First of a Two-Part Series on Sexual Harassment in Philosophy

Both parts of this series are authored by Jan Dowell and David Sobel with great help from several other philosophers. Part 2 will be posted here Sept. 5th.

Part 1:

Sexual Harassment in Philosophy

Our aim in this short post is to provide a brief summary of the general picture of sexual harassment as it applies to the academic community and to philosophy in particular.   In a follow-up post, we will offer a number of proposals for how departments and individuals can act to fight harassment and support victims.  Some of those proposals will no doubt seem controversial to some. Understanding why those proposals are warranted will require first understanding the extent and repercussions of harassment.

We need to understand that we as philosophers and teachers operate in a world in which sexual harassment is not rare. This recognition should be reflected in our practice, and two points are especially important.

First, philosophers are well aware both of the multiple ways in which language communicates information and of the effects of language that extend beyond communication. So, we should be particularly alive to such considerations in the language we use for teaching and discussing philosophy. When we casually and unnecessarily offer examples involving rape, sexual harassment, or false accusations of either, we should be aware of how probable it is that some audience members, readers, or fellow discussants will have been sexually harassed or assaulted and disbelieved or dismissed upon reporting.

Second, understanding the general picture is relevant to whether and how we should make institutional changes in philosophy. Some philosophers take the view that since they personally know so many philosophers and know of so few prosecutions or credible accusations, sexual harassment must be very rare in philosophy. If that view is right, institutional reforms may not be urgent, or even warranted at all. But if it’s wrong, the status quo is much harder to defend.

With that in mind, here’s our brief guide for the perplexed, all of which is taken from publicly available materials.

  1. What is sexual harassment?

According to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission: “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”[1]

  1. How common is sexual harassment in general?

Estimates about the prevalence of sexual harassment in the U.S. vary: between 25% to 85% of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. This is a significant range. But it is worth noting that even the low-end estimate of 25% is quite high.

  1. Is sexual harassment also common in academia?

There’s less literature on this. But there’s some.

  • If you want documented cases, one resource is the website ‘Not a Fluke’, which is maintained by Julia Libarkin of Michigan State University. It lists 655 publicly documented cases in total, 15 of which are in philosophy (1980-2017). This list includes only the rare cases in which there is a public finding or admission of guilt. That list partly formed the basis for a recent study—which is forthcoming in the Utah Law Review—of 221 harassment complaints by graduate students against faculty members. According to that study, one in ten female graduate students at major research universities report being sexually harassed by a faculty member. (For a summary, see here.)
  • If you want survey data, there’s: a 2014 survey of 666 scientists who did field research away from their home universities, which found that 64% reported experiencing sexual harassment and over 20% reported sexual assault, primarily by academics at institutions other than their own; a 2016 survey of 525 graduate students at the University of Oregon, which found that 38% of female students and 22% of male students reported being sexually harassed by faculty or staff. For more recent and comprehensive data, one might consult the joint 2018 report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (, which cites a number of studies, including one indicating that, at 58%, higher education has the second highest rate of sexual harassment, surpassed only by the military. (Also, for more general data on research universities, you might also read the 2015 report commissioned by the American Association of Universities ( )These findings fit the general pattern of several similar surveys going back to the 1980s. 
  1. If cases of sexual harassment are so common in academia, how come I know about so few of them?

Some of us hear a good deal more about cases of sexual harassment in philosophy than others. It may be that those who have made it clear they are safe to talk to, for example, by publicly expressing sympathy for victims, have more opportunities to talk to victims than those who don’t.  But we can give less speculative, data-driven explanations for why some of us hear so little about harassment in our profession.

We’ll focus on a few reasons that are particularly germane to sexual harassment, and especially sexual harassment in academia.

