Making Academia Safe

On Tuesday, Science published a lengthy and detailed article by Michael Balter about “the sexual misconduct case that has rocked anthropology.” The whole thing is worth a read to understand the latest in a series of sexual harassment or assault incidents in academia in general. Just last week molecular biologist Jason Lieb finally resigned amidst accusations of misconduct, and the subject has been gaining more scrutiny as people continue to push for better policies and mechanisms through which victims can seek redress, abusers can be held accountable, and departments can prevent these types of incidents from occurring.

The recent anthropology case stems from a research assistant who has accused paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond of taking advantage of her in his hotel room while she was drunk in late 2014. Richmond, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History (and a former professor at George Washington University), has been placed on leave from the museum while investigations are under way. The entire story is very much worth reading, but I want to highlight one thing that stands out in the article: the decision by some academics to directly respond to the allegations. All of the details below draw from the Science article, linked above.

While the incident with Brian Richmond is still playing out, I want to highlight the article’s focus on the institutional response by GWU. Some people involved have not hesitated to take action to ensure that other targets of harassment can come forward, to signal to students that these issues are a serious matter, and to, as the article puts it, “do battle against sexual misconduct”.

At AMNH a lawyer reached out to anthropologist Rebecca Ackermann to help investigate Richmond’s actions. She found three undergraduates who gave accounts of inappropriate behavior. AMNH is still investigating him (he was placed on leave after the initial investigation, and no other punishment was added when Ackermann submitted the other three accusations).

Richmond had already left GWU, but continued to teach at the GWU-run Koobi Fora Field School in Kenya. According to the Science article, immediately after finding out his former co-worker and pupil was accused of sexual misconduct, GWU professor Bernard Wood decided that he wanted to be sure that Richmond’s presence at GWU was not marked by the same type of activity:

In St. Louis [at the conference where the research assistant first came forward], Wood canvassed younger researchers about their experiences with Richmond. He asked everyone the same question: “Does this alleged behavior come as any surprise to you?” But he didn’t get the “yes” he was expecting. Nearly all said that they were not surprised, and two individuals told Wood that they had been the direct subjects of unwanted sexual advances by Richmond.

Wood continued asking questions back at GWU’s Center for Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology (CASHP) that yielded similar responses. Rebecca Ackermann, an anthropologist asked by AMNH’s lawyer to help investigate Richmond’s history, found three undergraduates who gave accounts of incidents of harassment and unwanted contact that occurred at the field school.

The CASHP faculty informed Richmond that he was “no longer welcome at the Koobi Fora Field School and was no longer part of it.” Wood penned several blog posts and op-eds about about sexual misconduct in academia, one of which was published at the same time that Richmond was vying for a seat at a scholarly association’s governing board, and refused to chair a panel that Richmond was supposed to speak on. In one of the op-eds, Wood sketches out his motivation by saying that “male professors have a special responsibility to be strong allies of the women affected by sexual misconduct [and] we should not wait for traumatized junior colleagues to demonstrate the greatest courage before those with the greatest power show any.” He continued:

At the very least, any scientist should think twice before collaborating with those who use their research reputation to harass female colleagues, and before inviting them to conferences. Why? Because every paper they publish, talk they give, and conference they attend enhances the influence they have abused. If perpetrators are made to pay a professional cost, their influence will wane, depriving them of further opportunities to prey on women. More importantly, male faculty must report concerns to institutional authorities. The more frequently a department head or a dean learns of concerns, the more likely it is that behaviors will be recognized as a pattern of misconduct.

Sexual harassment in the sciences occurs in many circumstances and settings, but the silence of the past must be replaced by action. The untenured are brave to speak out, but powerful male voices must join in to make sure we level this particular playing field. Alpha males are the problem. Alpha males need to be part of the solution.

Wood’s actions, and his thought process behind them, are really important. It is vital for professors to help make campus safe for students. And this means more than passing a resolution or appointing a committee. It also means standing against those guilty of abusing the power and influence they have over their students.

