Common knowledge in the department

One item from What’s it’s like to be a woman in philosophy.

I was in my second year of studies at a top philosophy department in the US. I took a course in X that was offered by a very prominent male philosopher who also happened to be quite active and outspoken in attempts to improve the position of women in philosophy. Once after class I mentioned to him that I was considering the possibility of writing a dissertation under his supervision, and he seemed supportive as I was among the best students in his course. One evening toward the end of the term we discussed possible topics for my thesis in his office. At one point during that conversation he stood up, looked at me in a strange way and said that he had an irresistible desire to touch my breasts. As he approached me I recoiled in disgust and rushed outside. When I later told some of my friends what happened they wondered why I was so shocked about the incident because they said this professor hitting on female students was common knowledge in the department. This was too much for me. It obviously meant that this behavior was tolerated and that none of my other teachers in that department felt any obligation to do anything about it. I left the program after a few weeks for good and never returned to philosophy studies again.

There you go – common knowledge; tolerated; no obligation to do anything about it; woman leaves the program and philosophy, forever.


  1. left0ver1under says

    It was “common knowledge” except to those who most needed to know. Funny how nobody shares that “common knowledge” and warns others.

  2. Rational Feminist says

    Seems like I have heard this story before! The secular community has been and is mirroring this.

  3. ludicrous says

    As a male I read this and am pissed and saddened but can’t think what to do about it.

    There may be an opportunity for male students to get involved. They could ask their female friends and/ or get an ad or an article in the college paper asking if there is a problem at their institution and if they find evidence of harassment they could pester and shame the college administration to set up and advertise a safe anonymous reporting system, one that would be supportive of women who come forward. If they claim they have one already in place, demand evidence that it is effective. They could survey other institutions to discover what they are doing. Even if they can’t get the ptb to move the publicity would be helpful if nothing else could encourage more use of the private grapevine. And the publicity would put the perpetrators on notice. Every little bit helps.

  4. says

    Clearly it was not an irresistable desire, because he had successfully resisted it up to that point. Apparently, he wasn’t a very good philosopher, either.

  5. trinioler says

    Ludicrous, a problem I’ve seen is sexists often take the same path to reveal women who are making “baseless claims” and committing crimes by doing “slander”. Either that, or any such organization will be infiltrated to accomplish those goals.

    I’ve seen it happen over and over again, from Hugo Schwyzer, to on-campus groups.

    I know your instinct is, “There must be something I can do!”

    There is: teach male students to not be okay with this. Teach them what sexual harassment *is*, the legal and ethical consequences of it, and empower them to be able to criticize their professors.

    That way, when there’s a “drip hot wax on your nipples” incident, there will be less laughter, and more, “You know, that’s not okay. Don’t do that.”

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