  • Victims leave their profession or change jobs. In general, a well-documented harm of sexual harassment is that victims often leave their profession. According to one estimate, 80% of victims of sexual harassment change jobs within two years. If philosophers who are sexually harassed cease to be (professional) philosophers, and so plausibly cease to interact with other (professional) philosophers, this could lead many (professional) philosophers to underestimate the prevalence of sexual harassment in philosophy. Even in cases in which a philosopher changes jobs, but remains in the profession, departmental memory and awareness of the problem can be lost.
  • Perpetrators also change departments. For legal reasons, this may mean colleagues are unaware that one of their own is a perpetrator.
  • Fear of retaliation. Say that a victim wants to stay in the profession. If so, the fear of retaliation generates strong incentives to not come forward with a formal complaint or incentives to move to another department if they do. In general, such fears are well-founded. A 2003 study found that 75% of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation. In academia, and especially for graduate students in academia, such fears are especially well-founded: their careers depend upon letters of recommendation (and, often, other more informal reputational assessments) from people that are likely to be or be colleagues with their harassers. A similar point applies to other academics who lack permanent job security: to quote an anonymous academic writing in The Guardian, “no one can afford to be known as ‘the one who complained’.” Perhaps for this reason, the targets of harassment tend to be more vulnerable members of university communities, particularly women and those who are LGBTQ and, of those, especially those who are black or brown. ( So there are likely to be far more incidents of abuse than public or formal accusations thereof.
  • Inadequate institutional responses. Aside from those sort of disincentives for victims to come forward, it is also often difficult for victims to marshal sufficient evidence to justify a formal finding by an institutional body. But even when victims can marshal such evidence, institutions have strong incentives—to avoid negative publicity or alienating major donors; to avoid problems with boards of governance; or to appease powerful, tenured faculty—to avoid proceeding with complaints at all, or at least avoid proceeding with them in a public fashion. (The documentary The Hunting Ground provides ample evidence that colleges and universities act on such incentives.) Hence the reluctance of several large universities to take significant action even with serious and high-profile accusations of sexual harassment: consider the Chronicle of Higher Education’s overview of institutional responses to 15 high-profile cases of public accusations, four of which are against philosophers. And for more general discussion of university responses to sexual harassment, including student-to-student harassment, see this special issue of the Journal of School Violence.
  • Requirements not to discuss an ongoing or completed investigation. It is common for Title IX offices to require complainants not to discuss an ongoing investigation with anyone. Non-disclosure agreements may also prohibit victims of successful complaints from discussing their case.
  1. Maybe the evidence indicates that harassment is fairly commonplace in academia. But, how bad is that, really?  Harassment is different from assault—it’s just words.

The harms caused by harassment are often quite serious.

“Our findings confirm that sexual harassment is a stressor that is associated with increased depressive symptoms. Our quantitative results show that women and men who experience more frequent sexual harassment at work have significantly higher levels of depressed mood than non-harassed workers, even after controlling for prior harassment and depressive symptoms. Moreover, we find evidence that sexual harassment early in the career has long-term effects on depressive symptoms in adulthood.” Jason N. HouleJeremy StaffJeylan T. MortimerChristopher Uggen, and  Amy Blackstone, Society and Mental Health. 2011 Jul 1; 1(2): 89–105.

See also:

Above we discuss the high rates of victims who leave their profession or change departments and of those who are subject to professional retaliation.

“Eighty percent of the women in our sample who reported either unwanted touching or a combination of other forms of harassment changed jobs within two years. Among women who were not harassed, only about half changed jobs over the same period. In our statistical models, women who were harassed were 6.5 times more likely than those who were not to change jobs. This was true after accounting for other factors – such as the birth of a child – that sometimes lead to job change.” (Our italics.)

“The Economic and Career Effects of Sexual Harassment on Working Women,” Heather McLaughlinChristopher UggenAmy Blackstone, 2017, Gender and Society.

