Frictophobia: Law and Politics

Original positing: October 6, 2007

Are You in Favor
of Sexual Harassment?

by Theodore Plantinga

What does the term presuppose?

Suppose someone asks you: So tell me, are you in favor of sexual harassment? It sounds like an easy question. How could anyone -- apart from a rude and arrogant SOB whose conduct with women offends us all -- possibly answer this question with anything other than a simple NO?

Now, I wouldn't like to be thought of as an SOB, and so I will choose my words carefully. The reason for my dissent from the customary approach to such matters lies in presuppositions. Just what is presupposed in the term "sexual harassment"? Where did the term come from? Did Paul warn against it in the Bible?

As a philosopher I have learned to be wary of presuppositions. I hope that my philosophical fastidiousness will serve as an initial excuse for offering an unpopular answer. In other words, I hope you will not quit reading this essay right at this point.

A qualified no

My answer to the question "Are you in favor of sexual harassment?" is therefore a qualified NO. Yes, you heard me correctly -- not an unqualified NO but a qualified one. In other words, I am not exactly in favor of sexual harassment, but just what I would say if asked a series of detailed questions about this topic would depend in good measure on what the person asking the question takes sexual harassment to be.

Let's start with the easy stuff. I will grant that the term "sexual harassment" names some behaviors which I -- and just about everyone I know -- would actively oppose. The $64,000 question is whether it also names some other behaviors to which we should not be so strongly opposed, or perhaps not opposed at all.

If you read definitions in sexual harassment policies, examples of objectionable behaviors for which you can be prosecuted are listed. Now, a man who engages in such behaviors -- or let's limit the discussion to the ones which I definitely recognize as being far out of bounds -- is not just rude and annoying but downright corrupt. For example, in the university teaching world, a professor who hands out credits or higher grades in exchange for sexual favors deserves to be removed from office -- no question about it.

The difficulty with the usual definitions of sexual harassment and the sets of examples that are offered to get the idea across when sexual harassment policies are written is that the prohibited behaviors cut across quite a swath of human behavior. Some of those behaviors are such that I would never consider engaging in them, and yet I would not be keen to see men who do fall into them prosecuted under such severe constraints as come into play when formal sexual harassment procedures are invoked. In this regard, sexual harassment is no different than many another area of life. Parking infractions should be dealt with, to be sure, but there is such a thing as overkill when it comes to enforcing parking regulations.

Table manners and immaturity

Let's take table manners as an example. They vary from place to place, for culture helps to constitute them. When you travel to some exotic place and eat the way your mother taught you, the local folks might think you very peculiar. Indeed, you might just gross them out!

Now, young males are sometimes known to scoff at the notion of table manners. When I was an undergraduate in a Christian college, we had a once-per-week dress-up dinner. Many of us did not like the idea of having to put on a tie just to eat our dinner. And so there were some guys who, from time to time, would rebel against the college's effort to civilize us: they would eat in a way they called "animal style" (I'll spare you the details). I was not one of them, nor was I particularly amused by their antics. Was their conduct wrong? Yes. Was it appropriate for the authorities to do something about their conduct, after speaking to them about it and giving them a warning which seemed to do little good? Yes. But it is a good question just how serious an offense this was. And if I should see one of those same fellows occupying the pulpit of a church today, should I be shocked? No, not at all. I put down such misbehavior to immaturity, and I'm always pleased to hear that So-and-so has finally grown up. Let's not forget that the membership list of the church is composed entirely of forgiven sinners. The only Sinless One known to human history ascended to heaven quite some time ago.

Zero tolerance

The implication for the question in my title should now be coming into view. Misconduct or bad manners in the general domain of relations between men and women is grounded in part in male immaturity. When I hear the occasional tale of a boy in grade 1 who kisses a girl and then is severely dealt with under his school's sexual harassment policy (advertised as a "zero tolerance policy"), I am not amused but saddened.

Human behavior, when it comes to the dinner table as well as relations between the sexes, runs quite a gamut on the appropriate-vs.-inappropriate scale. Reasonable people could disagree on what is to be regarded as inappropriate. Much of the behavior which sexual harassment policies are intended to stamp out is to the far end of the inappropriate, but some of it is somewhat closer to the middle. Just as society tolerates a degree of rudeness and of bad manners in relation to the dinner table, it should do so in relation to what happens when young men and young women get together and take an interest in one another.

The need to perpetuate our race

If you're not convinced by what I just said, and if you still think we need the sternest possible "zero tolerance policies" on sexual harassment, you will need a reason to consider my point of view. In other words, I'll have to get more explicit. My reasoning basically comes down to this: both eating and the attraction young men and women have for one another involve biologically necessary functions, necessary in the sense that we could hardly perpetuate our race without them.

