Hands off my bottom, mister!

September 29, 2006

Sexual harassment can flourish only in an uneven power balance, argues Susan Bassnett

Mary Beard recently sparked a debate about the demise of what she calls the erotic charge that sometimes occurred between students and their tutors back in the 1960s and 1970s ( Times Higher , August 18). She was accused of defending sexual harassment, which is nonsensical since she did nothing of the kind. What she said was that she looked back on her student days with a kind of nostalgia, recalling in particular one eroticised, although never explicitly sexual, relationship with an older male tutor. Such behaviour, she suggested, although innocent, would be inadmissible in the current climate.

So are student-lecturer relationships often potentially erotic encounters? They can be, of course, and I cannot see how this has changed over the past 30 or 300 years. What has changed is our attitude to people who go one step further and make overt and unwanted sexual advances. I have been chased round offices, leapt upon in a lift, groped under tables and been the recipient of unpleasantly explicit anonymous notes, and in this I do not think I am any different from any woman of my generation.

I remember swapping stories of sexual harassment (though the term did not exist back then) with fellow students and other young lecturers, and what was pretty clear was that the same men behaved in the same way with everybody. There was nothing romantic or flattering in those advances.

I am afraid that I have no nostalgia whatsoever for that kind of episode. I welcome the fact that today young women are sufficiently empowered to know that they have the right to complain about it. We did not know who to complain to, so we simply dismissed such behaviour as unpleasant but ultimately trivial. And we developed strategies for coping; the bush telegraph worked wonders, and gropers could be exposed with the speed of Armada beacon-lighting and avoided wherever possible.

What should not be forgotten, however, is that the student-lecturer relationship is one of uneven power. Ultimately, the lecturer is the one with the power. Grading essays, marking exams and supervising dissertations all involve the more powerful figure determining the fate of the less powerful.

Give middle-aged men power over the fate of pretty young women who come up every year in fresh new batches and occasionally things are bound to go awry. It isn'tstrictly one-way traffic either. I know of men who have had students make explicit advances, and I remember one woman in my year who used to boast about how she could improve her essay marks, and it did not involve spending extra time in the library.

Some people seize power and abuse it, others worship it and abase themselves before it. Every time some hideous politician is caught with his trousers down, there is a woman who was willing to oblige him, presumably because his power was some kind of turn-on. Why expect the student-teacher relationship to be different given the massive imbalance of power that underpins its very existence?

What I think Professor Beard was nostalgic about was the passing of her youth, and my advice to her would be to get out there and enjoy erotically charged relationships with her peers rather than fondly remembering a mythical golden age.

Susan Bassnett is pro vice-chancellor at Warwick University with responsibility for campus life and community affairs.

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