument for banning relationships, but rather to suggest that everyone take their rose-tinted glasses off and get some feminism: telling ourselves that marriages we know about is evidence that these relationships are not always bad is a lot like saying that heterosexual intercourse without birth control doesn’t always result in pregnancy. In addition,
  • The intimacy of a teaching relationship creates unavoidably erotic danger zones. One of the first scholars to write about being sanctioned for sexual harassment was Jane Gallop, in Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment (1997). Gallop — who admitted to the flirtatiousness and sexual banter, not to mention a stray kiss on the lips — that caused two graduate students to file charges against her, argued not only that the classroom is a necessarily an erotic zone, but also that acting on this energy can be empowering for students. Before the top of your head blows off, it is worth noting that Gallop is not the only person to have written about this, and we might want to stop shutting down women who defy feminist orthodoxies on sex and power. They have some things to teach us that might help us understand the student’s point of view more clearly. In fact, narratives of student fear and disempowerment can overwhelm the complexities of this erotic terrain. In the title essay of her collection The Professor (2010), Terry Castle promises to “narrate my undoing” by a female graduate mentor famous for trolling the student ranks for temporary lovers and hook-ups. Yet, Castle also notes the potentially exhilarating experience of entering into a sexual relationship with a closeted member of the faculty: “The Professor must care for me greatly, I concluded — as much as I did for her in fact — to risk so much, to play so close to the edge,” Castle writes. (For an in-depth discussion of Castle’s essay, see a conversation between myself and historian Ann Little from 2010.) I am guessing this exhilaration and narcissistic fantasy are no less heady for the heterosexually inclined. Unfortunately —
  • These are, as many of the feelings inspired by sexual attraction, delusions. Castle was dumped by The Professor, which plunged her into the kind of major depression that today could exactly trigger a Title IX lawsuit. And this is where things become tricky, in my view: both the teaching relationship and love are often a morass of delusion and crushed expectations. Once delusions are punctured, which they inevitably are, even when a relationship succeeds, things can spin out of control rapidly. This should surprise no one, since university life is shockingly like real life. But what the intimacy of an educational environment might require of us is empathy and restraint towards our students, well beyond what would be necessary in a relationship where the participants were not sharing the same sphere. Again, we can turn to feminism for some answers that aren’t on the Human Resources website. As Audre Lorde wrote in The Uses of the Erotic (1978) feminism helps us think about what it means to have empathy for those we are drawn to powerfully. “To share the power of each other’s feelings,” she writes, “is different from using another’s feelings as we would use a Kleenex. When we look the other way from our experience, erotic or otherwise, we use rather than share the feelings of those others who participate in the experience with us. And use without consent of the used is abuse.” This is a core question of consent that goes beyond agreeing to the sexual acts themselves, and it haunts every Title IX complaint I am aware of. When a less powerful person has consented to a sexual relationship, or has navigated a sexualized relationship by agreeing to various offers of friendship from the more powerful person, to what has that person consented? And what obligations does the more powerful person have to not only care for that consent, but do so in ways that might be self-abnegating?

These are only a few of my thoughts about how to bridge the multiple divisions about sex and power that the current atmosphere has exposed. This conversation will go on for some time, hopefully out of court. There are links to readings above that you might want to check out, and I invite your responses in the comments section.

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