We need to eat in order to live. If we wanted to avoid all instances of one person being offended or irritated by how another person eats, we could decree that all human beings must eat in isolation, each in a room all by himself. But that would be a very expensive proposition: the costs of cooking food and passing it around to be eaten would go through the roof. (Moreover, we'd miss out on many good times around the dinner table.) Economics is quite a factor when it comes to eating.

As for relations between the sexes, a comparison with bees (said to be in short supply nowadays) comes into the picture. Bees need to flit from flower to flower to spread the pollen around and thereby keep plants reproducing and growing. In similar fashion, young men and young women need to get together and take an interest in one another if our race is to survive. Therefore God designed us in such a way that there is an attraction between people of opposite genders. That attraction does not manifest itself uniformly in all human beings (not all of us are sexually drawn to members of the opposite gender, and no one is sexually drawn to all members of the opposite gender), but it is there in most of us to some degree, and it definitely needs to be encouraged. Just as the college administrators were willing to cut the "animal-style" eaters some slack when they acted up in the college dining hall, society puts up with some ill-mannered behavior from the young folks as they seek one another out with an eye to eventually forming life-long partnerships and raising the next generation of human beings.

The panda problem

I hope I have made myself clear. I have been answering the question why I offer only a qualified NO when asked: Are you in favor of sexual harassment? What it comes down to is that bees should be encouraged to go about their pollination work, and young men and young women should be encouraged to take a romantic and sexual interest in one another. If they don't, how will we ever become grandparents? I am a grandfather, but I have friends around my age with full-grown children who envy me for my status in this regard. It appears that their adult children are afflicted with the panda problem.

Perhaps you think I am making light of what many take to be a very serious issue. If so, let me offer just a bit of theological grounding. One of the theological notions I have explained to hosts of students over the years is expressed through the Greek word "adiaphora." Philip Melanchthon and John Calvin and many other respected Christian thinkers have used this term to articulate a very fine notion that is both practical and theoretical. There are some behaviors, they maintain, that are neither expressly forbidden by Scripture as we understand it nor expressly mentioned in Scripture as legitimate for Christians. When it comes to these "in-between" behaviors or "things indifferent," we can agree to disagree. We don't need a "zero tolerance policy" to stamp them out. And so one man, in taking a romantic interest in a woman, might approach her in a manner with which I might not feel comfortable. I might think: I could never talk to a woman that way! But I don't need to brand him sexually immoral or urge that a sexual harassment charge be brought against him.

Restrictions on romance

Now, I am not altogether unsympathetic to the notion that restrictions could and should be placed on romance in a place of business or an organization or a school. Sexual harassment policies are sometimes embedded in a larger code of conduct that addresses the issue of workplace romances and sets limits to them. Some organizations don't permit romances between employees at all, while others lay down restrictions where there are "reporting" or supervisory relationships. The idea in the latter case is that if a man has some sort of supervisory relationship to a woman at work, he may not take an interest in her or ask her out. This is a reasonable rule, in my judgment. But we need to balance the need of the workplace to have things running smoothly with the need of human beings to form romantic relationships that have the potential to grow into marriages.

In the case of tertiary education, things get more complicated. A number of professors at Redeemer University College (including the undersigned) love to see romances spring up between the students on campus. Over the years many fine marriages have grown from Redeemer romances. Indeed, some of us have been at Redeemer long enough to see the first wave of the children born via those marriages come to us asking for the same instruction that their parents got!

Some distinctions need to be made when it comes to on-campus romances. We should be much in favor of on-campus romances between students: one of the legitimate functions of a Christian college is to give young people a meeting place where they may encounter their life's partner (that's how I got married the first time around).

Professors, student and employees

What about romances between professor and student? That's a dicey business. I would not forbid them altogether, but they should definitely be out of bounds wherever there is a professor-student relationship, that is to say, whenever one of the two is enrolled in a class taught by the other. Even so, it is hard to formulate such a policy without creating the possibility of some absurd cases and situations.

Here's a third area to be considered: what about romances between employees of a Christian college? Some years ago, when I was a widower desirous of female companionship, I thought about such things. Eventually I fell in love with a woman who did not work at Redeemer, and in time I married her. The fact that her place of employment was not the same as mine made day-to-day life easier for me than it would have been if I had fallen in love with a fellow Redeemer employee. Even so, I don't regard a romance with a fellow employee -- whether at a Christian college or a government office or in the local Wal-Mart store -- as illegitimate.

