Photo of sexual assault perpetrator John Seale speaking at google.

Secret CVs: The Slow Violence of Casual Sexism in Academia

by | February 9, 2023

In light of the John Comaroff situation at Harvard, where famous and powerful scholars closed ranks to protect a creepy colleague from an avalanche of allegations so he could quietly return to teaching, and the David Sabatini fiasco where the fired creep used his ‘canceled’ status to launch a multimillion dollar lab, I can’t stop thinking about how a Sir Walter Scott biography casually drops the phrase “insignificant rapes.” It was written by lauded scholar, John Sutherland. A seemingly insignificant phrase, it represents my experiences in academia. 

From patronizing “compliments,” to sexual innuendos, to inequitable treatment, to hostile environments, to stalking, to rape, in my 14 years in academia, I have run the gamut. Sadly, I am not unique in this experience. In the distant wake of #MeToo, this might read as unfashionably late. But I would like to add my voice to the keening chorus of how seemingly insignificant or “unintentional” acts add up, and how the Ivory Tower is particularly apt at hiding what I call the secret CV: the  misbehaviors of “woke” white liberal intellectuals that are too insignificant to prompt title IX action, but significant enough that they push women into silence, crisis, and out of academia. My hope is that institutions can do a better job of dredging these secret CVs during hiring and promotional processes. More so, I dream of a day that women and gender marginalized academics realize they are not ‘crazy’ or ‘toxic.’ Toxic better describes the perpetrators who harm us.

There is an insidious breed of creep cropping up in academia. Publicly, this scholar is a vocal feminist. Privately, he freaks out when we gently point out how some of his behaviors might be perceived as harmful. Lopsided power dynamics are his wheelhouse. He is only trying to help! He might be a well-intentioned bumbler. He might be one of the many who had an affair with a graduate student or, worse, an undergraduate, who he ends up leaving his wife to marry. People chuckle about the ‘scandal’ as nothing more than long lost department lore. Isn’t he a character? He might be the one who pursues multiple romantic relationships with women in a department, then uses his position to berate those women as promiscuous when they dump him or reject his advances. He whines about women warning other women about his behaviors as “spreading false allegations.” His favorite line: He is a victim of cancel culture because he is a white male.

Some of his “oopsies” and “misunderstandings” may even elevate to investigations. But nothing really sticks to him. He slithers through the cracks of bureaucracy. His secret CV is buried deep in the muck of the ivory tower basement. His mistakes are insignificant. Never rising to the level where HR cares but enough to taint the environment. Whispers waft through department hallways: Steer clear of so-and-so. Keep the door propped open when in an office with so-and-so. Meanwhile, his social media presents a woke scholar, bravely risking his academic-legacy career to stick it to The Man. He tweets and retweets feminist material as if to suggest, Point your flashlight elsewhere, SJWs. I’m one of the good ones!

“Insignificant” sexism – especially that of the performative woke bro – is sometimes more of a scourge than the explicit variety. It festers in ways that open wounds do not. It slips through the cracks until it jams the gears and his behavior finally comes to light, usually in the form of a Title IX lawsuit. At that point, people ask: “Why didn’t anyone say anything?” People who do say something are labeled troublemakers. Or they are ignored. Often excommunicated. Many stay quiet because they see how those who speak up are treated.   Here are the work experiences I cannot put on my CV: 

There was the community college colleague – a tenured STEM professor – who, at a required training session, asked me, a 30-year-old adjunct, if I was “one of those” humanities people who hated STEM. When I responded that I enjoy science as much as literature, he praised me as “good girl.” I half expected to hear a clicker. I almost asked “do I get a treat?” but held my tongue. My past responses to sexism had already led to my christening as “difficult” and “unprofessional.”

There was the tenured professor who cornered me (22-year-old grad student, at the time) at the end of my shift in the writing center, alone, at night, to compliment my tattoos, using that as a segue to ask if I wanted to see his “inner thigh tattoo.” He became petulant after my repeated rebuffs and later gave me a bad grade on an essay because, to paraphrase his marginal comments, feminist theory is no longer relevant. Who, at the required final exam party at his house, openly mocked my now husband’s blue collar background and lack of college education in a way that came across as jealousy. His wife, a former grad student who he impregnated and left his previous wife for, milled about the kitchen, dealing with dirty dishes and saying nothing. I later had to ask him for his syllabus to get my course credits for a PhD program.

There was the fellow UC Berkeley English alum who, after I repeatedly rejected his romantic advances and said I just wanted to be friends, would not accept no for an answer. I asked him to please stop talking to me if he could not stop making inappropriate comments. Instead, he left gifts in my department mailbox and wrote pages-long poems and manifestos about how nobody, not even police, could stop him from “having” me. After a judge granted me a restraining order, he immediately violated it. He has since followed me: Since 2011, every time I move to a new state, he moves with me. 

There was the tenured professor who I depended on for a collaborative project. When I went to ask him to perform the tasks he signed up to do, he instead talked about personal information he had collected by stalking my online presence. He never got around to completing the tasks he said he would. He sent winky faces in emails and joked about wanting to smoke weed on campus with me. He kept me captive in his office for hours at a time. I kept trying to keep the conversation on topic and to get the help I needed, but it never worked. When others asked for help, he made it happen. When I asked for help, he ignored me.

There was the administrator who, knowing I was working on my PhD, in response to a question I asked about policy, and after repeated conversations reminding me he was divorced and looking for a new wife, responded with this charming anecdote: “I know how consuming a dissertation is. I had a colleague who named her dissertation (“Sancho”). She would take weekends and spend her time focused on Sancho at a hotel where she wouldn’t be disturbed.” I never responded. Previous times I spoke up about his commentary, other faculty rolled their eyes, “We’ve got to talk to him about his sense of humor with people who don’t know him yet.”

