Sexual Conflict

The recent scandal at UC Berkeley’s Astronomy department regarding a star Professor being accused of sexual harassment and consequently resigning from his position, has, once again, had me thinking about how institutions and organizations deal with sexual harassment. There are a few problems with how sexual harassment policies, and their enforcement, are handled, and I think we could do much better. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel to see how this could be done better: just look over the policies and procedures for conflict of interest. Let me argue here that there’s something missing in current sexual harassment policy designs — the concept of “sexual conflict.” Once that concept is spelled out, it’s easy to see how to handle these situations much better, and, better yet, to avoid horrible, not-good-for-anyone, full-blown sexual harassment situations, as what happened with Berkeley’s star astronomer.

The main problem with the current situation is that a sexual harassment accusation is too high of a bar for most people to claim, and can have tremendous consequences both for the accuser and the accused. As a consequence, the victims of unwelcomed sexual attention are reluctant to report those situations, and prefer to dismiss them and simply avoid the perpetrator (“creep!”) in the future. From an institutional perspective, this is bad, because the person who made the unwelcomed sexual advances once is likely to do it over and over again to other people, in varying degrees of offensive behavior, until one day the whole thing explodes (and that’s the happy ending!). Wouldn’t it be much better if those situations simply didn’t happen in the first place, or stopped at the first occurrence?

There is a large spectrum of inter-personal behavior that falls under a grey area of sexual innuendo, from flirting all the way to groping, and that ends in sexual contact. I’m talking about adults, so sometimes that behavior is mutual and/or consensual, even when it involves people of different ages, for example Professors and graduate students. Many times, however, the two people have completely different perceptions of the situation, and that tends to be particularly problematic when there is a power imbalance: the person making the sexual advances is convinced he/she’s doing nothing wrong, just being human and testing the waters towards a sexual encounter or relationship, while the person receiving those advances is panicking that a person he/she perceives as having a lot of power over their career is taking things into personal space, and making them feel trapped and intellectually inferior. So we clearly have a problem of perception, and this is where sexual harassment investigations that are less than full-on sexual assault often derail into he-said-she-said that drain the victim, especially if there is only one victim coming forward.

Let me make a detour to conflict of interest (aka CoI). This is an ethical issue that Academics in, at least, the US are very familiar with. There are financial and research CoI, and we are supposed to get acquainted with what they are and declare them upfront. There are two things that I really like about the CoI narrative in most institutions I know (here’s UCI’s and Berkeley’s, for example, which come from the same UC source):

  1. CoI narratives don’t blame people for their conflicts of interest. From UCI’s: “Outside financial interests are not necessarily conflicts of interests in research.” From Berkeley’s: “You do not have to do anything improper to have a conflict of interest; it is strictly situational.”
  2. The definition of CoI embraces perception. From UCI’s: “[…]instances when the outside financial interests may bias or appear to bias the research.” From Berkeley’s: “A conflict of interest in research exists when the individual has interests in the outcome of the research that may lead to a personal advantage and that might therefore, in actuality or appearance compromise the integrity of the research.” (emphasis is mine)

What does this have to do with sexual harassment? Well, I would like to see the emergence of policies on sexual conflict, very much along these lines. First: if an adult person is attracted to another one, and wants to take it to personal space, let’s not assume this is always a bad thing (think of how many couples meet in the work space!). Also, the possibility of false accusations is accounted for. And second:  it doesn’t matter whether a sexual offense has actually occurred or not; the perception of an offense should equally be considered a sexual conflict without it necessarily meeting the bar of sexual harassment.

This does three things. For potential offenders, it shows that there is a large grey area that they need to think about, just like for regular CoI — their targets don’t need to prove that harassment occurred, their own [different] perception will be enough for a conflict to arise. For the victims, it’s much easier to report the bad situations if they know that they don’t need to prove anything, but simply report how bad they felt; it’s also easier if they know that they aren’t necessarily undermining their offender’s career entirely, which is something that a sexual harassment investigation can do, and for which many victims may feel bad about. For policy enforcers, such as conference organizers, department chairs, etc., it becomes much easier to talk to offenders (real or perceived) and make the conflict stop. The enforcers don’t need to take sides or make judgments, they just need to point out that an offense, or the perception of an offense, has occurred, and it needs to stop or else there may be grounds for sexual harassment claims in the future.

Really, the goal here shouldn’t be to punish anyone. It should be to prevent vulnerable people from being preyed upon in the first place.

One may now argue that this leaves a large portion of the population vulnerable to false accusations of sexual conflict, just because people have all sorts of different perceptions in inter-personal situations. True. But the odds are heavily in favor of the truth; it happens, but it’s very rare that victims of unwelcomed sexual advances, harassment or assault make those stories up entirely. Moreover, in situations where the person complaining is making false accusations, it will be good for the target of those stories to know that they are being targeted by a possibly deranged person, and that they need to make sure not to trigger further episodes unintentionally.

What’s important is that over time, sexual predators (those that systematically prey on the vulnerable, and the ones that must be stopped) will leave a trail of sexual conflicts, even if none of those conflicts in isolation can be proven to have occurred. This, in itself, will make them think twice before engaging in predatory behavior.

I believe a policy on sexual conflict along the lines of that for CoI would have prevented the situation in the Berkeley Astronomy department, because the students would have come out with the reports of sexual conflict much sooner.

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