Compare this to the situation that unfolded at Northwestern: in an article ostensibly about her university’s ban on sexual relations between professors and students (and the implicit acknowledgement of the power relations involved in such a relationship), Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis described the misconduct accusations that philosophy professor Peter Ludlow faced as mere “melodrama.” Kipnis ridiculed students and activists for suggesting that a professor-student relationship might carry with it unequal power dynamics, arguing that “it’s just as likely that a student can derail a professor’s career these days as the other way around, which is pretty much what happened in the case of” Ludlow. (For more, see this overview of the Ludlow case).

This was an instance of several failures. Ludlow’s punishment for misconduct was a pay cut and a denied promotion and little else. The graduate student’s information was not kept confidential, and she faced harassment because of her actions. The university failed to protect her or sufficiently deal with the incidents. And Kipnis’ framing of the situation was misleading and the graduate student involved has stated that the article felt like retaliation for filing a complaint against Ludlow. When the university failed to respond, student activists intervened, making it impossible for him to teach and even preventing a job offer, eventually forcing his resignation.

When UC Berkeley astronomy professor Geoff Marcy was accused of repeated harassment and misconduct, his university did very little. His colleagues, however, responded swiftly by punishing him professionally by un-inviting him from conferences, publicly naming him, and pushing for his ouster. He eventually resigned. When the university failed to respond, other astronomers stepped up.

Looking over the current situation with Richmond, I’m glad that George Washington University’s Anthropology Department – a place I currently call home – has taken the actions that it has. It’s critical that faculty stand behind students in such positions, and it’s critical that those who abuse power face consequences.

Torture is Wrong – But So Is Rape.

Wednesday night my wife and I went to see Christopher Durang’s Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, a 2009 play that was being performed at the Yale Cabaret. It’s a story about how quickly things can escalate, especially when you’re surrounded by men with guns, and it lampoons conservative ideals that justify torture and promote preemptive strikes. It is also a piece of rape redemption.

It didn’t start that way (or maybe it did, more on that below). I was enjoying the show at one point, but by the end of it my wife and I were exchanging unimpressed, disapproving, and then angry-as-fuck glances. The rant we found ourselves in during our walk home informs this here blog post. Without further ado, Why Rape is Wrong, and the People Who Write Pro-Rape Plays.

I should’ve known something was up in the opening scenes, when our female protagonist Felicity realizes that her new husband Zamir drugged her the night they were married (and even says that he married her only so that she would sleep with him) and then drugged her again in a subsequent scene before fondling her unconscious body. Every time Felicity talks about this act – in which he drugs her and rapes her – she suspects him of slipping her a date rape drug. She never says he might have raped her. Not once. It may be inferred, but it is never said.

Felicity doesn’t know anything about Zamir, and suspects that he might be a terrorist, or a mobster, or a serial killer. Most of the rest of the play is Felicity’s fruitless effort to get an annulment (but every time she brings it up, Zamir threatens her with explicit violence) and her father’s misguided quest to stop Zamir’s alleged terrorist plot. Both Zamir and Felicity’s father have anger problems and love to put women in their place. Her father is the ultimate Crazy Conservative Dad, hating on Jane Fonda, blaming gay marriage for ruining everything, caring more about Terri Schiavo and fetuses than his own wife, and constantly threatening to use his 2nd Amendment right to blow Zamir to pieces.

The story is dotted with Felicity’s mother’s peculiarity, a peculiarity which is reaching the breaking point of unhinged. It also becomes clear that she is unhappy in her loveless marriage. These facts are not unrelated. At various points in the play, we see her battling with the role of the quiet, subdued woman whose husband tells her how to dress and how to act, eventually erupting in a monologue, declaring her own opinions, dammit, and reveling in her power to be her own self. And then she promptly goes back to being a kind, quiet wife.

The story progresses, things escalate (as they do when you’re around men with guns), and after an unfortunate series of misunderstandings, Felicity’s father captures Zamir and tortures him until he makes up a story about a bombing, while Felicity tries to convince him it’s all a misunderstanding. Ha, we’ve successfully made fun of the pro-torture crowd! That’s when Felicity halts the play and tells the narrator she wants to go back to before things all went wrong and make them better.

