Knee-squeeze reaction

March 28, 2013

Why did Felipe Fernández-Armesto feel the need to begin his article on sex scandals in higher education by describing a former student as “Statuesque. Stunning. Spectacular,” before suggesting “more salacious” epithets, too (“Dens of inequity?”, Opinion, 21 March)? Such unlooked-for remarks are surely just the sort of thing that can in themselves constitute sexual harassment in the context of the student-teacher relationship. They certainly made me feel uncomfortable: would you want your tutor describing you like that?

Fernández-Armesto also presents an ­unhistorical account of changes in the customs and mores surrounding such abuse. In his day, he claims, “there was no shame and no attested harm in a priest pinching a choirboy’s bottom”. No attested harm? Rather than the free-floating relativism to which Fernández-Armesto seems to ascribe changes in attitudes towards this behaviour, he might at least have hinted at the deep and complex social forces that have created a situation where (often, although lamentably not always) victims of abuse can finally speak out and resist their abusers.

By privileging the cases we “all know…in which alleged abuses have proceeded from accusers’ imagination”, Fernández-Armesto’s article conveys little more than nostalgia for the days when bosses could squeeze their secretaries’ knees with impunity.

Tom Cutterham
St Hugh’s College


I can understand that Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s student would have needed to appear as she did had the tutorial topic been “embarrassingly scanty uniform as a given of historiography”. Otherwise, couldn’t she have worn a wrap?

Michael Thomas
Associate lecturer
The Open University

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