Punch a Sexual Harasser in the Face
The allegations that anthropologist John Comaroff is a serial sexual harasser, and that two universities have covered it up, should push you to a zero tolerance policy for these destructive creeps
Readers, thank you for your grace on Monday. My move is 99% complete, and I feel like myself again. However, it is unsettling and worth noting how the disarrangement and transfer of objects can completely undo the mind.
And then the sexual harassment scandal at Harvard broke open. In any case, today we have our regular fare, so if you have an interested friend, do:
Today, a graduate student asked me to be on their dissertation committee. Of course, I am always honored by this request. It represents trust. It offers the opportunity for an intellectual relationship based on a shared love of ideas and the prospect of discovering new knowledge. And because I spent the first 20 years at a university where my department only granted the B.A., I know that advising lays the groundwork for a long-term friendship, but that cultivates professionalism on both sides.
And then, when they mentioned another potential committee member, I said bluntly that this individual was a known sexual harasser. So we agreed together that this was a no-fly zone and moved on to other options.
Before today, I would have wrestled over the decision to name a sexual harasser. But, unlike the 38 Harvard faculty and 50 at other institutions, who signed a letter supporting anthropologist and accused serial sexual harasser John Comaroff, I like to have first-hand, accurate knowledge about things I stick my nose into. Therefore, I will refrain from speculating why these faculty protested a disciplinary outcome that is not (yet) career-ending for Comaroff.
But I will tell you one true thing about what I do for a living: we faculty generally know who the sexual harassers among us are. And I don’t believe that the 38 signers do not.
However, if the lawsuit against Harvard filed in the District of Massachusetts District Court yesterday is even partially true (and let me be clear that I believe these women), Harvard, and the University of Chicago, before them, covered up the long-term psychological torture of graduate students in anthropology.
Here’s a sample of what happened:
To another (“Harvard Student 2”), his advisee, he commented on her appearance; shared his attraction to other students (describing one student as “beautiful” and another as “out of [his] league”); recounted his sexual history and sexual preferences to her in detail; and frequently shared sexual jokes that made her uncomfortable. He also winked at her in class, drank out of her water bottle in the middle of a course he was teaching, called her “my date,” and kissed her on the forehead without her consent—all in view of other students. He told her that three students at UChicago would say he had sex with them, but he branded them as “liars.”
But, as they used to say on the TV ads for the Ginsu knife, that’s not all. Here is a grosser allegation:
On or about September 24, 2017, Ms. Kilburn [a plaintiff] attended an annual brunch held at the Comaroffs’ house. Professor John Comaroff greeted Ms. Kilburn with a hug and a kiss on the cheek and began singling her out for unwanted attention; he placed his hand uncomfortably low on her back to guide her through the room, expressed disappointment that she was not drinking alcohol, and touched her lower back again when he returned with coffee.
When Ms. Kilburn went to leave the brunch, Professor Comaroff followed her. Ms. Kilburn bent to retrieve her bag, and when she stood, Professor Comaroff had moved close to her. He again hugged her forcibly and kissed her on the mouth without her consent. Ms. Kilburn pushed him away and wiped her mouth, only to find Professor Comaroff smiling at her.
I spared you the part where Comaroff pressed his face into a horrified student’s breasts and confessed his impotence. And, oh yeah—there are two others in the department, former department chairs, who one might take such a complaint to if they, too, were not sexual harassers.
The lawsuit alleges that the plaintiffs tried to seek redress from the university for over a decade, but numerous faculty members and administrators (including a Title IX officer refused to help them. In the absence of aid from the university, one woman described a strategy of avoidance (which, by the way, is common among victims.) Her plan included trying to stay out of spaces where Comaroff would be. She wore clothes that she hoped would not attract him. She did not take classes required to complete her coursework because Comaroff or his wife, Jean, also a prominent anthropologist, taught them. In one scene, she saw him coming and tried to escape: he pursued her, and as she held the door against him, he banged on it and demanded to pass through.
The complaint describes profoundly disturbing behavior. Worse? I have heard it all before, from other students, at other universities.
The complaint goes on, and on, and on, as does the description of an elaborate coverup. Jean Comaroff is at the center of a forceful defense, radiating outward to include a list of prominent names in anthropology nationwide. Because one part of that defense was the letter of 38, one suspects that the puzzling narrative about an advising situation gone wrong may have originated with her.
Seventy-three Harvard faculty members, including anthropologist Steven Caton, have responded with a letter of support for the students. But the Letter of 38, published on Sunday, gutted me. Why? Because so many of those people are my real friends, many of them feminists (I thought) who I have known for decades.
And now? I don’t know how to look you in the eye. I really, really don’t know how to look you in the eye.
Thirty-four of the 38 signatories have retracted their support for Comaroff in a second letter: interesting, three Harvard Law faculty—Randall Kennedy, Duncan Kennedy, and Janet Halley—did not sign the retraction. But those who did issued a short statement saying they did not have all the information, something they might have thought about before they signed it. Early reporting explains that their objections to disciplining Comaroff were procedural and “based on a media report,” which seems to omit their failure, as a group, to ask for the facts. They say that they now understand that this failure harmed students. But what did they not do?
So, ok. This one is a real eye-opener because what Harvard has clarified is what I know to be true at every academic institution: it isn’t just the administration that covers these things up. It is the faculty. And we are all complicit if we do not begin to speak openly to our students about the realities of sexual harassment. We need to tell them who the harassers are. Name their names. And, although faculty take training to prevent sexual harassment, students get no training on how to respond to it, except to put themselves in the precarious of asking for help from people who are likely to gaslight them.
So I talked to my students this morning and told them what sexual harassment was, that they did not have to endure it, and that I would believe them if they came to me. I told them that if they were queer, trans, or of color, they were more likely to be targeted for harassment.
I also told them that I am a mandated reporter and that if they wanted choices, I could show them how to access those choices. Then I asked for questions. For example, one student asked how to distinguish between sexual harassment and innocent flirting.
“A professor flirting is sexual harassment,” I said. “There is no such thing as innocent flirting aimed at a student by a member of the faculty.” Another student described a sensation familiar to many of us: freezing when groped. What to do?
I thought about it for a moment. “Punch him in the face,” I said. “Aim at the nose because the impact will produce maximum pain and disfigurement, and you will be less likely to break your hand. Hit him as hard as you can because you may get in a lot of trouble, and you may not get a second chance.”
Because really, the big lie is that sexual harassers can be “handled.” The reality? You have nothing to lose.