From this point on, things actually get worse as far as rape apologia is concerned. The Yale Cab’s program asks, “how do we create a reality that we find acceptable in a world gone mad?” Let’s see Felicity’s attempts to make her world more “acceptable,” to – in her own words – have “the same characters, only with better aspects.”

First, we reverse to the morning when she introduces Zamir to her parents. She has already been raped at least once and will be raped again that night, and the scene escalates in the same way it had before. She declares this a no-go, and we have to go back further – to before she ever met Zamir. This makes sense because the only “acceptable” world is one where men don’t rape women.

Rewind to the bar. She meets Zamir, and he promptly slips pills in her drink. She stops the scene, declares that a no-go and – rather than exit stage right and find a non-rapist man to date – she tells Zamir they’ve got to work on those types of things. Same characters. Better aspects. She then explains that the pills and the drinking were how she got herself into this mess, and so Zamir orders her a selzer water. At one particularly teachable moment, Felicity looks out at the audience and says, “women should make better choices,” just in case she hadn’t made her point clear enough. After a man just tried to slip drugs in her drink, she victim blames herself. She also tries to get Zamir’s rage in line, but it takes a couple more stop-the-play moments (that is, he has a couple more outbursts of anger bordering on violence).

Let’s be clear here. A man raped a woman multiple times, and she gets the chance to go back in time to make things better. And by make things better, she tut-tuts him for trying to drug her, divides the blame for her subsequent rape evenly between the date-rapist for drugging her and herself for drinking too much, and then tries to stay with him and make things better by keeping his rapist tendencies and bursts of violent rage in check with kind reminders. Women don’t need to make better choices, but Felicity sure does. The writer who created her had some other options, I’m sure.

Meanwhile, Felicity’s mother is back in full wife-mode, and is elated that her husband is feeling so much empathy that he said sorry when he stepped on her foot while dancing. There’s hope yet, ladies. Earlier in the play, she had said that she was still waiting for her husband to come around, after decades of unhappiness and feeling trapped. Also earlier in the play, Felicity talks to the reverend who married her and Zamir to get advice about an annulment. He asks if she could maybe forgive him, and she says “maybe I could forgive him in a couple of years,” but that “right now” she wants to get out of the marriage.

Again, let’s be clear. If you’re in a relationship with a man who doesn’t value you, pay attention to you, or respect you in any ways, just wait. If you’re in a relationship with a man who hurts you and you are angry, maybe forgive him.

At one point, Felicity’s mother says that she doesn’t know what “normal” is, and that that’s why she goes to the theater. But the “normal” that this performance projects is not a good one for women.

In the final scene, Felicity and a rape-redeemed Zamir slow-dance their way to the end. After showing Zamir as a rapist with an anger problem who hates “American women” and their opinions, the final scenes tell the audience that all Felicity needed to do was try harder at changing him and getting the better aspects of his character to come out. Faced with the possibility of changing the outcome, she opted to not be raped, but still stay with the predatory man who would have tried to rape her. It seems that Christopher Durang, the playwright, was so focused on caricaturing neoconservative warmongerers that he didn’t mind the rape apologia that came with it.

The play is billed as a satire, and it’s a good one when it comes to right-wing, hyper-masculine, trigger-happy men and the security state’s use of torture. But where it discusses the rapist tendencies of masculinity and misogyny, it is not written to draw laughs. Felicity’s moral lines in the closing scenes are the most revealing parts of the play’s misogyny. At the play’s most teachable moment, the play says this: if a man drugs you and rapes you and terrorizes your family and makes you feel insecure, just try to change him for the better, a la Beauty and the Beast.

A New York Times review of the play says that the story is marked by a “subliminal, creepy buzz generated by an addiction to violence that transcends cultures but is apparently coded in the male chromosome.” That might be right. But, while there is plenty of commentary on rage and gun violence, there is little said about rape and denying women agency.

According to the program, Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them lets the audience “laugh while also recognizing the painful truth of our present social and political reality” and shows “little glimmers of hope that change may, indeed, be possible.” But when it comes to the social ills of our present reality, rape culture was not among the things being criticized, and the change that came still had the rapist go home with the girl, he just hadn’t drugged her yet.