There are two perfectly good ways of explaining what we mean by "sexual harassment". We can provide a formal definition, usually couched in somewhat legalistic language, or we can provide a series of "typical" examples. This post is about the latter. [A more formal discussion can be found here.] (I know I said I wanted to rest, but most of this post had already been written and resting requires me to put it out there.)
When the Geoff Marcy story broke, Meg Urry, then the president of the American Astronomical Society, wrote a piece for Scientific American called "How to End Sexual Harassment in Astronomy". I remember being puzzled about it at the time. Rereading it now, however, it seems to me to give some insight into what happened to Marcy. She opens with a strange and somewhat incendiary bit of free association, unfairly linking the Marcy story to "alarmingly high number of students experiencing sexual assault on college campuses." But what's much stranger is her understanding of sexual harassment itself. "Here is a typical example of sexual harassment," she says:
A woman attending a scientific conference explains her research to colleagues with similar interests. A male scientist, usually more senior, pays a lot of attention to her and she is thrilled at this expression of interest in her work by an accomplished senior colleague. But then it starts getting creepy. Maybe there are flirtatious remarks, invitations to private meetings, perhaps a discussion that for some reason needs to happen in his hotel room or there is mention of his sex life or how his wife is inadequate in one way or another.
She spends the rest of the conference avoiding this man. Her attention is not on science, it’s on surviving the encounter. Needless to say, she doesn’t spend time talking to other senior astronomers in her field—most of whom are men—she doesn’t network much, and she thinks twice about attending a meeting like that next time.
Note that she calls this a typical example. According to Urry, when we speak of sexual harassment, this is what women in astronomy apparently have to put up with. This is the way the men in the field typically misbehave when they do. Importantly, this is also the problem that Sarah Ballard wants the federal government to fix. And Congresswoman Jackie Speier is ready to make that happen.
Meeting a man at a conference who takes more of an interest in her body than her mind, but of course begins by showing a polite (and perhaps exaggerated and perhaps not quite sincere) interest in her professional work, is somehow such a shock that it ruins the entire conference. It's an encounter she has to "survive". It's not, it seems, a silly thing that happened with a man who apparently may have some trouble at home, a few drinks under his belt, and a distorted view of his own sex appeal. It's the beginning of the end of her career in astronomy.
Until 2015, I thought a typical example of sexual harassment would involve meeting, say, the editor of a journal where she had a paper in review and getting the distinct impression that coming up to his room tonight would not just improve her chances of getting published but was required if she was to have any hope of ever publishing there, or a graduate student refusing the advances of a prof and then discovering that all her access to funding and supervision had been cut off and her chances of graduating were essentially zero.
In both of those cases, there is talk of an obvious abuse of power. But in Urry's example, there is no abuse of power, just a clumsy attempt at a conference romance. The thing that makes it "sexual harassment", it would seem, is that she is initially "thrilled" by his interest (which she mistakenly thinks is purely professional) and later, to her chagrin, must accept that he doesn't really think especially highly of her brain (or still hasn't noticed it) but likes her in ways that are more immediately pressing for him, and less important to her professionally. The most "thrilling" thing about him was not, of course, his ideas, but his "seniority" and "accomplishments", i.e., the power he ostensibly wields. It was the false hope that she had impressed a senior member of her field intellectually that constitutes the violation here, not his incapacity to be impressed by a beautiful woman's mind. That incapacity—that "bias"—has not yet been demonstrated, since it has not been demonstrated that she has rebuffed his sexual advances and tried once more to get her ideas across. Nor has anything been said about how good he would really think her ideas are if he, as it were, raised his eyes above her neckline.
As far I can tell, and certainly in the Sarah Ballard case, this is the way the "harassment in astronomy" problem is primarily framed these days. It is about the minor inconveniences of being human, of being sexual beings among other sexual beings while also trying to get some work done. It seems like we are being told that accomplished men have to understand how a certain kind of woman sees them, and they must not, then, do anything to confuse her sense of herself or her potential. No flirting. No personality. No fun. The intellectual and personal insecurity of "typical" women that is here being foregrounded, which, it is argued, should force men, especially those who have "accomplished" something, to notice, first and foremost, the power they have over less accomplished women, is quite strange to me. Their privilege[, the argument seems to be,] should be placed aggressively in between the woman and man, completely structuring the space of their interaction. Men should not enjoy the company of intelligent, beautiful women for its own sake, in the informal social settings that a conference (and a research career in general) affords. They should not assume, not at any time, that they can treat them as equal, autonomous adults, capable of managing and challenging boundaries. They should see them as extremely vulnerable. They should box them in.
For thousands of years, beautiful women have had to be wary of the schemes of libidinous men, just as powerful men have had to wary of the lure of ambitious women. They have solved this problem among themselves in the traditional manner, sometimes as adults, sometimes as adulterers. Some astronomers, it would seem, now want this problem to be solved "at the federal level". That's truly when it starts getting creepy!