Feminist reevaluates ‘sexual harassment’

Cory Robertson

Feminist literary critic Jane Gallop led a discussion on gender and power dynamics in higher education on Monday, April 11, in Riverview Lounge. The discourse encompassed a range of issues in light of Gallop’s 1997 book “Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment.”
The title of Gallop’s book does, in fact, describe the author herself. Currently professor of English and comparative literature at UW-Milwaukee, Gallop has been a recognized feminist theorist for over a decade. In 1993, however, she was accused of sexual harassment by two female graduate students. In the words of Gallop, both students claimed that she had tried to sleep with them, and that she had punished them when they had not consented. Gallop had requested numerous revisions of an academic proposal from one student, and had refused to write a letter of recommendation for the other, both of which were seen by the students as punishments for their so-called refusals of her advances. Gallop cited valid and banal reasons for both academic issues.
The university investigation concluded that Gallop had engaged in flirtatious behavior with the students, but that she was not guilty of sexual harassment. It was through this investigative process that Gallop became aware of the broadening definition of sexual harassment. She was, according to university policy, guilty of “consensual amorous relations,” and Gallop realized that by some accepted standards her actions could also be classified as harassment.
With the publication of her book, Gallop hoped to put forth an alternative feminist perspective on sexual harassment. She saw the predominant attitude as being “simplified and distorted,” drawing a clear line between “feminist” and “sexual harasser,” without recognizing the possibility of other viewpoints. She also saw an unwillingness in the world of higher education to acknowledge “things that seemed impossible to say but were really obvious,” such as happy, healthy marriages that had begun as student-professor relationships.
Gallop believes that desire and sexuality play a role in teaching and learning that is not necessarily inappropriate. A proponent of the pro-sex feminist movement, she speaks against the idea that a lack of sexualization is inherently feminist. Gallop pointed out that women in positions of authority, in order to be taken seriously, have traditionally “desexualized” themselves by dressing very modestly. When a woman is “both powerful and sexy,” Gallop said, “this is seen as some sort of harassment.”
Lawrence professors present noted that Lawrence’s own textual policy does not explicitly condemn student-teacher dating, but does express disapproval of such interactions. Professor Sarnecki said that the Lawrence Sexual Harassment and Assault Board has had difficulty eliciting discussion from faculty and students on the subject of sexual harassment.
Gallop seemed to reach the heart of her argument when she said that “student-teacher relations are certainly prey to abuse, but I don’t think the solution is to make them illegal, because they are still going to go on.” She went on to compare the possibility of such a policy to prohibition, which only “led to the burgeoning of organized crime.” Gallop indicated the importance of identifying the problems in power and gender dynamics on college campuses rather than simplifying those problems. A frank and articulate speaker, Gallop led Lawrence professors and students in an intriguing and informative discussion.