In the last two weeks, we have seen gender, higher education and celebrity revolving around one issue our news feeds. No, I am not referring to Angelina Jolie-Pitt’s appointment as Visiting Professor at the LSE, but rather the series of revelations relating to violence against women in academia and the celebrity-verse. First, on 20th May, Buzzfeed broke the story about two allegations against renowned Yale professor Thomas Pogge for sexual misconduct. Then, on 28th May, global news outlets reported that the Los Angeles Superior Court had issued Johnny Depp with a restraining order in response to his wife Amber Heard’s evidence of a history of domestic violence during their relationship. Finally, on 30th May, one of the world’s best-known feminist scholars, Sara Ahmed, resigned from her professorship at Goldsmiths University due to the institution’s failure to tackle sexual harassment. Brought side by side, three separate events speak volumes about how the obsession with male genius and creativity continues to sustain rape culture.
Ahmed’s bold move to give up her position in protest of her university’s failure to protect its young female students is rare in academia. As we know, the prevailing response to complaints of sexual harassment received by universities is to hush it up. This was the case at Yale as it has been and continues to be at countless other universities in the UK, US, and beyond. Virtually all academics have heard familiar anecdotes or first-hand accounts about male professors who sleep with or pursue their graduate students, or proposition early career female academics. These are stories often shared in whispers, in jest, or through off-the-cuff remarks at the workplace, over a pint, or at a conference. Yet, as soon as such misconduct is acknowledged, it subsequently gets explained away as harmless, a private affair, or with that awful quip: “boys will be boys”. In addition, the “naïve” young student will be blamed for being foolish enough and not knowing better than to become involved with her professor. Given the power imbalance within institutions between faculty and students, this kind of victim-blaming is deplorable. When the accused is someone like Pogge, the head of an Ivy League Global Justice Programme with world-leading research credentials in ethics, global health, poverty reduction, and, troublingly, gender equity, or any other “progressive”, liberal, left-leaning academic male, the veracity of such accusations becomes virtually inconceivable. It is precisely the mirage of untouchability produced through the idolisation of male genius that enables predators to do what they do and continue to get away with it.
The Pogge case has obvious parallels with the way in which Amber Heard’s allegations have been received. While it would be a big stretch to call academics and celebrities comparable professions, it is not uncommon to refer to some academics as celebrities in their fields and to treat them as such, attending their conference talks or guest lectures just to see what they are like in person, asking for their autograph or a photograph to be posted on social media. Also, like actors, academics tend to see themselves as (intellectually) uniquely gifted and creative. As feminists have argued, those seen as gifted and creative are usually men, while women have achieved their status through hard work. This gives men certain advantages over women, such as being able to pass as the neutral, unembellished embodiment of knowledge and experience, and hence more entitled to benefits, praise and idolatry.
Social media has been rife with people saying Depp should be given the benefit of the doubt, or even calling Heard a liar, including Depp’s industry peers, even though Heard was photographed leaving the court with a bruise on her cheek. At the same time, others pointed out that liking someone is not a good enough reason to make excuses for them. The list of Hollywood men accused of violence against women is long, but these accusations (and in some cases, convictions) have rarely been an impediment to professional success. The catalogue includes Chris Brown, Nicolas Cage, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Sean Connery, Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Dennis Rodman, Steven Seagal, Mickey Rouke, Bill Cosby, Christian Slater, James Brown, James Caan, Josh Brolin, Mike Tyson, Enimem, Bill Murray and Michael Fassbender. Sean Penn stands out here as someone who like Pogge has been at the forefront of left-wing celebrity do-gooding, criticising the last Bush administration, rubbing shoulders with Hugo Chávez, defending same-sex marriage, and assisting relief workers in New Orleans and Haiti. Penn exemplifies the sort of prominent male figure, whether academic or artistic, who is always forgiven because of his art, and whose past wrongs are outright forgotten, without being righted, because of his philanthropic work.
The Pogge story is representative of an equivalent trend in academia. The sexual harassment and abuse of female students and colleagues that goes on is an open secret, but one that rarely damages the perpetrators, even when accusations reach public knowledge. And even then, even when someone speaks out, institutions will go out of their way to suppress and silence the issue, as it is not only professorial but institutional reputations that are at stake. When faced with a choice between pursuing disciplinary action that may bring the university into disrepute, or doing nothing and carrying on as before as if the problem did not exist, the careers of young female academics are the cast-away by-product of the latter choice. This would not be the case if women’s intellectual contributions were not seen as somehow expendable in the first place. What’s worse is that female students and academics know this, having been reminded of it daily in the classroom, the meeting room, the staff room, in job hires and promotions, conferences, and citations. Thus, women tend to know the price of speaking out against inequality, and the Depp-Heard case is yet another depressingly predictable case in point.
This is why Sara Ahmed’s resignation is particularly poignant. It sends a powerful signal to universities that there are also prominent figures in the profession who refuse to accept sexual harassment in their workplace. It also challenges all academics to acknowledge that their silence equals complicity in keeping rape culture alive. Ahmed’s privileged position may have enabled her to protest in ways that others cannot, but there other avenues of action for staff that cannot afford to give up their jobs. An important part of this is, as Ahmed suggested last year, finding a way to spread the cost of bringing the problem to attention. This includes naming the behaviour as harassment or abuse, proactively supporting students and colleagues subjected to it, sharing experiences with colleagues and friends that we trust, gathering a record of evidence of abuse in our circles as well as refusing to cite, invite, or share a platform with those who are yet to face disciplinary measures. Only then can we begin to stop the damage being wrecked on women’s personal lives, intellectual growth and careers.