On ‘Love’ and Sex in Academia and Beyond

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein affair, some lists of academic Weinsteins have been circulating. Necessary questions about due process have been raised and are not irrelevant although the idea that robust due processes exist which will deliver justice in a notoriously skewed institutional culture is somewhat naive at best, disingenuous at worst. What kind of resources are currently available to victims of a pervasive epidemic? Are they really to be relied on to address the scale of the problem? Still that is a different matter and it is not what I am going to talk about here.

Instead, I will say this to the young women who have written to me, or are trying to speak up, or struggling with not being able to speak.

First of all, in academia itself I myself have not been the victim of a crime. I’ve been flirted with by people in positions of power, and I’ve had subtle offers made to me which were easy enough to ignore. I’m one of the lucky few then, though I’ve been sexually harassed during my days in amateur theatre and, of course, like all women, on public transport or merely walking down the street when I’ve been offered views of something that looks like a penis only smaller. But I know many, many women in academia who have been subjected to everything from inappropriate flirtation to advances to sexual molestation.

My comment here does not pertain to direct harassment and molestation which are plain and simple illegal and it is salutary that some kind of attention is now being paid to them. What is far more difficult to name and shame because it is so ineluctable, so diffuse and yet so powerful is the high degree of sexual entitlement that forms the subsoil for what turns into sexual harassment in some cases. This is what I, now looking back over twenty odd years in academia and yes, on the academic and cultural left in particular, can see: the high degree of self-belief in otherwise intelligent, even decent, straight men that they were entitled to, at all times, to the bodies, minds and persons of women, even and especially when the women are decades younger. This is perhaps a particular problem in academia (and the film industry) where middle-aged men have constant access to very young women over whom they have power.

My own personal miseries have to do with trusting men I considered ‘comrades’ along with the high-minded political beliefs you assume you share and then being subjected to what is bog-standard predation and exploitation, along with huge dollops of emotional abuse all covered up with fancy talk of utopian futures and changing the structures of feeling in the present. It made me realise how porous the line between consent and abuse is, and how, very very sadly, the same sexual culture we all ‘consent’ to is the culture out of which abuse grows.

Of course, the quick riposte to all of this will be, ‘Well, you’re so bitter now but you consented/went along/didn’t object/have agency’ etc. Yes. In many, if not most, cases there is something that looks like ‘consent’. There’s engagement, bargaining, negotiation. There’s even attraction to bad behaviour, to power, to bad behaviour combined with power. When I once spoke out to someone who behaved abusively, his response was this: ‘BUT YOU HAVE AGENCY. YOU HAVE AGENCY’. Critical theory makes an excellent cover for bad behaviour.

I don’t have solutions to offer. The lists in circulation will soon be dismissed either by threats or rebuttals, the claimants dismissed as bitter harpies with an axe to grind. And, yes, lists are not the sharpest, fairest kind of weapon but nothing in any of these miserable situations is fair and people are resorting to the only weapons they have. And yes, we must think about better ways to address predatory culture and abusive behaviour. I am not sure yet what those are. But something will have been accomplished if we can at long last begin a conversation on heterosexual male sexual entitlement in academia and beyond, the extent to which sexual cultures are tied up with predatory behaviour that passes as smooth seduction, disgraceful age gaps which pass as beautiful love crossing the barriers of time and indeed, the actual consensual ways in which we love and engage, but which are not the less problematic for being consensual.

I’ve always loathed the Jane-Rochester romance even while loving it as a young woman, so too Heathcliff-Cathy with all the violence built into it. Yet, I also know how powerful this idea that love and romance means pain, cheating and abuse is. As they say, if it don’t hurt, it ain’t love. Yesterday a columnist aptly articulated the problem through a critique of the popular veneration for myths of the vampire:

They’re about how women’s distress has always been a resource for men who are hollow inside. It is the electricity that powers them. It’s how they become so strong. That is how the world has come to be as it is.

That’s when you and your friend stop finding vampire stories compelling or romantic, and start seeing them as they really are: a warning. A warning about a certain kind of man who acts as if he has a disease he cannot help–which condemns him to injure you–but who, in reality, is making the choice to break and consume women, to get high off their fear and pain.

This disease must be wiped out, and speaking its name has to be the beginning.

First published on Wildcat Dispatches

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Priyamvada Gopal Written by:

Lecturer, Faculty of English, University of Cambridge

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