“Obviously, each individual diminishes her earning power as she starts over. And collectively, this rash of exits is one reason that women as a group haven’t advanced to the highest levels of power in any industry.” Nilofer Merchant, Harvard Business Review, 2017

See also:

Findings revealed that general incivility and sexual harassment were related behaviors and tended to co-occur in organizations. Employee well-being declined with the addition of each type of mistreatment to the workplace experience. Sandy Lim and Lilia M. Cortina, Journal of Applied Psychology 2005, Vol. 90, No. 3, 483–496

To summarize:

  • There’s strong evidence that sexual harassment is common in general and in academia, and is especially perpetrated against women.
  • Professional philosophers may underestimate its prevalence because victims leave the profession or change departments, or do not make public accusations due to their legitimate fear of retaliation or their reasonable expectation of an inadequate institutional response.
  • Harassment causes serious harms to victims, to others in the environments in which they occur, and to the profession, which loses talented contributors.

Echoing and expanding on these points, the journal Nature summarizes the findings of the National Academies 2018 major study mentioned above thus:

“Sexual harassment is pervasive throughout academic science in the United States, driving talented researchers out of the field and harming others’ careers… The analysis concludes that policies to fight the problem are ineffective because they are set up to protect institutions, not victims — and that universities, funding agencies, scientific societies and other organizations must take stronger action.”

We agree. The empirical data and recent events in our own profession together indicate that institutional responses are often, at best, inadequate, and, at worst, protective of harassers.  This suggests that in order to combat the problem of sexual harassment in our own community, philosophers and philosophy departments can no longer simply rely on institutional responses.  We must find steps that individuals and departments can take to prevent harassment and support its victims.  Such proposed steps will be discussed in next week’s follow-up post.


[1]Here our focus is on sexual harassment.  However, there are other forms of discrimination and harassment that are important to be mindful of.  For a detailed discussion of the law and its interpretation regarding harassment, see

10 Replies to “First of a Two-Part Series on Sexual Harassment in Philosophy

  1. It is true that we do not explicitly mention such types of cases. But we did not at all mean to imply that we do not think such cases are a significant problem. We are often trying to talk about the overall problem rather than specific forms it can take. Any data you could point us to about such cases would be most welcome. Anecdotally we are aware of a number of such cases that are highly problematic.

  2. This is as good a time as any to remind people that we don’t permit anonymous comments unless the author contacts us and explains to our satisfaction why anonymity is needed in a particular case.

  3. This is a marvelous “guide for the perplexed.” As a professor emerita in a largely male English Department, I was painfully aware, albeit not a victim, of sexual harassment in my workplace. But that was in the Dark Ages, before such behavior was spelled out. Amazing to learn that academia is surpassed only by the military in this behavior. Congratulations to the philosophers behind this new Enlightenment!

  4. I have written posts on Discrimination and Disadvantage and on BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY about the fact that I was sexually assaulted by a classmate in graduate school and terminated from a full-time position after reporting sexual and ableist harassment. That I am disabled was integral to how and why the assault and the harassment took place. I have also been candid about the fact that I have received relatively little support of any kind from philosophers in the aftermath of public reports about these infractions.

    Why not? One reason might be that philosophers continue to cover over the fact that, as a social group, disabled people are victims of sexual violence much more frequently than most social groups of nondisabled people. Melinda Hall and I wrote a post at Discrimination and Disadvantage about the ways in which sexual violence against disabled women (among others) has been ignored in, for instance, discussions that circulated in the profession with respect to the #metoo movement.

    Perhaps philosophers do not include consideration of ableism and the apparatus of disability in their discussions of sexual harassment and other sexual violence in the profession because disabled philosophers are extremely underrepresented in philosophy. Perhaps the sexual violence perpetrated against us is in fact one (but only one) of the reasons why we are so underrepresented. Perhaps most philosophers tend not to acknowledge the rampant sexual abuse and other forms of sexual violence inflicted upon disabled people because these philosophers tend to unwittingly reproduce pervasive uninformed views about disabled people and sex and about sexual violence and sexual impulses and motivations. Perhaps philosophers simply do not take the time to learn about the perspectives, experiences, arguments, professional contributions, and so on of disabled philosophers.

