I want to gesture towards some considerations that tell against initiating sexual relationships with people you hold real professional power over. Perhaps such relationships are already agreed on all hands to be quite problematic. If so, this post will just urge new (to me) reasons for settled conclusions. If not, perhaps these considerations might tip the balance for some.

Likely you have heard by now that LOTS of people have been posting “Me too” on Facebook and Twitter. Most of these posts contain something like this by way of explanation: “If everyone who has been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

In that context, a friend who wants to remain anonymous wrote me this:

“Basically, the idea is that truly terrible acts provide a context that changes the meaning of less-terrible acts. Venturing to a really ugly analogy: white slave owners beating a slave to death formed part of the context of what it was to be beaten, what it was to disobey and risk being beaten, during our slave-owning history. Knowledge of truly awful instances instilled fear and changed emotional reactions and changed behavior. The notion that a truly awful act would “serve as a warning” to others lets us know that this spillover consequence (that is, the consequence to people NOT beaten to death) was indeed understood and intended by the perpetrators of the beatings. And all slave owners benefited from the resulting fear, even the “good” ones, even ones who never beat their slaves, even those who never threatened to beat their slaves.

There are excellent analogies to be made to harassment.

Women know about circumstances where OTHER women have been killed because they did not react cheerfully to street harassment. It doesn’t matter whether this particular man on the street would not kill me – how could I possibly know that? The fear is real.

And – honestly – this extends even into the well-intentioned “innocent” sexual advance, by a man who would not call a woman a bitch or a whore for rejecting him, by a man who would not sabotage that woman’s projects, by a man who would not devalue that woman’s work from that moment onward because of her rejection of him. It doesn’t matter that HE knows (or believes) that he will treat her fairly in the future despite the rejection. How could she possibly know that?

I cannot even begin to tell you how many hours (some) women – including me – spend trying to prepare for the unwanted sexual advance, trying to figure out how to be so charming, so witty, so friendly, but also very very clear, so that we have managed NOT to offend, but at the same time NOT to “lead on” the man who just wants to … whatever he just wants … so as to avoid vindictive retaliation afterward (whether it be murder or rape or workplace sabotage or just lack of future professional support).”

A prominent female philosopher added to the discussion saying this:

“Something that needs more attention is the issue of the resentment women have to deal with when they decline advances. Such resentment can involve all kinds of subtle penalties: refusals to write letters of recommendation, whispered negative comments about talent, pushing to have someone passed over… I think this is not well discussed or understood as a possible problem.

Philosophical reputations are delicate in a field where there are no empirical results and everything depends on how much talent you are supposed to have, and how easily this can be undermined by just few well-placed remarks by someone who is an expert in your area. I’ve seen it happen a number of times.

It isn’t even always about active retaliation. Sometimes the retaliation merely consists in an absence of support—not cheerleading for someone. Women who decline advances might not be actively undermined, but can lose active support that they might have otherwise merited on the basis of their work. This is less pernicious but still very destructive. In our field, you need active support from peers as well as senior colleagues in order to succeed.”

‪ I think these considerations highlight two strong pro tanto reasons (I myself think there are others) that are often overlooked for generally ruling out initiating sexual relations with people that you have this sort of power over.

‪ First, it is likely sometimes hard to tell when you are allowing your anger for being turned down play a role in your behavior towards the person who turned you down. It could be as subtle as this: Someone asks about the student who turned down your sexual advances and, without explanation, you cannot help but manifest that “its complicated”. In a world where many students get uncomplicated support, such a moment would hurt a candidate. Second, if you know this sort of resentment fueled retaliation happens, and you don’t know whether it will happen in this particular case, you have some reason to fear turning down sexual overtures from any person with this sort of power over you.

10 Replies to “(Additional) Reasons to Rule out Initiating Sexual Relationships with Those You Have Power Over

  1. I am an ex-philosophy major, and I am posting a “Me too” here because I am a victim of sexual harassment from someone in the philosophical community.

  2. Some of these reasons would, if sound, also be reasons to not initiate sexual relationships with professional peers. Your commentary seems to show you are well aware of this when you talk about a possible consequence of rejection being an absence of positive support from, among others, peers.

    The reasons might, for all that, be stronger in some cases than others. The reasons might even be outweighed in some types of cases but not outweighed in others.

    It also seems like the kinds of considerations you are noting apply in situations other than where one attempts to initiate a specifically sexual relationship. Presumably, for example, retaliation that is not “active” in your sense could arise after one turns down an attempt to initiate a wholly professional relationship or a platonic friendship.

  3. Crimlaw,

    Your main points seem right to me. I’m thinking the best policy needs to weigh the sort of considerations I highlighted in the post against the cost of ruling out various sorts of sexual encounters. Any attempt at initiating, or having, sexual relationships, and even many non-sexual relationships, involve some risk of retaliation when the overture is turned down or the relationship ends badly. The costs of ruling out all such things is obviously too high. The hierarchical cases I was mentioning seem to involve unusually high risk and to involve relatively low costs when we rule them out. Or so I was thinking.

  4. Please define “unwanted sexual advance” and “initiating sexual relationships.” How do you distinguish this from flirting, or just seeking a romantic relationship, which may or may not eventually lead to sex? Suppose I like someone over whom I have power of the sort you mention. I truly like this person, and would like to see if I can establish a romantic relationship. So I ask him/her out. Would this action be an “unwanted sexual advance”? For I don’t know anyone who would just out of the blue say to someone, “hey, want to have sex”? Where, and on what basis, do you draw the line?

  5. Curious, you get it that I am recommending that people rule out initiating sexual relationships with those that they have such power over, right?

  6. David, I’m just trying to understand the special significance that sex seems to have in your account. If we take your view seriously, it seems that those who have that sort of power may not initiate ANY kind of relationship that can lead to the sort of resentment that can translate into “absence of support”. If I have such power over you, I may not insinuate to you that I am interested in being your friend, as your rejection might lead to resentment. I may not insinuate my interest in joining your reading group, or your soccer team, or… you get the point. Rejection in any of these cases can lead to the problems you suggest. Is it your view that attempting to initiate such relationships is also wrong? If not, why not?

  7. Well, I suppose the first thing I would say is what I said to Crimlaw’s version of the same question above.

  8. In addition to what David said above, it’s clear to me as a woman (and as a woman in Philosophy) that there is a stark difference between a group email being sent to invite people to join a soccer team, and someone asking you out to supper. The difference is in your ability to back out without it being a big deal. Or maybe even in terms of how comfortable and safe you feel in backing out. The pressure to agree to go to dinner with a superior is far greater when you’re being singled out than if you’re hanging out in a group setting. Furthermore, when it’s a male authority acting towards a female subordinate, there’s of course also the entire patriarchal dynamic at play. Women already can feel afraid of rejecting men when those men have nothing to do with their careers. As David was saying above, the risk of making a woman feel afraid, pressured, unwelcome, or of hurting her prospects as a philosopher in a field that is already severely lacking in women is just not worth it. Don’t do it.

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