Sexual advancement

December 14, 2017

The feature “Cultures of denial” (16 November) explored the question of whether academia had a culture of denial around sexual misconduct. There are many elements to the issue, but one often goes unacknowledged.

Without wishing to detract from the very real harm done to junior academics who are sexually harassed and worse by their senior colleagues, researchers and mentors, in my academic career (as a female graduate student and now full-time professor at a top research university in the UK), I have witnessed an equal number of students successfully offering up sexual favours as a strategy for advancing their careers. In all such cases that I have seen, it has been female students or junior academics making offers or sexual advances to male faculty members or researchers, with the quid pro quo being that the more senior male academic provides advice and support. These women (I don’t disallow the possibility of junior male academics seducing senior women to get ahead, but I have seen only junior women initiating and inviting sexual contact with senior men) have reaped professional benefits.

As a female graduate student in a male-dominated field, I can attest that several female peers openly discussed which male faculty were up for the taking and ran a thinly disguised competition to see who could “land” the most powerful conquest. Their sexual overtures and offers, when successful, seemed to translate into enhanced opportunities – offers of admission for further study or degree programmes, letters of recommendation, scholarships, being added as junior researchers on grant-funded projects or even as co-authors on articles or research reports sent out for publication.

From what I have seen, the offering of sexual favours in exchange for academic support seems to be on the rise in recent years, in part because it is a relatively low-risk strategy for the women (who, if exposed, can and do win public sympathy and institutional support by claiming sexual harassment), with potentially very high professional pay-offs, whether or not the arrangement is exposed.

As a union representative and harassment officer at my own institution, I have even been called on to defend one when the patronage that she was counting on dried up and she decided to expose the senior male by pressing a harassment charge.

I offer this view with considerable personal pain and reluctance because I have myself experienced sexual harassment and was once, early in my career, date-raped by a senior male colleague. As a harassment officer and union rep, I remain committed to creating safe spaces for victims of unwanted attention and advances to come forward and receive help and support. However, I also strive to remain sensitive to the nuances and facts of each case. I am deeply concerned that, with the increasing pressures on faculty to become more entrepreneurial in applying for grants to fund their research, the opportunities for sex in exchange for academic patronage are likely to become even more prevalent in academe.


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