Are academic philosophy departments awash with sexual harassment?

If you read some reports, you’d think so. But there are many problems with recent claims that philosophy has a particularly bad problem with sexual harassment.

One thing that has especially troubled me is that reports of the apparently high rate of sexual harassment in philosophy departments are so unsystematic. Much of this widely accepted dogma is based upon a well-known blog, What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy, and in particular, the posts on this blog classed under ‘sexual harassment’ (

If you read through these accounts, it’s very alarming. But this is a blog. Have you ever read any blogs? Have you not the slightest conception of how dodgy they are as a basis for any responsible kind of social research? I have written elsewhere about the difficulty of using blog entries to come to any conclusions at all about the prevalence and nature of any social phenomenon (

But a blog itself can of course be the proper subject of scrutiny. And this blog is worth looking at, if only for the reason that it seems to be a key player in current debate and in shaping perceptions of what kind of a discipline academic philosophy currently is, and whether it’s worthwhile for women to put up with what they find there.

So, it seemed a good plan to look closely at the blog and try to do some careful analysis of what I found. I have not yet finished this, but I have in the last couple of days done some coding and analysis of what’s on the blog, and what I’ve found is at once disconcerting and reassuring.

One of the first things I realised is this: how hard it was to know how to categorise most of the reports. Why? Because of course these are only anonymised reports, and often brief, and often lacking in detail, but also because of the lack of context. Very often, it was just next to impossible to know whether or not something would constitute sexual harassment, as (variously) defined in regulation and statute. Now, partly this is because there are many reports of generally shoddy or clearly unacceptable behaviour that women have experienced, and often such reports are combined with many different aspects of a person’s experience, so it’s not always clear if the writer actually meant their experience to be classified as sexual harassment per se.

So, for instance, a report on a blog from a professional philosopher sick of the fact that every time she goes to conferences, fellow delegates try it on with her, is of course a report of an experience which the person finds at the least irritating and counter to her professional development. But weariness at the frequency of sexual overtures does not in and of itself mean that any one of the individuals making these overtures has done anything which constitutes sexual harassment (given that we are talking about two professional adults). If one man asked a woman out for a drink, or to go back to his room, and she said no, and he asked her again, and again, and again, and again, that would at some point amount to harassment. But if each time, it’s a different man, the irritated and weary woman is unlucky, but can’t, e.g., take a class action against these guys.[i]

And often, the difficulty I had in interpreting and analysing the blog reports was because there is no cultural context to work out how to interpret a remark, a set of behaviours. This was very interesting to realise, because often it’s precisely this lack of shared cultural context about what sort of language and behaviour is reasonable in certain settings which leads individuals to act or speak in ways which other individuals find offensive, repellent, or harassing. Here’s one example: it’s blindingly obvious that many of the reports, indeed, probably most of them, came from North America. In many of them, women complained about being ‘hit on’. Now, I’m not being deliberately obtuse, honestly, but I’m British, and a bit old, and I am a bit confused about how Americans use this term. It sounds unpleasant, and I’ve only ever heard it in contexts where a woman is complaining, so it sounds like something the (usually) man should not be doing, but on the other hand, when I’ve heard it used, it encompasses behaviour all the way from drooling and leering and making suggestive comments and invading personal space, and so on, down to a woman having the feeling that a man is glancing at her in ‘that way’, or talking to her as if he quite likes her. I guess nobody ever ‘hit on’ me, or else maybe I just didn’t realise they were doing it.

Joking aside, (for now I think about it, a man once came up to me at a party and admired my embouchure – I think he might have been ‘hitting on me’) some of the entries make quite clear that lack of shared cultural context is exactly the problem. What behaviour is reasonable? We don’t really know. What is flirting? We don’t really know, it depends so much on the context and on interpretation. When is flirting appropriate and when is it not? We don’t really agree. Does flirting mean that the person intends anything to follow? Well, it all depends, and people don’t seem able to find a point of agreement. Is it ever appropriate to flirt with a woman wearing a wedding ring? There’s disagreement about this. Is flirting entirely in the eye of the beholder? And so on.