The core problem with the many restrictions laid down in the name of opposing "sexual harassment" is that they are ultimately grounded in a piece of Humanistic thinking, namely, the autonomy principle. Now that God is no longer around to give us instruction in right and wrong, we have to be our own lawgivers. Each of us, in our own small way, must now step up to the plate and take on the function in the larger moral universe that God used to fulfill. What does this new responsibility entail by way of creating standards of sexual morality?

In every interaction in the sexual domain, my autonomy must be respected. I am the final authority on what is right and wrong in relation to me. And so, if a man repeatedly asks out a woman at work, he risks a sexual harassment charge, provided his interest in her is "unwelcome" (a term found in many of the sexual harassment policies). On the other hand, if he persuades her to engage in sexual relations ("hooking up" is the term often used by the younger set), that's perfectly okay, provided both are adults and have given their free consent. Any form of sexual interchange is okay as long as both parties freely agree to it. Such is the Humanistic presupposition that governs the thinking of a great many people nowadays as they struggle to sort out what is right and what is wrong. Sexual harassment policies are pervaded by this mentality.

What about sexual-harassment policies?

In the first part of this essay I addressed myself to the question in the title and responded with a qualified NO. I now plan to do the same with a variation on what the question might mean. Suppose someone used the phrase "sexual harassment" in a shorthand sense, meaning by it "the local policy on sexual harassment." Am I in favor of that policy? I can imagine such a question being asked when the policy was being introduced for the first time, or when it was being revised or replaced. Again my response is a qualified NO.

In responding in this way, I am not going back on what I said earlier, namely, that what people are trying to accomplish through the use of such policies is not all wrong. There are indeed some behaviors named by the term "sexual harassment" which institutions need to discourage strongly. Taking this mandate seriously would entail invoking formal disciplinary action in some situations. But in rejecting most any such policy I have ever read as less than ideal, I am saying that there must be a better way, a way grounded in a Christian understanding of wrongdoing and how it is best dealt with.

It was for such reasons as this that I spoke out against the policy on sexual harassment that was adopted by Redeemer University College in 1995. I addressed my concerns to the faculty during a meeting in which we were invited to comment on the policy. I dismissed our proposed policy (which was adopted contrary to my advice) as worldly stuff. I was alluding to the presuppositions embedded in such policies which I mentioned earlier in this essay. Although I did not put my objections in writing at the time, I did address the issue in writing more than once in subsequent years: see especially my essay "Hot-Button Ethics: Reflections on Harassment, Imposition and Autonomy," posted in Myodicy.

So what's the alternative?

"Very well," someone might then reply, "how would you go about it then? What's the alternative?" In response to this question I would need to explain some of the features in such policies that I find especially problematic. For one thing, I would point to the tendency toward secrecy and the tendency to presume the accused person guilty right off the bat. But these are subjects for another essay, which is not yet written. Trying to stay in a more positive frame of mind, I will make some suggestions here about what might be done to combat and discourage loutish behavior without violating Christian sensibilities and traditions.

First of all, what people like to call sexual harassment is but one of many possible forms of wrongdoing that may occur in the course of university life. Specifically sexual wrongdoing should be addressed within the framework of a more comprehensive document that deals with a wide range of misbehaviors. If such a document is truly Christian in its tone and its detailed outworking, it will also address the question what steps can be taken, once the disciplinary phase is over, to restore the offender to his place in the work community. The Christian emphasis on reconciliation and restoration is largely absent in sexual harassment policies inspired by secular thinking.

Generally similar forms of investigation and adjudication should be used for what appear to be serious transgressions. So-called sexual harassment should not be set apart as though it were an utterly unique and almost unspeakable sin -- the current university version of the Sin Against the Holy Spirit, which can never be forgiven. Nowadays, sins of the tongue get showed into the sexual harassment category as well. Such sins are indeed serious, but they do not only concern interactions that have a potential sexual dimension to them. I believe that the ninth commandment needs more attention in institutional settings than it generally receives.

Catgeories of wrongdoing

Instances of what people like to call sexual harassment need to be sorted into categories based on the nature of the relationship between the accuser(s) and the accused. Students bringing charges against other students would be one category. Students bringing charges against a professor would be a second category, and an especially difficult one to handle properly. Finally, a university is like any other place of employment in that it has lots of people on the payroll: any instance of misbehavior along the lines of what ordinary office-based organizations would call sexual harassment would be a third category.

I believe the third category would be a bit simpler to deal with than the second. I will not comment on it any further here. If something untoward happens between a man and a woman who are both employed in a university's security force, for example, I don't believe such an instance would need to be regarded as uniquely a university matter: roughly the same rules and procedures could be applied as would be used in a non-university organization.

