Academic Departments Normalize Sexual Violence By Ignoring It

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Donovan A. Steinberg (a pseudonym) is now an assistant professor of social science.

My Professor, the Sexual Predator

Most of us have heard stories of professors who have sexually harassed or assaulted their colleagues or students. The stories covered in the news often involve senior heterosexual men professors who have finally been reprimanded, suspended or fired after years of perpetrating sexual violence — and after several victims have come forward about the violence they have experienced. It seems that the problem has to accumulate a great deal before perpetrators are punished and the rest of the world learns of it.

But these men professors are few and far between. There are countless faculty members who have not harassed or raped enough colleagues and/or students to be punished by the university or to warrant media attention. That is not to suggest that their behavior is not as bad or that their actions have been less damaging to their victims. Sexual harassment is sexual harassment, and rape is rape. The problem is that most of these perpetrators get away with their crimes, even in the rare instances when victims report it or speak publicly about it. Even in the face of clear evidence of sexual violence, it seems that academe tends to defend predators, often because of their status and intellectual reputation, especially relative to their (usually lower-status) victims.

I have enough sense that unpunished sexual violence perpetrated by faculty members is so rampant that I would venture to guess that we all know that guy — that one professor who is known to be at least a little inappropriate with his students and/or junior colleagues. He is that person women grad students and junior faculty are warned to avoid: “He’s really smart, but …” We all know it, but somehow he remains on the faculty. Other people may even defend him: “Oh, that’s just [rapist’s name] being [rapist’s name].” “Boys will be boys.” “Locker room talk.” Sexual violence is so normalized in our society, why should academe be any better about punishing perpetrators and protecting victims?

I give all of this context to justify talking about that guy in my graduate program. I chose not to mention him by name because the details of the sexual violence that he has perpetrated may distract from my larger point: that he is but one of many faculty members who are essentially given a free pass to harass and assault those around them in the department. I will call him “Uncle Rapey” for the sake of this essay.

I actually chose my graduate program because of the faculty members who specialized in my area, including Uncle Rapey. When I visited the program as a prospective graduate student, I had meetings with faculty members to learn more about the program. At the close of each meeting, that professor would walk me to the next faculty member’s office. One professor escorted me to meet with Uncle Rapey after she and I met. She teased him about being good. He retorted that he and I collectively would have at least three legs on the ground at all times. She giggled. My memory perhaps incorrectly recalls her also saying, “Oh, [Rapey].” How cool, I thought, that these professors joked about sex so openly. How naïve I was.

A few months into my first year, I attended a conference, where I reconnected with my undergrad mentor. As we parted, her face turned cold and her tone became serious. She told me, “Stay away from [Uncle Rapey] — promise me you’ll stay away from [Uncle Rapey].” She did not explain further. But I knew that they had worked together in the past, so I assumed she had good reason to warn me about him.

At this point, however, it was too late. I was well into my first (and last) course with him. Every week, I had already been subjected to his sexual jokes — once teasing me and a fellow graduate student about engaging in fisting. At the course’s end, he approached me and another grad student to request that we pose nude for him for his amateur photography (pornography?) work. I declined. And that was certainly the last time I worked with him in any professional capacity, and thereafter tried my best to avoid him. It is difficult, though, when the department keeps faculty like Uncle Rapey involved in departmental affairs. I still remember the time he greeted his genitals as he visited another class I was enrolled in.

But, I got off easy — privileged, to be more accurate. Another student in the department revealed to me the time that Uncle Rapey pushed her against the wall and forced his hand into her vagina after complimenting her on her skirt. She eventually disappeared from the program, probably never finishing her Ph.D. And I know of other women grad students whom he has harassed or assaulted, and some of them never finished their graduate training. Recently, I have heard that a new crop of graduate students is outraged with the department as he remains on faculty, unpunished, given a free pass to assault and harass students. These are only the stories of which I have heard. I can only imagine countless other victims have suffered in silence.

I would argue that when one institution fails to seek justice, it opens the doors for injustice in other institutions. Since my department failed to punish Uncle Rapey, there was little to stop him from perpetuating violence in other academic contexts. He continues to be recognized as a leader in our field, even being honored as awards are named for him.

I have chosen to speak up here because there are many Uncle Rapeys in academe. We all know one or maybe more than one. Departments normalize sexual violence when they look the other way as faculty members abuse their power in harassing or assaulting junior faculty and/or students. In some ways, they actually facilitate sexual violence — as an expression of power — by maintaining hierarchies, wherein senior faculty wield power over junior faculty, grad students, undergraduate students and staff. These professional hierarchies are further compounded by society’s hierarchies — classism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism and ageism.

In the meantime, we have to keep calling out the Uncle Rapeys of academe. Departments and universities must actually put their sexual harassment policies into practice. Victims should be able to easily and confidentially report sexual harassment and assault. And punishments for sexual violence should be blind to the perpetrator’s professional status, as that status may be the very vehicle through which they are allowed to prey on others.