One thing is crystal clear though: sexual harassment involves trespassing across boundaries. Some cases are clearly harassment (some reports detail alleged assault, one report detailed masturbation in front of a student – such behaviour is illegal). But other cases involve trespassing across boundaries where the boundary itself is in dispute. Especially given the general context of academic philosophy where there are frequent reports from women of not being taken seriously professionally, there were many cases of behaviour which against this background would be ‘bloody irritating’, may help obstruct careers, and may be demeaning and discriminatory, but not necessarily constitutive of anything which would meet the criteria for sexual harassment. (So, one thing that means is, that policies to deal with sexual harassment won’t be able to deal with those ‘not harassment’ cases which jar so much because of the general climate.)

And one of my interests in looking at all this is because of the different ways in which sexual harassment is defined in institutional policies. In some definitions, there is a large subjective element, and so for instance ‘unwanted sexual advances’ in and of itself would count as harassment. And indeed, in some contexts, any sexual advance would be rightly seen as harassing – a Professor alone in his office with a first year student, for instance, should not suddenly announce a desire to touch her breasts or to kiss her. But two students in a social context, or two staff members at a social context? Not so clear. Is an insultingly disparaging comment about feminists in itself an instance of sexual harassment? I realised I didn’t know. But if we are to have workable policies dealing with sexual harassment, we need to get as clear as possible about what counts. And it is more and more apparent that policies alone aren’t going to do the trick – there needs to be much more consensus about what counts as an appropriate, civilised and humane way of treating each other. Reading many of the blog entries I could just picture to myself situations where vast chasms of expectation and social, cultural and ethical mismatch loomed before me, which is not to say that of course, many of the accounts clearly do as described amount to sexual harassment.

Another thing which really struck me was that some of the reports detailed pretty serious consequences of experiencing harassment – depression, and in ten or eleven cases, individuals deciding to drop out of courses, leave university, leave the study of philosophy, or leave academia entirely. (Not that studying philosophy is the apex of human existence, but if a person decides to leave, it should be for positive reasons, not because of harassment.)

But also, that many reports detailed ill effects on the writer not of any specific personal experiences of harassment, but from simply knowing that there is a lot of harassment around in philosophy. Some students used this to decide to avoid certain high-ranked philosophy departments for their graduate work. For some individuals, fear of harassment prevented involvement in professional social events which can seriously hamper one’s career. So it is all the more vital to deal with harassment, to let it be known that it’s being dealt with, and moreover, to try to work out how prevalent it really is. And is it more prevalent in philosophy than in other places?

Well of course reading this blog will never ever tell you. So let’s look at some of the analysis I’ve done so far.

I looked at 100 entries (what statistical luck that there just happened to be 100) posted between 2014 and 2010. Of these, 7 didn’t actually involve philosophy, but other academic departments, so let’s exclude them from reports about what it’s like for women in philosophy. And here’s an example of how difficult it is to classify such reports for the purposes of working out if academic philosophy departments have a problem with sexual harassment: a report that involved a female philosophy student having the unpleasant experience of being groped at a party by a male philosophy student. I honestly don’t know whether to count that in with the tally of how bad it is in academic philosophy departments, because the sad reality is that people get groped at parties the world over. There was just nothing to suppose that the subject these two were both studying had anything to do with the occurrence of groping. What might make one link this to philosophy are other experiences of hostility to women within the discipline? Or one might put this down to generally bad behaviour and not link it in one’s mind with philosophy in particular? I think about this example and just think of the fact-value gap. Those working on the complex and fascinating methodological problems of how to conduct social science research have thought long and hard about the difficulty of coming up with such classifications and the normative assumptions that can so easily then be incorporated into any findings or description of social phenomena.

I then also noted that several of the entries detailed historic cases of sexual harassment, dating from the 1940s onwards. So, although the blog has given these women affected a chance to tell the world of what they went through, I decided to exclude them from any analysis of what’s going on in philosophy now, not least because there were also some reports from people expressing the opinion that things had improved for women. Fifteen or sixteen were of historic (1990s or earlier) cases of harassment. (Furthermore, although some of the remaining cases specifically mentioned that they were recent, in some cases, no evidence was given by which to date them, so there could have been further cases of historic harassment.)

Some of the blog entries did not report specific cases of harassment but just made general comments about harassment in philosophy, so again I did not count these. There were twelve such entries.

Many of the blog entries reported cases where others had allegedly experienced harassment. In some instances, these were quite specific, in other instances, this was much more general (e.g. ‘everybody knows that Prof X …’ etc). I have not yet looked through these in detail, although I intend to. So far I’ve concentrated on looking at the self-reports.

