I want to gesture towards some considerations that tell against initiating sexual relationships with people you hold real professional power over. Perhaps such relationships are already agreed on all hands to be quite problematic. If so, this post will just urge new (to me) reasons for settled conclusions. If not, perhaps these considerations might tip the balance for some.
Likely you have heard by now that LOTS of people have been posting “Me too” on Facebook and Twitter. Most of these posts contain something like this by way of explanation: “If everyone who has been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
In that context, a friend who wants to remain anonymous wrote me this:
“Basically, the idea is that truly terrible acts provide a context that changes the meaning of less-terrible acts. Venturing to a really ugly analogy: white slave owners beating a slave to death formed part of the context of what it was to be beaten, what it was to disobey and risk being beaten, during our slave-owning history. Knowledge of truly awful instances instilled fear and changed emotional reactions and changed behavior. The notion that a truly awful act would “serve as a warning” to others lets us know that this spillover consequence (that is, the consequence to people NOT beaten to death) was indeed understood and intended by the perpetrators of the beatings. And all slave owners benefited from the resulting fear, even the “good” ones, even ones who never beat their slaves, even those who never threatened to beat their slaves.
There are excellent analogies to be made to harassment.
Women know about circumstances where OTHER women have been killed because they did not react cheerfully to street harassment. It doesn’t matter whether this particular man on the street would not kill me – how could I possibly know that? The fear is real.
And – honestly – this extends even into the well-intentioned “innocent” sexual advance, by a man who would not call a woman a bitch or a whore for rejecting him, by a man who would not sabotage that woman’s projects, by a man who would not devalue that woman’s work from that moment onward because of her rejection of him. It doesn’t matter that HE knows (or believes) that he will treat her fairly in the future despite the rejection. How could she possibly know that?
I cannot even begin to tell you how many hours (some) women – including me – spend trying to prepare for the unwanted sexual advance, trying to figure out how to be so charming, so witty, so friendly, but also very very clear, so that we have managed NOT to offend, but at the same time NOT to “lead on” the man who just wants to … whatever he just wants … so as to avoid vindictive retaliation afterward (whether it be murder or rape or workplace sabotage or just lack of future professional support).”
A prominent female philosopher added to the discussion saying this:
“Something that needs more attention is the issue of the resentment women have to deal with when they decline advances. Such resentment can involve all kinds of subtle penalties: refusals to write letters of recommendation, whispered negative comments about talent, pushing to have someone passed over… I think this is not well discussed or understood as a possible problem.
Philosophical reputations are delicate in a field where there are no empirical results and everything depends on how much talent you are supposed to have, and how easily this can be undermined by just few well-placed remarks by someone who is an expert in your area. I’ve seen it happen a number of times.
It isn’t even always about active retaliation. Sometimes the retaliation merely consists in an absence of support—not cheerleading for someone. Women who decline advances might not be actively undermined, but can lose active support that they might have otherwise merited on the basis of their work. This is less pernicious but still very destructive. In our field, you need active support from peers as well as senior colleagues in order to succeed.”
I think these considerations highlight two strong pro tanto reasons (I myself think there are others) that are often overlooked for generally ruling out initiating sexual relations with people that you have this sort of power over.
First, it is likely sometimes hard to tell when you are allowing your anger for being turned down play a role in your behavior towards the person who turned you down. It could be as subtle as this: Someone asks about the student who turned down your sexual advances and, without explanation, you cannot help but manifest that “its complicated”. In a world where many students get uncomplicated support, such a moment would hurt a candidate. Second, if you know this sort of resentment fueled retaliation happens, and you don’t know whether it will happen in this particular case, you have some reason to fear turning down sexual overtures from any person with this sort of power over you.10