Who can defend the sexualization of work environments now?

annetaintorthelmalouiseI know it’s been a long blog-silence around these parts.  More on that later, but I’ve got something to say and I think we all need to hear it.

It’s gotten so a bish can’t look at the internets or the cover of the Rolling Stone without more news about scummy scumbag men using their professional authority to coerce younger women (and a few young men) to perform or witness specific sexual acts by these creeps.  Given the conversation all this autumn about sexual assault and sexual harassment at work in Hollywood (Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey), journalism (Roger Ailes, Mark Halperin, Michael Oreskes, politics, and literally every other workplace in the United States, I’ve been thinking back on a little post I wrote about this the summer before last, after another in which I argued that the American Historical Association needs to take a stand against the sexualization of the workplace, because 95 times out of 100, it’s young women who pay the price (along with a few young men), and the status quo serves only the interests of older men (and maybe a few older women too).

This isn’t an accident.  This is the playbook for sexualizing people and workplaces as a part of the process of marginalizing  and alienating the junior folks who get caught up in these relationships, whether they’re consensual or not.  This is also a primary means by which men re-create the hierarchy of men over women, again and again.  Exploiting younger women (which is the overwhelming majority of sexual harassment and abuse cases) is a win-win for these guys, because they can get their rocks off, and–here’s the beauty part–you keep junior women from becoming senior women who might step on your nuts about all this because you’ve created an sexualized environment in which the junior women must either become victims or collaborators.  Most of them will quit eventually, and the ones that hang on are compromised because they’ve been drawn in as collaborators (or heck, even apologists for the abuse of younger women.)

Because we’ve been hearing about serial harassers and abusers from every other industry, it’s only a matter of time before we are reminded of the uniquely unaccountable power university and college faculty have over the lives and careers of our students.  And unlike physicians, attorneys, pastors, and therapists, we labor under no professional ethical or moral injunction against sexual relationships with our students.

To my everlasting dismay, some understand this to be a feature of the job, not a bug.

Universities and departments don’t have the guts to fire or reassign tenured faculty when they get up to this exploitation, so we the responsible faculty and our professional organizations need to take a stand so that we can de-normalize this behavior.  We need to make this sexualization of the workplace a thing of the past, because it is a key means by which women students and faculty in academia are reminded of our second-class status, our provisional membership in the club.

This is what I wrote back in the day:


Why, yes! Yes I do!

Why, yes! Yes I do.

So what can we do?  The solution is very simple!  Don’t date your students.  Don’t stalk, harass, or overshare your feels with your students.  Don’t expect them to perform emotional or sexual labor for you.  Treat them like professionals, so that they can become the professionals they want to be without being humiliated or having their or your intellectual enthusiasm questioned or second-guessed.  (And the beauty part is that this works regardless of the sex of the students, the faculty, or of their sexual preferences!  Win-win-WIN!  Everybody wins!)

Find someone else to date for your middle-aged crisis.  Don’t $hit where you eat, and don’t make more crap for the rest of us to shovel.  We need to take this back to the AHA and ask them to reconsider the non-action they decided on in 2016 when I raised this issue.  More from me very soon, but for now, this is Historiann, over & out.

30 thoughts on “Who can defend the sexualization of work environments now?

    • And it never, ever works out as well for the junior women as for the senior men.

      Never. (Just see the comments on the linked posts. Lots of horror stories there too.)

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Siva Vaidhyanathan (@sivavaid) of UVA tweeted about another aspect of this today. I thought it was well-said and pertinent. He wrote a long thread about how “Men benefit professionally from sexual harassment. Even those who don’t harass.” His point was that sexual harassment in all of its forms tends to close off opportunities for women in numerous ways: by pushing them out of the field, by encouraging them to stay away from certain senior men, to undermining their self-confidence, etc. While this obviously injures them, it simultaneously helps all men, who (1) don’t have to worry about these things and consequently (2) have less competition for advancement. The take-away is that simply not being an asshole (or an abuser or a harasser) yourself is not enough. We all need to pro-actively work to create a work environment which is free of this behavior. The AHA seems like a good place to start as a profession.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. And thanks for pointing out that some men get sexually harassed. In my case, by a senior male colleague/ It was comparatively minor to what most women go through, and I partially made my own mess, but the advice my advisor gave me, “You better play extra safe, if you decide to play; he’s got quite the reputation” really wasn’t helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The first victim of unwanted sexual innuendo/pressure I ever counseled was a man. (He was also someone who experienced this more than once.)


