Reporting of Sexual Assault and Harassment in Philosophy (updated)

I recently saw a post on social media comparing the current deluge of accusations of sexual harassment and assault being made and taken seriously in entertainment, news media, and politics, with how little of that seems to be happening in philosophy. The author wanted to know what explains this disparity. I don’t know, but here are some possible explanations, followed at the end by a proposal.

  1. It wasn’t long ago that the relatively large number of stories about sexual harassment and assault in philosophy had people thinking that philosophy was especially bad, compared to other professions. One interpretation of this is that philosophy was ahead of the game in revealing bad actors. If a lot of the “low-hanging fruit” of sexual misconduct in our profession has already been picked, but is currently being picked in other professions, a snapshot of today would make it look like philosophy is not doing as a good a job at identifying bad actors.
  2. If the comparison class to “philosophers” is “entertainment, media, and politics” (the fields we’ve heard the most from) then philosophy is a relatively small class, and it would not be surprising that it contained fewer bad actors, and so fewer reports, and so, fewer of the accusers being supported.
  3. The obscurity of philosophy professors, in comparison to the more well-known figures in entertainment, media, and politics, may lead would-be accusers of philosophers to think that their experiences are not important enough to report about (especially since media uptake of an accusation seems to contribute to the accusation being taken seriously by the accused and their employers).
  4. Victims may be more motivated to come forward when they know of other victims of the same bad actor, and it may be difficult to for many victims of professors to track down other victims. (For example, think of how hard it might be for an undergraduate who was harassed by a professor a decade ago to even recall who else was in their classes, let alone who else a professor might have targeted.) Relatedly, others may be more likely to believe accusations against someone if they come from multiple victims. (On this, see the proposal at the end of the post.)
  5. If the victims were students at the time, but are no longer in academia, then they may think that the incidents of sexual misconduct they endured are less significant for or connected to their current professional lives, in comparison to sexual misconduct that they endured while climbing up the ladder of their current profession, and so they may be less motivated to report it.
  6. Philosophers seem to be more prone to blending their personal and professional lives, both online and off. Any philosopher, including any philosopher who has engaged in sexual harassment or assault, is likely to have several close friends in the profession, and each of these friends are likely to have several close friends in the profession, and so on. This intraprofessional friendship may deter reporting (that is, people may be less likely to report someone who is their friend, or the friend of a friend, or the friend of someone important to their career) either because one does not want to upset so much of one’s own life, or because one anticipates that the accused will have a network of friends defending or excusing their behavior.
  7. Perhaps there is less sexual harassment and assault in academia than in most other professions. (This is, of course, compatible with there being a substantial amount of sexual harassment and assault in academia generally, and in philosophy in particular.) If true, I am not sure what would explain that.

I put these up as possibilities worth thinking about and discussing, not as explanations I’m convinced are true. Your thoughts on these, and suggested alternative explanations, are welcome.

And now the proposal, regarding 4, above: I am willing to confidentially collect information from victims of sexual harassment and assault by members of the profession with the aims of determining whether any of those accused of such behavior have more than one accuser [, and, if so, facilitating initial communication among such accusers ]. Victims can email me a description of what happened (as specific or as vague as they are comfortable with sharing) and name the perpetrator. I’ve created a new email account for this purpose: [email protected]. The contents of these emails will not be shared with anyone without their authors’ permission. If I receive more than one accusation from different parties (whose identities I’ve been able to confirm) against a person, I will inform those who’ve accused that person of this fact (though not of the details of the accounts) [and, if the accusers wish, I will put them in touch with one another or otherwise attempt to facilitate their communication]. Thoughts on this proposal are welcome, as well.

UPDATE: The aforementioned proposal has been slightly revised in light of comments here and elsewhere. The details are still a work in progress. There is a chance I may work with or completely hand the project over to a lawyer or reporter. I will keep you apprised of any developments.

UPDATE 2: Based on the advice of a few correspondents, I’ve made a further revision to the proposal, eliminating the component that facilitates communication, if desired, between the alleged victims. At this point, the proposal would simply be to let accusers know how many others have named the same person as their harasser or assailant. If, after further legal consultation, it’s determined it would be better to reinstate this component, I’ll let you know. And, as before, this remains a proposal in development.

UPDATE 3: See the comment from Junior Faculty, who links to a story about a rather sophisticated software platform, Callisto, that allows victims to report offenses to it, and then:

Once they’ve written down what happened, students have several options. They can simply save it and come back to it at any time. They can send it to their campus Title IX coordinator as a formal complaint. They can download it and go directly to police. Or, there is a special option called “matching.” In this case, the survivor names the accused with a unique identifier like a Facebook profile. If, and only if, someone else accuses the same person, the survivor agrees that their own report will be surfaced to campus authorities.

Read about it here and here. This sounds like a superior option to what I was proposing, so perhaps we can get the APA to sponsor a customized profession-wide version of it instead. I’ll inquire about that. In the meanwhile, the email coordination line, [email protected], is still open.

UPDATE 4: The following is an excerpt from an email I wrote to someone who provided thoughtful commentary on the proposal. I thought it would be useful to share, as it sums up my current thinking:

The core of the idea is to find a way to let accusers know whether anyone else has been victimized by the same person. (I’m no longer committed to providing any information beyond that, such as the victim’s identities or contact information, etc.) 

This is based on the following three assumptions. 

(1) Victims may be more inclined to report their harasser and/or assailant if they know they are not his or her only victim. This could be for epistemic reasons (“oh, so it wasn’t something *I* did”), prudential reasons (“I’ll be more likely to be believed if there are more victims of the same person”), moral reasons (“I see that there is a pattern here and I should say something before even more people are harmed”), or whatever. 
(2) Accusers are more likely to be believed and supported if the person they are accusing is also being accused by others.  
(3) It is sometimes difficult for accusers to learn whether the person who has victimized them has victimized others.

Those are “common sense” assumptions, meaning, I have heard them offered frequently by others but have not looked at any research about whether they’re true. If they’re not, please let me know. 

The proposal was meant to help with an informational problem, that is, to help in regards to (3), so as to take advantage of (1) and, subsequently, (2). 

As for who or what should try to help with this informational problem, frankly, I’d prefer someone else do it instead of me. But, it is very easy to say “someone should do this” and very common for that to be followed by no one doing it. I volunteered to do it. But I would be happy to hand it over to someone else who could be more effective at it, or, I think, to an automated service which may appear more trustworthy than me or any particular individual. That’s why I like the idea of Callisto or something similar.

If we were to go with some version of Callisto or the like, I do not envision the APA’s role as issuing sanctions or anything like that. The APA has no teeth. I merely see it as a funder and publicizer of the service. Further, I would hope that the software of Callisto could be customized so that it does what we want it to do. We may just want it to take reports and notify users when someone else identifies the same perpetrator they have, and that’s it. Perhaps we would want it to do more. I would trust that were the APA to go ahead with something like this, they would consult both expert members of the philosophical community as well as a lawyer to figure out what would be suitable.


Jay DeFeo, “Origin”

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