There was the university vice president who invited me to dine on multiple occasions (22-24, during grad school and after). In my naïveté, I thought it was out of interest in my scholarship. When he complimented my appearance and invited me to vacation at his second home in New York, I realized it was something else. He was nice. He did not assault me or even touch me (aside from a hand on my waist to guide me into my seat during lunch at a fancy restaurant near Muir Woods. What a gentleman!). He even helped me network. But when I rejected his invitations and told him I was uncomfortable with the comments about my body, the mentorship and opportunities disappeared. 

Déjà vu: during my first year of a PhD program, when I asked my “woke” assigned graduate student mentor to be more thoughtful about how some of his language might be interpreted as sexist or harmful, he gave me the silent treatment, then sent a flurry of paragraphs-long text messages about how he needed to put down women and boast of his intellectual superiority for his own “mental health,” before asking me not to speak to him again aside from requesting career advice. This same individual – someone I was supposed to look to for advice and leadership, an example to emulate – had told me about his sexual relationships with multiple women in our department and described how he had been a victim of “white male cancel culture” because he had been reported for sexual aggression by at least two of these women, including at least one woman he was mentoring. He bragged about how these investigations came to nothing, that these ‘vindictive’ women were ‘crazy.’ He maligned one of our colleagues – who had dumped him and warned fellow women in the department that he had been sexually aggressive with her – as a “drama queen.” I wonder how he will portray my critique of his sexist language to his newest mentee? 

“Insignificant” sexism punishes those who speak up. Significant sexism blames us when we stay quiet. It is not a zero-sum game because he wins every time. They retreat behind their lectern, their good intentions, their paternalism. This trains us to stay quiet.  Their letters of recommendation, mentorship, and praise is the clicker for being a “Good girl!” Their silence and/or critique of us as “unprofessional” is the kennel. If they react this way to a private calling in over insignificant sexism, how will they react when it is significant?

There was a time in undergrad I was walking home from the BART station in Berkeley after work (late night – I worked in hospitality in San Francisco to help fund my college career). A man grabbed me from behind, put his hand over my mouth and dragged me towards the bushes beside the Recreational Sports Facility. I bit his hand and when he recoiled, I screamed “Don’t fucking touch me!” He sprinted away up Bancroft, his GO BEARS sweatshirt melting into the darkness.

I did not report it. At 21, I was already savvy enough to know nothing good could come from speaking up. For context, this was around the time John Searle was a highly-praised, rockstar scholar. But even then, there were whispered warnings about him. Many said that the whisperers had “ulterior motives.” My boyfriend at the time – a protégé of Searle who hoped to follow in his footsteps – was one of those who dismissed the warnings. Silly, vindictive women. Nothing but spurned groupies trying to get their 15 minutes of fame. No wonder no one believes them.

Just before the attempted rape in the bushes outside the RSF, my favorite (and only woman of color) philosophy TA looked sad in response to my expressed desire to major in philosophy. She warned me to be careful about being alone with male professors in their office hours. When later I ran into her, she shared she had dropped out of the PhD program due to her experiences with male professors. After the attempted rape incident, I too dropped my intended Philosophy/English double major and decided to just focus on English.  My reasoning: easier to avoid situations than survive them. The subtext has always been: “Keep quiet. If you speak up, your career will be sunk, not theirs.” The culture is infused with many second chances for creepy men but punctuated by pitfalls for rabble-rousing women.

What I am trying to say is such attitudes in academia are a legacy, not an aberration. They permeate my academic experience: the articles I read, my interactions with male scholars inside and outside of the classroom. The attempted late-night stranger rape is not the norm. The accretional daily hurt is. Most of the sexism I experience is “insignificant.” But it is significant in the sense that it is regular enough to make me feel like I do not belong, and that if I stay in this environment, it might kill me. It is mercury. It is radiation. It is particulate matter that sticks to soft surfaces. 

My ex-boyfriend, that protégé of John Searle, sent me an unsolicited dick pic while studying philosophy at Cambridge (his acceptance there likely abetted by a letter of recommendation from Searle himself). It was after we had broken up and I had said I was not interested in a sexual relationship. To his credit, he apologized after he sent it: he was drunk, he explained. To his credit, it was a messy break-up. We broke up and got back together many times. He proposed marriage several times, to which I repeatedly said no. But I was not innocent: I also pushed and pulled him away and back into my orbit, indecisive about whether I loved him (I did, but not in a sexual way). The last time we had sex, I said no, my body froze and I cried as he apologized: “I can’t help myself.” Years later, when he needed a security clearance for his government job, he emailed asking whether I would “sabotage [his] character” as background investigators may contact me during his hiring process. His concern: his career. Not his concern: the harm he caused. (They never called. He had a successful career in government, and even wrote an impassioned feminist Facebook post railing against Brett Kavanaugh).

How many powerful men grease the protégé to predator pipeline? How does this casual sexism pollute academia? How does it impact women scholars? Students? Young male academics who are pointed to such scholars as models worth emulating?

Despite their decrying cancel culture, very few white males actually get ‘canceled.’ Everyone I mentioned in my list of insignificant events? Still successful, most still in the same positions they were when I encountered them—or even promoted! The few that are called out might retire. Resign. Change institutions. Find work in alt-ac. Get bankrolled for a multimillion dollar lab. Very few find themselves Harvey Weinsteins or John Searles. Usually their institutional, cultural, and financial capital enables them to float above allegations, or turn them into book deals. For women, we are lucky if we survive to tenure. 

When do our careers matter? When does our pain?

Anonymous is an academic in the Humanities with over a decade of teaching experience.

Photo of sexual assault perpetrator & UC Berkeley Professor John Searle speaking at Google in 2015, by FranksValli, wikimedia commons.