Can You Sexually Harass With a Public Lecture?

If you haven’t been following Professor Gilbert’s story, here is a recap. This tenured professor at the University of Denver was banned from campus after two graduate students in his course “Domestic Consequences of the Drug War” complained that the professor sexually harassed them by the content of their lectures. Yes, I know that this sounds wackadoo, but it’s Denver, what do you expect?

The professor made these anonymous complainants feel harassed by – get this – bringing an art deco vibrator into the classroom during a discussion of how sexuality was theorized historically and by discussing studies linking masturbation to prostate health. Of course, the course unit where these egregious offences happened was titled “Drugs and Sin in American Life: from masturbation and prostitution to alcohol and drugs.” The prissy fools who find a scholarly discussion of masturbation to be intolerable could have chosen to skip the class. What fun would that have been, though? They chose to attend and feel harassed by the discussion.

This is a 75-year-old prof with an unblemished record who is being banned from campus and enjoined from having any contact with students because he talked about masturbation and showed an antique vibrator to graduate students. There was no formal investigation, the numerous pleas on behalf of this distinguished scholar by his peers at different institutions have been disregarded, the attempts by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) to start a discussion with the university about this issue have been ignored:

In letter correspondences to DU, the AAUP and FIRE have not only urged the university to revisit its decision upholding the sexual harassment charges against Gilbert, but also the university’s policies for sexual harassment cases and the university’s case review process.

“The University of Denver is treating its adult students like children who are too fragile to hear academic talk about sex and drugs,” said Adam Kissel, the vice president of programs at FIRE, in an article published on the FIRE website on Dec. 12, 2011.

The situation is wrong on so many levels that I don’t know where to begin. The very real issue of sexual harassment on campus is completely trivialized by a pair of officious idiots who don’t see the difference between a prof stopping them in the hallway to whisper “So how often do you masturbate?” and a prof discussing the societal perception of masturbation in the classroom. Vindictive students who dislike a prof for being a tough grader or committing the unpardonable sin of trying to make them think discover a perfect way to punish that pesky scholar. Profs are forced to start self-censoring for fear that, say, showing Goya’s famous painting “The Naked Maja” will be interpreted as distribution of pornography. I have a lot to say about this painting but I have excluded it from my lecture on Goya because  I’m afraid of idiots.

The good news is that Professor Gilbert will now resume teaching his “Domestic Consequences of the Drug War” course. He will require that all students sign a statement saying that they understand what the course will be about and what topic will be discussed. Of course,we all know that if some idiot wants to feel harassed by an intellectual discussion, they will do so in spite of signing any statement.

20 thoughts on “Can You Sexually Harass With a Public Lecture?”

  1. My guess is that whoever dealt with the complaining students for some reason was afraid to tell them to F*** OFF (or MAST— OFF) and, to prevent university being complained against (?) for offering this immoral course (?), decided to frame the professor instead. May be some people were afraid of being reprimanded themselves somehow. Because everybody understood what the course was about from the beginning, so punishing the prof makes sense only in attempt to save own’s neck. Good jobs being scarce and fear of being sued could play a part.

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  2. I want to believe that there’s something else to this story that we aren’t being told, something about a pattern of behavior or whatever, or something more that happened to the students in question beyond the public lecture.

    Sadly, though, I can’t have any confidence that what I want to believe is what actually happened.

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  3. Well, all I have to say about this one is ‘Holy Fucking Wacko’s Batman’………where do these people come from? I’m sure we must have them here in Canada too, but it always seems to be those damn Americans. You’ve got to looovvvve those evangelicals. 😉

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    1. A colleague of mine had his career destroyed for giving his students a link to a dating website in Spanish. This was a language course and the topic was the vocabulary of dating. He never forced anybody to visit the website, he just offered a link as something people could explore if they wanted to as a way to expand their vocabulary.

      Some female students complained that he harassed them sexually by leaving this link. My colleague (who, incidentally, was gay and had no interest whatsoever in his female students) was persecuted by the administration to the point where he abandoned academia altogether.

      P.S. This happened in Montreal, by the way.

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  4. Had he called the students by name and made lascivious comments about them, then yes, he could have sexually harassed them in a public lecture (one of my professors once actually did this to a fellow student in one of my classes during my first degree, back in the bad old days…and nothing was done, except that she dropped out of class).

    However, that’s not what happened here, and presenting history is not sexual harassment. Good lord, that’s just ridiculous. Medical and nursing schools would be put out of business.

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  5. The plaintiffs saw “class on masturbation” and were shocked to discover it explained nothing about the biochemical processes that make hair grow on your hands and turn you blind.

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  6. On the facts of the case as presented it doesn’t sound like it remotely amounted to sexual harassment, but I can see scenarios where lectures could create an environment which did.

    As a by the by, quite apart from the head-desking stupidity of the graduate students in question (seriously, they got to graduate level study without encountering material that disturbed their personal beliefs? HOW?!) this sounds like a poster incident for bad HR practice. Head-desks all round.

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    1. It’s pretty steampunk I’ll bet. You’d need goggles and gloves and have to take a training course to get a permit to operate it.

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  7. I’ve had a former professor get morally outraged after I confronted him for asking, “How often do you masturbate?” while I was at his house to request a law school recommendation. He claimed the question was natural and logical in the context of our conversation: he’d been complaining about his infrequent sexual encounters; I, a virgin and very uncomfortable with this suddenly way-too-personal topic, tried to make a joke by saying ‘I can relate.’ (Which he obviously interpreted as, ‘She’s cool with the sex talk! Green light!’) In his mind, the only problem was that I was too prudish, making a big deal over nothing. Wish I could have emailed him this article: Look, even these hippie Canadians think YOU were out of line! (JK/I love Canadians. And hippies. But not that professor, who is neither.)

    I think the main point in harassment cases isn’t whether someone’s sexual boundaries are unreasonable: mileage varies a LOT on this, and that doesn’t make anyone a prude or a hysteric or a child. (Or a slut, or a creep, or a dirty old man.) The critical point whether someone’s sexual (or whatever) boundaries are being crossed at a time when they feel they can’t stop it without putting themselves somehow at risk…say, academically or professionally. That was obviously the case with my overinquisitive professor, who had just finished telling me what a unique position he was in to help me get into his fancy law school alma mater. So in Denver, maybe the argument was that students felt they had to study this stuff or get a bad grade, and some of them didn’t want to.

    I think the less people fear being called prudes, the more relaxed and safe they’ll feel about setting healthy boundaries and maintaining them under pressure. Which is really the best way to protect everyone.

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    1. “So in Denver, maybe the argument was that students felt they had to study this stuff or get a bad grade, and some of them didn’t want to.”

      • Here is a little newsflash: that’s how students feel about 90% of the material.

      “I think the less people fear being called prudes, the more relaxed and safe they’ll feel about setting healthy boundaries and maintaining them under pressure. Which is really the best way to protect everyone.”

      • Why do adults care so much about being called anything?

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