The Endemicity & Pervasiveness of Sexual Harassment

I just came back from great presentation & networking conferences, as usual elated by the collaborative opportunities & feedback about my work & the performances of my students & rejuvenated to push envelopes. I also returned slightly less oblivious to the subtexts that are no doubt pervasive at such events that I, as a white male with a PhD & a job, have the privilege of not seeing if I don’t want to. And herein lies the problem.

Two years ago, the SAFE13 team dropped this science on us about the endemic nature of sexual harassment in anthropological field settings. Now, having been to three conferences in a row (American Anthropological Association in DC, Human Biology Association/American Association of Physical Anthropology in St. Louis, & NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society in Boston) where female friends, colleagues, & graduate & undergraduate students were sexually harassed by male scientists & researchers my age (40ish) & position & older (much older) & higher ranked, some rules of thumb obviously don’t go without saying. This shouldn’t be happening. This shouldn’t be happening at anthropology conferences. This shouldn’t be happening at evolution conferences.

Why does it matter that these were anthropology & evolution conferences? On the one hand, it doesn’t because it is a problem everywhere. On the other hand, these are disciplines focused on diversity & evolved sexual behavior. From talking with my friends in the Feminist Evolutionary Perspectives Society (FEPS), it appears that some of my male colleagues have internalized findings from sex differences in mating strategies studies as though they were lessons by “The Pickup Artist” (remember that schmaltzy reality show?). Behavioral correlations are not destiny, guys. And by the way, the EEA is bullshit. We don’t really know how people behaved in the past. We made that shit up. It’s an academic fiction or, as we tell our audiences, a “simplifying model” to operationalize research, not to justify behavior.

There’s no justification for sexual coercion. It’s the kind of behavior that gives physical anthropology, evolutionary psychology, & evolutionary studies bad names & reduces the fields to associations with reductionism without libinal control. Some of you will note that “physical” anthropology developed to justify racial differences—so, changing our name to biological anthropology isn’t quite enough it seems. I’m not concerned that consenting adults screw each other at conferences or whatever goes on among peers. But sexually targeting professional subordinates is exploitation, & the targeting of undergrads makes me want to lose my motherloving mind!

Culture changes, so maybe there are excuses out there for some of the bad male behavior, but that doesn’t make it OK. Maybe males really don’t know what is not OK. Maybe their parents didn’t teach them. Maybe they didn’t have appropriate role models. So, let’s be explicit. We apparently need rules. Frankly, since conferences seem to be places some colleagues feel they can behave in these ways beyond the bounds of their employers’ harassment officers, including lifetime achievement award-winning professor emerita seemingly beyond reach, I think professional organizations need to start stepping up to the plate & finding ways to sanction colleagues who cross these lines. Take their awards away. Blackball them. Something. We need repercussions.

In the meantime, fellow males, let’s change culture. Let’s learn. We can start off with a few rules of thumb posted by our friend & colleague, Jason DeCaro:

And I will add to this. Professors/instructors SHOULD NOT:

  • Hit on ANY undergrads in the bars in your own town, field site, or when you’re away at conferences.
  • Put hands on the shoulders of undergrads—even for a photo. Even if you think it’s harmless—you don’t know how it will make them feel. All it says to them is, “I can do this because I have authority over you.”
  • Don’t encourage your undergrads to drink more alcohol. If they want to drink, that’s their business.
  • Don’t comment on anything having to do with the attractiveness, size, or the bodies of students—just stick to things that promote intellectual & academic confidence & maturation.

Maybe you’re thinking, damn, I’ve done stuff like that without even really thinking it crossed a line. I have too. That’s why I’m putting this in writing. Let’s stop. Let’s not do those things. Let’s change culture. Let’s create safe places within our disciplines. Sexual antagonism is not an inevitability. It doesn’t have to happen.

Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he directs the Evolutionary Studies program.  Chris teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in biological anthropology, human sexuality, evolution, biocultural medical anthropology, and neuroanthropology.  He received his Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology in 2009 from the University at Albany, SUNY, where his doctoral focus was on the influence of speaking in tongues on stress response among Pentecostals.  Chris runs a human behavioral ecology research group where the objectives include studying fun gimmicky things like trance, religious behavior, tattooing, and sex as a way of introducing students to the rigors of evolutionary science.  In all his “free” time, he breaks up fights among his triplet sons, enjoys marriage to the other Loretta Lynn, strokes his mustache, and has learned to be passionate about Alabama football (Roll Tide!).  Follow Chris on Twitter: @Chris_Ly
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One Response to The Endemicity & Pervasiveness of Sexual Harassment

  1. aja says:

    Thank you for this post. It’s encouraging to hear male voices joining in to address these concerns, and many of your points are truly insightful.
    I would suggest one small revision: In your addition to Jason DeCaro’s hints, I would be sure to include graduate students among the people to avoid propositioning/harassing.
    While undergraduates would seem to be more vulnerable in regard to age and life experience, graduate students actually often face much greater personal and professional risks in both refusing and reporting these types of incidents.
    The unwelcome advances too often come from faculty mentors or grad committee members, whose replacement on the committee would be necessary for continuation toward the degree, but may be very difficult, or even impossible, to facilitate due to the specialized nature of graduate research (not to mention the potential backlash from the faculty member’s colleagues who, finding the allegations difficult to reconcile with their own high esteem of this friend, will often assume that the student is either lying or is overly-sensitive, and may even fear that the same types of “false” accusations could be made against them if they also remain on the student’s committee).
    I imagine it would be interesting, if it were ever possible, to see the stats on how many grad students who filed harassment complaints against a faculty member were able to complete the degree, and how many of those secured careers in academia.
    I agree, wholeheartedly, that students shouldn’t have to face these career obstacles. If faculty can behave professionally and “stick to things that promote intellectual & academic confidence & maturation,” as you suggested, it truly doesn’t ever have to happen.

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