    I hope that in the second part of this series Janice Dowell and David Sobel will consider mechanisms and strategies that can be employed to prevent the sexual harassment and other forms of violence inflicted upon disabled women philosophers and other disabled philosophers. Explicit attention to us seems to have been neglected in this post, though it is identified in at least one of the articles to which they have linked in the post.

  5. This is from both Jan and I:

    Many thanks to those who have shared public or private reactions to this post. The overall message we are getting is that there are a large number of sexual harassment and assault survivors in our profession who are in considerable pain. These stories are heartbreaking, and a disheartening number are ongoing.

    Some of the reactions we have gotten have included the observation that predators tend to target those who are especially vulnerable in our profession, a point we make in our post. But we make this point without enumerating all of the different ways someone might be especially vulnerable. This is not because we think this is not important information, but because our discussion is directed first and foremost at a reader who is either skeptical about the pervasiveness of the problem or skeptical about the seriousness of the repercussions. For this reason, we focus on addressing both of these forms of skepticism by citing the rather overwhelming empirical evidence showing that sexual harassment as such is (i) not rare in academia, but all too common and (ii) that the ill effects of harassment–professional, financial, and medical—are profound.

    To find the publicly available evidence we needed to establish these claims, we did a fairly extensive, but by no means exhaustive, search for relevant materials. The studies we found focus on the general case: Most sexual harassment victims are women and/or members of the LGBTQ community. So, that is what we felt licensed to conclude from the studies we found. If others know of further studies on the extent to which different subgroups within those groups are differentially targeted, we would very much welcome their posting here or otherwise bringing such studies to our attention.

    On a somewhat personal note: This two-post project has been nearly two years in the making. The research, writing, and advocacy required to bring it to completion have been, at times, difficult. I very much hope that this is the beginning of a long conversation and group reflection in our discipline, but by no means the last word. We very much welcome those who have additional insights on the nature of harassment and how to combat it. (Indeed there are many forms of non-sexual harassment we have not addressed, but which also need our community’s attention.) To underscore what we think most important: Our current institutional strategies for combatting harassment are failing victims. We know enough about the status quo to know that it is unacceptable. Our hope is that enough readers will agree that they will join our search for solutions.

  6. I have some questions regarding these proposals:

    1. Do you think that every human person is infallible (that people never hold mistaken beliefs)?

    2. Why won’t you presume the honesty of both the accuser and the accused? Why do you (and so many people) attribute to malice (bad faith) when you can attribute to ignorance (good faith)?

    3. The alleged perpetrator is also an eyewitness. If he/she disputes the accuser’s account, why wouldn’t you believe him/her also? Why is there a double standard here?

    4. Is intention relevant at all? If someone physically hits me while he/she is running in a hurry, am I a victim? Does whether or not I am a victim depends solely on how I feel? If I believe that the hitting is intentional, am I always correct?

    5. Did the accuser try to communicate his/her discomfort to the accused to make that person aware that he/she (the accuser) is causing harm and that he/she (the accuser) wants him/her (the accused) to stop? Did the accuser give the accused a chance to apologize for his/her unwanted sexual advance? Or did the accuser assume intent and malice and keep quiet to the accused before reporting the event to a third party?

    6. Do you think that being shunned by colleagues and being terminated from employment are no big deal in a dogs-eat-dogs capitalist society? Do you think that satisfying an accuser by treating him/her as infallible is more valuable than a person’s career and employment prospect, in other words, means of survival in a capitalist society?

    7. Are you aware of the psychology of memory? Have you ever heard of the forgetting curve, retroactive interference, suggestive questioning, leading questions, and source confusion?

    8. Do you think that the sortal of the objects we see is always unambiguous? For example, is a moving glow in the night sky obviously a UFO and obviously not a man-made object (such as an aircraft)?

    FYI: I believe both Anital Hill and Clarence Thomas. Also, I believe both Ford and Kavanaugh. In other words, I believe that all of them were honest when providing their respective testimony.

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