Leniency toward students

Now back to the students, who are the primary object of a university's concern. At the risk of provoking an intemperate response, I will affirm that a university should be more lenient in the case of student-to-student instances of misconduct than in the case of professor-to-student instances. There should be more leeway for mistakes made by students, who are younger, than for professors, who should know better -- not just because they are older but because they need to regard themselves as professionals.

But it's not easy for professors. To make sure that professors have a clear understanding of "the law," so to speak, I would insist that they be provided with a professional code of conduct. Just as medical doctors sometimes get themselves into situations in which more man-to-woman intimacy takes place than normally would be deemed appropriate, professors have opportunity to insert themselves deeply into the feelings of their students and to arouse them in some emotional-cum-intellectual sense that can sometimes backfire and lead to dreadful recriminations.

Intellectual intimacy

The intellectual intimacy than can spring up between a humanities professor and his students-- with all the attendant emotional risks -- is not an easy matter to understand: William Deresiewicz, a Yale University English professor who seems equally at home in the movies as in sophisticated literature, charts some of the changes in our culture that have contributed to the new sexual tension and suspicion that can all too easily spring up between professor and student. Drawing on novels and films, he points out:

... one of the things nearly all professors in movies and novels have in common is that they sleep with their students. ... In fact, lust is almost the only emotion that movie professors ever express toward their students. In the rare scenes in which these teachers actually teach, the point is to exhibit the classroom or office hour as a locus of sexual tension. The popular mind canít seem to imagine what other kind of relationship, let alone what other kind of intimacy, a professor and student could share.
Now, I happen to have watched quite a number of the movies to which Deresiewicz appeals by way of evidence as he comments on the picture of the humanities professor that now seems to prevail. I think he's right about how humanities professors are portrayed nowadays. Such wayward professors -- and I'm not sure they are as numerous as the movies would suggest -- definitely need to be policed. Stern policies are in order.

The 1960s sexual revolution

Deresiewicz provides us with some helpful historical perspective on the way professors are perceived nowadays. He maintains that these developments cannot be understood apart from the sexual revolution that started in the 1960s:

Suddenly, professors had access to large numbers of young women, and just as suddenly, young women were asserting their sexuality with new freedom and boldness. People drew the inevitable conclusion. Since then, American culture has only become increasingly sexualized -- which means, for the most part, that youth has become increasingly sexualized by the culture. Not coincidentally, concern about the sexual exploitation of children has reached the dimension of a moral panic. In the figure of the movie professor, Americans can vicariously enjoy the thought of close proximity to all that firm young flesh while simultaneously condemning the desire to enjoy it -- the old Puritan dodge.

Back to paternalism

The celebrated baby boomers, who were once the flag-bearers in the sexual revolution, underwent a curious reversal when they became the parents of near-adult children. Deresiewicz observes:

The famously overprotective parenting style of the baby-boom generation has put pressure on universities to revert to acting in loco parentis, forcing them to take on the paternalistic role the boomers rejected during their own college years. Professors are the surrogate parents that parents hand their children over to, and the raising and casting out of the specter of the sexually predatory academic may be a way of purging the anxiety that transaction evokes. But long before the baby boomersí offspring started to reach college, the feminist campaign against sexual harassment -- most effective in academia, the institution most responsive to feminist concerns -- had turned universities into the most anxiously self-patrolled workplace in American society, especially when it comes to relations between professors and undergraduates.

Eros in the classroom

What I find so intriguing about the contribution which Deresiewicz makes to our discussion is that he does not simply dismiss the hysteria to be found on some campuses about predatory professors as grounded in misunderstanding. Far be it from Deresiewicz to insist that what we have here is "much ado about nothing." Rather, he realizes that an effective humanities professor is playing with fire. There is eros in the classroom, but not the sort of eros which watchers of X-rated movies might expect:

The relationship between professors and students can indeed be intensely intimate, as our culture nervously suspects, but its intimacy, when it occurs, is an intimacy of the mind. I would even go so far as to say that in many cases it is an intimacy of the soul. And so the professor-student relationship, at its best, raises two problems for the American imagination: it begins in the intellect, that suspect faculty, and it involves a form of love that is neither erotic nor familial, the only two forms our culture understands. Eros in the true sense is at the heart of the pedagogical relationship, but the professor isnít the one who falls in love.

"Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." Was it Shakespeare who said this? Some attribute the quote to William Congreve, a contemporary of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. But no matter -- the idea is clear. A professor's success in achieving "intimacy of the mind" may well prove his undoing. Harking back to the Greeks, as my undergraduate mentor Evan Runner loved to do, Deresiewicz points out:

Love is a flame, and the good teacher raises in students a burning desire for his or her approval and attention, his or her voice and presence, that is erotic in its urgency and intensity. The professor ignites these feelings just by standing in front of a classroom talking about Shakespeare or anthropology or physics, but the fruits of the mind are that sweet, and intellect has the power to call forth new forces in the soul. Students will sometimes mistake this earthquake for sexual attraction, and the foolish or inexperienced or cynical instructor will exploit that confusion for his or her own gratification. But the great majority of professors understand that the art of teaching consists not only of arousing desire but of redirecting it toward its proper object, from the teacher to the thing taught. Teaching, Yeats said, is lighting a fire, not filling a bucket, and this is how it gets lit. The professor becomes the studentís muse, the figure to whom the labors of the semester -- the studying, the speaking in class, the writing -- are consecrated. ...
      Iím not saying anything new here. All of this was known to Socrates, the greatest of teachers, and laid out in the Symposium, Platoís dramatization of his mentorís erotic pedagogy. [NOTE deresiewicz]

So Socrates is the greatest of all teachers! Where did he wind up? Sentenced to death by the Athenians: he drank hemlock (you can read about it in Plato's Phaedo). And Evan Runner, a teacher with greater passion and fire than any other I have known, [NOTE runner] was also "in Dutch" (Runner himself would have appreciated this characterization of his woes) with the administration of the college in which he taught. Socrates, Runner, and many, many others over the centuries, were accused, in some parlance or other, of "corrupting the youth," which I take to be a rough counterpart in Socrates' day to a modern sexual harassment charge. Socrates could not fall back on a professional code of conduct that entitled him to take certain liberties with the feelings of his young charges.

A professional code of conduct

My apologies for the digression. By this point the general drift of my thought should be clear. A professional code of conduct would serve both to protect professors and to show them where the boundaries lie. To apply a sexual harassment policy in the absence of the guidelines in a professional code of conduct is to expose professors to hazards for which they may not be prepared and thus to mistreat them. In short, there is a Freudian element in teaching, as professors sometimes come to stand in the place of fathers and mothers. Hence they need a measure of protection.

A professional code of conduct would also indicate what sort of grievance procedures would be open to someone who was falsely accused under a sexual harassment policy. Since sexual harassment nowadays applies to verbal interchanges as well as physical contact, a relationship-gone-sour, with unpleasant conversations marking its end, can easily turn into a scene of mutual recrimination. A conventional sexual harassment policy gives a very substantial advantage to the one who runs to the authorities first and thereby is allowed to assume the role of aggrieved victim, leaving the other party to the dispute to wear the horns of the despised harasser. I maintain that it must be possible to pursue parallel sets of charges at once.

Marriage counselors understand this sort of thing: a marriage-gone-sour invariably involves two people who have failed, although not necessarily to the same degree. Our current sexual harassment policies have a touch of Manichaeism about them: the privileged accuser is robed in pure white and celebrated for her (it's usually a woman) "courage" in coming forward, while the accused (usually a man) gets to wear black and has a dreadful time removing the stain from his person even if the accusation is eventually found to be without foundation. The process itself is punishment.

Off-campus misconduct

A final observation would have to do with the range of activities which should be covered by the professional code of conduct to which I would assign the work currently done by a sexual harassment policy. I like using the term "professional" because it indicates that the university's policing of my behavior needs to be restricted to the occasions and places where my professional conduct can be reviewed. What I do in the classroom and in my office is very much the business of my superiors in the academic chain of command. But if I make a fool of myself on Friday night at the bowling alley, after having a few too many beers, and I insult a woman, my boorish conduct is not the university's business, even if the university winds up being embarrassed by what I have done. If the woman I have insulted has legitimate reason to press charges against me, she needs to do so through the local system of justice. She could begin with the police.

I grant that there are instances of overlap here, for example, if I am traveling with students from the university, and if, along the way, we stop for some refreshment and recreation, and that occasion becomes the scene of my misbehavior. The line may occasionally be hard to draw. But some sort of division between public and professional behavior, on the one hand, and private life, on the other hand, is needed if a general policy on the conduct of professionals employed in a university setting as teachers is going to be able to do its job. [END]


NOTE deresiewicz
Deresiewicz's article is entitled "Love on Campus." It was published in The American Scholar, Summer 2007 (Vol. 76, No. 3), pp. 36-46. The quotations are from pp. 42 and 43.

NOTE runner
When I wrote about Runner after his death, my theme was that he was a "man of passion, man of conviction." My essay is available online:

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