Working from a blog entry is itself fraught with difficulty in terms of knowing how fully and accurately it describes what’s going on. (Okay, this in itself raises a difficulty: if someone has been harassed, then they need support and the last thing they want is someone scrutinising what they’ve said and wondering if it really counts as harassment. I thought about this, obviously. My answer is this: I am not in that position of offering these individuals support. I can’t. I hope they already have it. My work here is based solely on what’s in the blog entries, not on what actually happened, and I am trying to be as impartial as possible.) It seemed therefore that looking at blog reports second-hand was just adding too many layers of uncertainty. On top of that, there was the chance of double-counting incidents if both self-reports and other-reports were included, and this especially so for reports about which referred to rumour and ‘general knowledge’ about harassment.

Then, my next problem was, of those entries which concerned philosophy departments, which were reports of alleged harassment affecting the reporter, and were not historic: how many of these described behaviour which amounted to harassment? One reason for posing this question was because many of the entries catalogued a variety of difficulties encountered, and because many of the entries did not specifically describe problematic behaviour as harassment – the classification I think was done by the website itself. The problem is, as was utterly apparent when I started combing through these cases, the large array of behaviour that might possibly be thought of as sexual harassment. Having thought about this for a while, I realised my answer: as long as I recognised that this was precisely the crux of the difficulty, then I could attempt my own categorisation.

How I tried to do this, given the very limited description of any one incident, was based upon different definitions of harassment in policies. Some policies have a very subjective element, and include ‘unwanted sexual advances’ as constituting harassment. If behaviour simply fell under this description (so far as I could tell) and had no other relevant features, (such as being persistent or offensive) then I tended to classify it as mild harassment. Some policies refer to what is reasonable, or to repeated behaviour, or to behaviour which has a serious or substantive deleterious effect on the recipient. It was this sort of behaviour that I classified as harassment. So, for instance, if a staff member reported unwanted sexual comments from another staff member, I’d probably think of that as  mild, whereas if a professor made a sexual advance to a student within a classroom setting, that would be unreasonable and count as serious harassment.

That’s the best I could do, I realised. Some instances I just didn’t think would count as harassment at all – for instance, cases where professional equals flirted consensually.

Now, I REALISE that others will disagree with me. But, firstly, I’m only going on slender material from which to judge cases. And secondly, that’s the whole point I’m making: there is a large variety of opinion about what behaviour is wrong, why it’s wrong, and how wrong it is – cases of assault and clear predation aside, of course. It’s the boundary issues that often feed into the problems in the first place.

Excluding historic cases, I found 48 self-reports of possible harassment involving philosophy departments and their members, of the 100 reports on the sexual harassment blog (although a few of these reported more than one incident). Of the 48, seven of these did not seem to me to be sexual harassment per se (although, I do wish to keep stressing that this does not mean that the incidents were not problematic in other ways).  Eleven I classed as either doubtfully sexual harassment, too vaguely described to judge, or as mild cases. Thirty one reports I counted as instances of sexual harassment (with two involving one person), of which four involved assault of some form.

Additionally, there were also at least four reports which just spoke of the deleterious effects on individuals of worry about the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment in philosophy, as well as many further reports which included such worries and rumours as part of their content.

Of course these were entries in a blog, not any attempt to use any methods that might produce a representative sample. The reports were submitted over a four year period, over a geographical domain that included much of the English speaking world, although, given that they were anonymised, it’s hard to know exactly what area was covered.

So, are academic philosophy departments rife with sexual predators? We do not know. But my best guess is that I have yet to see any evidence that it’s any worse in philosophy than in the rest of the world. What I have seen, however, is evidence that harassment exists, and should be dealt with more effectively – although there seems to be some improvement. I also strongly suspect that the incidence of sexual harassment in philosophy may appear particularly high because of how other sorts of poor behaviour, and poor conditions for women and others at the bottom of the professional pile, rub off into a sometimes dismal general climate creating the opposite of a ‘halo’ effect – everything just looks bleak, from some perspectives in the discipline, illuminated not by a radiantly glowing halo but by the flickering fires of hell.

I have also seen some evidence to suggest that not just harassment, but fear of harassment can have seriously deleterious effects. Lesson: we have to combat not just harassment, but the fear of harassment. Getting clear about what it is, and where it is happening, and how much it is happening, would be a good place to start.


[i] Although there are some who would wish for this, in terms of banning sexual relationships completely in a professional context: that might be one thing for staff-student relationships, but if we are talking about relations between professional equals in a social setting, it’s pretty hard to see this as either desirable or possible.


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