  3. I just have to say that my Twitter, Twitter DMs, and email have been on fire with people sharing their experiences of harassment (or experiences of friends & colleagues), and even F2F today. I will not report what I’m learning, but it’s pervasive and ubiquitous. We (as a culture) are so eager to rush to protect men from the entirely hypothetical false accusation and deny the lived experience of so many women. It’s sick, folks. Really sick.

    We really need to do something. The AHA needs to get on board to de-norm the practice of historians seeing students as their sexual prey.


  4. I never felt compelled to join the #metoo bandwagon because it seemed so obvious. As a graduate student and young professional, I dealt with this type of behavior routinely. And assumed that all of my colleagues had as well. And I’m sure that my refusal of certain advances negatively effected my career. I can live with that But hopefully you folks can change the trajectory so future historians don’t have to weigh their choices.


  5. And let’s not go into the horrible emotional labour of having to help pick up the pieces with a victim while working behind the scenes in hopes of seeing that your institution carries out the related promises. And the abuser doesn’t see why there’s such a fuss over something that wasn’t really that important or serious. Gah!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. De-sexualizing the academic workplace will also require breaking the quid pro quo culture from the other end: teaching students that they cannot offer sexual favors for academic advantage because it’s just another form of academic dishonesty. It’s cheating.

    I saw it happen to my colleagues repeatedly, and it happened to me nearly once a semester. I should have taken the issue straight to my institution’s academic dishonesty process, but at the time it was so disorienting all I did was walk away and feel nauseated.


    • But the person with power can just say “No.”. The whole point of harassment is that the person with less power can’t, or at least is less able to.

      So, I don’t think this is really the same thing.

      Also? Getting the powerful people to STOP SEXUALLY HARASSING THEIR STUDENTS ALREADY will do what you want by taking sex out of the scene.


      • Of course offering sex is not the same thing as demanding sex, but offering sex for grades feeds the same quid pro quo culture.

        And it didn’t make any difference if I said no (I did, more or less, by walking away), it kept happening, which means it’s not a solution. By not pursuing punishment for the offer of sex for grades, as if it were the offer of money for grades, I perpetuated this culture of sexualization without even having sex or initiating anything sexual. I was accepting it as “this is one of those things that happens” even if I didn’t join in.


      • Agree with Nanani. In 20 years I have literally never heard of this or know of students offering sex for grades. This seems like a plot ripped out of Beverly Hills 90210, the original 1990s version.

        If it ever happens, the adult in the room can and must say “no.” It’s really easy, and satisfying, to say no to the moral or ethical corruption of the young! Trust me.


      • Another “but what about…?” changing of the subject any time someone dares take up space in the discourse noting an abuse that girls or women disproportionately suffer. We should call this tic something like Circumcision.
        In addition to Nanani’s point, there are third-party consequences. A professor who treats students like prey sends a message to all students that they exist for their bodies, not their minds. Even if there are no witnesses, the victim could rightly choose to tell fellow students what happened. If a student hits on a professor offering a quid pro quo, that’s not right, but nobody else gets hurt.


  7. I found this piece really moving, in part because the letters are from a teenager like those I teach. But mostly because of this line at the end: “People use the term grooming to describe what sexual predators do with children so they can reap the benefits, but what if they groom us so other men can reap the benefits? Did the older guys in high school pave the way for Dustin Hoffman who paved the way for the other actor who paved the way for all the other older men I’ve known were bad news but whom I’ve been drawn to anyway?” http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/dustin-hoffman-sexually-harassed-me-i-was-17-guest-column-1053466


    • That’s deep, Dave. I think it makes a great point, somewhat akin to my point about all women becoming either victims or collaborators. To what extent does this abuse then shape young women’s inability to choose healthy relationships and draw reasonable boundaries in their later lives?


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  9. Ann – are you going to write about this article? To say I’m appalled with everything about it hardly begins to articulate it – and the people at Stanford who covered this up with a two year unpaid “leave” should all be fired this week – but I’m surprised at how little reaction I’ve seen today. Perhaps I’m not in the right circles.
    I agree completely about the AHA.
    Julie Hardwick

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, yes, that fellow . . . The department where I received my Ph.D. tried to hire him in 1993. I do not know if anyone there knew of his reputation. When I found out, years later, I was glad he had decided to stay at Stanford.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know if I have much to say about that article that it doesn’t say on its own. I never heard anything about Jay Fliegleman. In fact, I hadn’t even heard he was dead in the past 10 years, that’s how little I knew about it. It seems incredibly weird that many people who were much more plugged into English & Early American circles never said anything about a two year (!!!) suspension.

      I was contacted today about getting on a late-breaking session on sexual harassment with some other folks, and of course I said yes, so here’s hoping we can raise discuss issues with AHA & our colleagues openly and fearlessly in January.

      Liked by 1 person

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