Analysis of a sexual harassment blog part 2: Go for the Big Ones

Reading through the blog entries filed under ‘sexual harassment’ in the What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy? blog ( there were many things that struck me. One was this: that although there were many accounts where contributors discussed specific instances of harassment, there were even more where contributors discussed the general climate that was produced by concerns about harassment, and by stories about harassment. It was striking that reference to these general concerns and fears was  so dominant. I looked at 100 entries posted under the category of ‘sexual harassment’ between 2010 and 2014. Trying my best to classify these (and I realise that this is not a completely exact science), in 50 of the 100 entries (yes, that’s really the stats I got, I’m not making it up) generalised concerns were raised about sexual harassment – and by this I mean, not just generalised concerns about demeaning, derogatory or sexist cultures more generally, but general concerns about sexual harassment in particular. Additionally, I should point out that of those entries which only discussed specific instances, which I therefore did not count amongst the 50, the contributors could well have also had more general concerns about sexual harassment which were not mentioned in their more specific blog entries.

So, we can think about having (at least) two sorts of problem to tackle: individual cases of sexual harassment, and the damage this causes, and a general climate of sexual harassment, and the damage that causes.

There was a pattern of a range of repeating concerns amongst the blog entries discussing general concerns about sexual harassment. Sometimes these accounts were based upon vaguely characterised rumour. Sometimes they were based on more specific accounts of multiple cases. Some were based upon an account which focused first of all on specific instances, but which then spoke of how there was a general climate of acceptance that this was just something to be tolerated, or spoke of hopelessness about how to address any instances of harassment. Sometimes accounts talked about philosophy in general, sometimes about general climates in particular departments. Some accounts talked about the deleterious effects of this general climate of harassment: in some instances, decisions to leave university, or abandon philosophy; in some instances, behaviour avoiding certain situations, such as social events or avoiding working with certain individuals; in some instances, feeling coerced into a relationship; in some instances, feelings that the general climate of the profession is sullied by the examples of how women are treated, or sullied by the examples of those women who gain favours and professional advantage from harassers.

In some instances, contributors talked about environments in philosophy with more than one harasser; but it was also notable that many entries discussed individuals alleged to be serial harassers, with many victims over the years. There were 24 entries of the 100 which described serial harassers. Furthermore, I’d noticed that very often, entries mentioned that philosophers about whom they were complaining were well-known, prominent, very powerful in their field, having  lots of friends in the profession, or had an international reputation – all of which I categorised as ‘famous philosopher’. (Of course, some other entries might involve famous philosophers as well – given that the posts are all anonymous, it may well be the case that those writing entries did not mention how well-known a philosopher was if the writer was trying to ensure anonymity.) There were 17 entries which I’ve labelled as involving complaints about ‘famous philosophers’. Of these ‘famous’ types, 7 were alleged to be serial sexual harassers.

Of course, in theory, it might all be the same bloke!  Certainly, if someone is a serial harasser then it may well be the case that there is more than one blog entry here that complains of that person, because a serial harasser by definition will have more than one victim. (Likewise, the percentage of women who are raped is much higher than the percentage of men who are rapists, because most rapists rape more than one woman.)

And one reason why my beady little eye noticed the frequency with which reports mentioned how well-known or well-connected the perpetrator was is this: over and over, this was given as a reason for the hopelessness of doing anything about it. Over and over, it was claimed that it was a philosopher’s ‘fame’ which meant he used this allure and power to his advance in harassing others; or which meant that a department would do nothing about his actions; or which meant that a victim felt unable to act because he was well-connected, well-protected, or in the position to hamper her career.

It seems to me also likely that if a Famous Philosopher is a harasser, then this could potentially cause the most damage, for more than one reason. For one thing, the more powerful you are, the more your actions set the scene for what behaviour is tolerated in the profession as a whole. And for another thing, it seems more likely that their very fame would make it more likely that stories about them would spread. And that is a two-edged sword, as reading these blogs has made me realise. On the one hand, people are craving for information about ‘who the harassers are’ – there are explicit comments on this on the blog. On the other hand, it struck me forcibly that much of the damage is precisely that attributable to worries, concern, fear, about the rumours going around about sexual harassment in philosophy. The actual harassment causes damage. And fear of harassment causes damage. The more it’s talked of, the more people know about it, and then perhaps something can be done; but meanwhile, the more it’s talked of, the more some people will feel unsafe, if it looks like there’s not much that can be done.

But on the positive side, there were quite a few entries which expressed optimism that the situation seemed to be improving in general, or which cited ways in which individual cases had been dealt with to at least partial satisfaction (I classed an unlucky 13 entries as positive or partly positive – there were many which weren’t, of course).

So, if one has to deal with the twin issues of addressing individual cases, and addressing a general climate in which accounts of sexual harassment mar the profession and cause misery for many, then it seems strategically efficient to suggest this: go for the Big Ones. If you had a wasps’ nest in your loft, you’d clear out the nest, right? Rather than keep swiping individual wasps. You move them by moving the queen. Get any serial harassers, get any Famous Guys who are using their power wrongly, because these ones cause the most damage.

But, having thought about how frequently it seems to be that general fear of the extent of harassment in philosophy is in itself a problem, I’d say, try to do this through institutional, legal and regulatory channels. Spreading rumour might be a necessary way to get victims to come forward – as has amply been seen in many cases recently where publicity about several high profile cases of sexual assault in the UK by various ‘celebrities’ has led to hundreds coming forward. But rumour without the assurance that cases can and will be tackled effectively by the authorities, and without the assurance that there won’t be a general climate in the local culture of ‘put up and shut up’, itself causes damage. The more it can be seen that cases are actually dealt with, the more confident people will be about coming forward, the less others will feel inclined to protect the worst offenders, and the more the general climate can improve.


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