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.
— Christopher Lynn (@Chris_Ly) March 30, 2015
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.