My first tenure-track job out of grad school was in Washington, D.C., a dozen years ago, when it was common for Washingtonians to claim that D.C. was Hollywood for ugly people (both towns being focused on power, prestige, social ascendance, and its attendant glamour—basically, high school for grown-ups). So I wasn’t surprised to see that the sexual harassment allegations sweeping Hollywood are also common to D.C.
More surprising is the relative lack of attention thus far to such harassment in academia, where—to judge by the content of literary fiction—sexual harassment has been a staple for decades. (J. M. Coetzee’s brilliant Disgrace comes to mind, as does Roth’s The Dying Animal, Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, Denis Johnson’s The Name of the World, Malamud’s A New Life, to name a few, and of course Nabokov’s Lolita, whose predatory narrator is a professor of literature, if not preying on a student.) Some of the male writers whose work I most admire are famous both for their books and for their famously bad behavior.
My ex-girlfriend grew up with John Gardner’s family—the novelist and mentor to Raymond Carver—and told me stories of climbing trees to watch him fuck his grad students. These used to be war stories that men told with a certain pride. A professor once told me, without irony, that there were undergrads who considered sleeping with a prof part of completing a liberal arts degree. He actually believed this.
To be honest, for years I sympathized with the “love made me do it” defense. A hapless romantic, I’d had my crushes and considered consensual sex between adults the business of those consenting. I’ve been inclined to agree with the claim that education is itself a form of seduction, seducing us out of our native narcissism and solipsism into empathy, curiosity, the world. Laura Miller’s wonderful 2015 essay “Lust for Learning” in The New Republic provides a brilliant précis of the long tradition of erotic initiation as part of education from the ancient Greeks on, from Alcibiades and Socrates through Heloise and Abelard to the more recent debates over academic codes barring student-faculty liaisons.
Nonetheless, like many women, I’ve found that the #MeToo campaign has provoked memories. As an undergraduate, I was repeatedly propositioned by men in positions of power over me (propositions that left me feeling ashamed, intimidated): a frumpy visiting playwright, in whose class I was enrolled, asked me whether we should go back to his place or mine after we finished a meeting to discuss my getting an extension on a project. I didn’t understand his question and said so. He clarified that if we were going to start an affair … I burst out laughing and got a B in the class. I was propositioned by a middle-aged scholar of Shakespeare and asked out by a sad, grim graduate teaching assistant.
As a graduate student, at the first-day orientation, a professor proposed to set me up on a date with another faculty member—who later invited me to join her in Paris on an extended date. That same year, I was propositioned via book inscription by a visiting writer, whom I adored and would have slept with (had an evening ended differently); later, I was party to a conversation in which female faculty discussed in detail their sexual attraction to my male peer.
Most of us considered this part of the pleasant creative churn.
As faculty in D.C., where I had my first job out of grad school, it was harder to construe such antics as charming. I was taken to lunch and told dirty jokes by an aging chair; I was repeatedly cornered and embraced from behind by a senior colleague, who said to all the female junior faculty, “You look like you need a hug” (I didn’t but couldn’t see how to decline); I was told that I needed to “bend over and take it up the ass” from yet another senior colleague.
When I left that institution, I landed in a bad Philip Roth novel set in the Midwest, where married faculty were insouciantly bedding grad students even as they sat on their committees, and senior faculty were sleeping with junior faculty even as they determined our merit raises. When faculty complained to the chair about the situation, she said her hands were tied. It was consensual, among adults. When another professor reportedly sent a photo of his penis to a grad student, giving new meaning to the term faculty member, I didn’t stick around to debate the point.
The term sexual harassment is only half a century old, but its etymology is revealing: harass, according to the OED, comes from the French harasser, “to tire or … spend or weaken, wearie or weare out … perhaps a derivative form of OF haver, ‘to set a dog on.’” The aim is clear: to devastate through repeated attacks. It is meant to intimidate, exhaust, weary, and weaken. It does.
I’d have gladly slept with that visiting prof who propositioned me in grad school. But as soon as I had students of my own, I was startled by how unappealing the prospect of such liaisons was. Even where my age was hardly greater than that of those I taught, I couldn’t imagine a romantic involvement. I felt protective, parental. I felt as a cop might, who discovers rampant use of the badge to break into houses and take stuff: you might understand the temptation, but your role is the opposite—to protect those who seek your help.
Still, I had my Humbert Humbert moment. Years ago, a beautiful young woman who was being recruited for our MFA program in D.C. approached me in the bedroom of an apartment where a party was taking place. She was friendly, drunk, said she’d been trying to speak to me alone all night. Thankfully, I was leaving, so I said we could talk at my office and left. When she subsequently enrolled in our program, I pined. I treated her as I would any student, understanding that only after she graduated might I even conceivably express interest. When I later learned that another student was dating her, my heart fell. (I actually called a break early in that night’s workshop to catch my breath.) Crushes happen. As Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows not.” But we don’t act on the heart alone (Woody Allen’s claim aside) or society would descend into violent chaos, as would every department meeting. We check the heart with thought for what is just, ethical, right.
Social-science research proves the obvious: men (which is to say those in power) often mistake friendliness for sexual interest. It’s entirely possible that what I took to be flirtation at that party years ago was simply the graduate student’s desire to connect with a professor who might help her work and career. That’s what I had wanted as a student, and it’s what I try to offer now as faculty.
Sex is almost always fun to talk about; it’s a sexy subject after all. Even bad sex. Even trespass. It’s electric, even when the sex described is assault, is outrageous, is illegal. I do not take the #MeToo accusations lightly nor the epidemic of intimidation and assault that they reflect. I have had my #MeToo moment of rape (recorded in my memoir, Amazons: A Love Story).
But I’m conscious that the real story here, the subtext of all these stories of sex, is economic. Rebecca Traister notes this in her insightful essay on power inequality in the workplace, “This Moment Isn’t (Just) About Sex. It’s Really About Work.” But econ is never as sexy a story as sex itself.
Unlike my experiences as a grad student and in undergrad, there is no whiff of sexual harassment where I teach now. Here, when faculty discuss students, it is to consider their work, not their sexual appeal. But despite that evident progress, sexism remains evident in pay inequity, which is every bit as wearying and weakening as sexual harassment. Despite efforts to eradicate salary inequity in academia in regard to gender and race, unequal pay for equal work continues. According to CUPA-HR’s most recent Faculty in Higher Education Salary Report, tenure-track women faculty at all ranks and across disciplines are paid less than their male peers. All of us.
And that’s a scandal.
Perhaps we need a new hashtag: #PayMeToo.
E. J. Levy is the author of a memoir and the story collection Love, In Theory, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award and the Great Lakes College Association’s New Writers Award. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, Best American Essays, and received a Pushcart Prize. Her anthology, Tasting Life Twice: Literary Lesbian Fiction by New American Writers, won a Lambda Literary Award.