UPDATE (5/17/2014, 6:00 p.m.): This piece proceeds on the premise that “Lisbeth” (the woman on whose behalf the fundraiser and Protecting Lisbeth Facebook page were created) and author of the Thought Catalog essay and Protecting Lisbeth blog are the same person. Though the parties involved currently remain anonymous or pseudonymous, this premise appears to be false. I regret any error or confusion.
In an essay for Thought Catalog called “I Had an Affair with My Hero, A Philosopher Who’s Famous For Being ‘Moral,’” an anonymous graduate student describes her soured romance with a prominent professor from another university and how she learned that he initially hid his history of pursuing other young women. Shortly thereafter, her friend started a campaign to crowd-fund expenses for legal action. They created the pseudonym “Lisbeth” for the essay’s author. Under the heading “Help us sue the school protecting a known rapist,” the fundraiser’s description now reads, “I’m Emma Sloan, Yale 2010. My dear friend is suing the professor who tried to rape her and the university for knowingly protecting him. Thanks to donations from our generous supporters, she can afford the $7000 retainer for a forensic psychiatrist.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on the case. Many within the academic community have joined the fray, whether to champion Lisbeth’s cause, attach it to broader gender equality concerns, express doubts, or simply gossip.
Title IX obligates schools that receive federal funds to address sexual violence or harassment on their campuses. To pursue a grievance or official complaint, the person need not herself be the victim of the alleged discrimination. Someone who claims to be the actual victim of a Title IX violation has the additional right to pursue her claim in private litigation against the university. If she can show that the school was deliberately indifferent despite actual knowledge of the misconduct, she can win injunctive relief or money damages for her injuries. Yale’s Title IX coordinator, Stephanie Spangler, is investigating Lisbeth’s claims.
So, where exactly did this professor’s alleged conduct pass from merely smarmy to worthy of legal sanction?
It’s hard to tell from Lisbeth’s public statements whether she (a) maintains the propriety of her own relationship with the professor and simply suspects that his other relationships were unlawful, (b) is sure her own relationship was unlawful, or (c) is ultimately just hurt about not being his only lover and is opting for the Medea approach, like she would have boiled his babies for dinner if it weren’t for the greater convenience of social media as a tool for revenge. Lisbeth’s clutter of claims may be the result of a non-lawyer using language loosely, but it’s troubling given how many people could be hurt in this situation.
Lisbeth, who was not a minor, nor the professor’s student or employee, writes on her blog, “I wanted to be with him. I still think that if he had been a decent person, it would be unwise and distasteful but not unethical to embrace my daddy issues and have a consensual relationship with someone old enough to be my father. But, as I told him repeatedly, my affair with him was not a case of genuine consent for I would never have consented to being his secret mistress.”
Does lying to your lover vitiate consent? Cornell Law professor Sherry Kolb has written on the question, concluding that it does not. It’s an intriguing possibility to ponder, but it’s not a well-established basis for a rape charge under American law.
Lisbeth’s essay does not state anything about the professor using physical force against her. Yet, the fundraising site and Lisbeth’s blog use the word “rape” and insinuate force and violence. The blog’s banner image features a grime-coated male hand clamped over a girl’s mouth, the girl’s eyes wide and terrified. It’s a stock photo labeled “Child Abuse” on Shutterstock. The image conjures associations that don’t match the facts Lisbeth has so far alleged. It seems a little misleading, even if you don’t demand that stock photo choices be completely literal.
Lisbeth’s campaign appears designed to capitalize on the fervor of people (rightly) passionate about women’s issues on principle, regardless of the actual facts in Lisbeth’s situation. This approach should anger anyone who believes that even horrible people deserve due process, not an internet smear campaign.
Lisbeth’s campaign also hurts other young professional women, whether she means to do so or not.
Lisbeth writes of her former lover, “If you know that he was sharing a hotel room with a student, please come forward and testify as a witness. If you know the names of the students he’s invited to his hotel room, we can find out if he wrote them reference letters.” The professor may have victimized some of the women whose names will be offered. Some of them, however, may neither wish for their information to be shared, nor feel that he abused them. These female philosophers may resent suspicions that he recommended them based on sexual favors instead of merit. Lisbeth may be inadvertently reinforcing the old assumption that if a woman’s professional achievement is recognized by her male superior, she must have been “sleeping her way to the top.”
Sadly, I can’t argue that impropriety does not happen in academia. There are plenty of wormy men on college campuses whose only hope at sexual success springs from dangling their prestige in front of aspiring young women. Both in law and as a graduate student in analytic philosophy earlier in my career, I have endured more of this than I would like. I have neutralized unwanted advances on my own, never faced physical force or retribution, and never felt that the particular men in question were dangerous, just irksome or flattering but awkward. There’s a hierarchy with forcible rape at the top, “fellate me or fail my class” in the middle, and lingering cleavage gazes at the bottom. I have stayed toward the bottom so far, and that makes me luckier than some women.
I experienced something else as a woman in these settings, though. Several male professors over the years insisted that they would not meet with me off-campus or with the office door shut, even though they would gladly chat over beers or speak privately with my male peers. I don’t know what emotionally-evocative-but-factually-inaccurate stock photo best represents how I felt then, but I felt pretty lousy.
Controversies like Lisbeth’s hinder the ability of women to engage in the sort of purely Platonic mentorship that is crucial to success in tight-knit professional communities. Rightfully risk-averse men will proceed warily with female students and junior colleagues to avoid appearances of impropriety. As a result, many women will miss out on professional friendships that their male peers benefit from. Sexual violence on campus hurts women trying to learn and build their careers, but so does an atmosphere where adult women look like scandals waiting to happen.
If my friend told me that a man forced her to have sex, I’d drive her to the hospital or the police station. If my friend told me that she hooked up with a guy she idolized only to later find out he was a worm, I’d pour my friend some scotch, sit her on a couch, and console her. I’d even listen to a revenge fantasy or two about the vermicular twerp who broke her heart. I hope, though, that I would have the good sense to slow her roll once she started scheming about options that would potentially harm a lot of women who had not harmed her. What are friends for if not to gently redirect our attention when our maniacal revenge plots start to get a little too, well, maniacal?
I don’t intend to give the Yale case more attention than it deserves. I certainly have no interest in defending the professor. Rather, I do have an interest in encouraging critical evaluation of accusations of sexual misconduct and remind potential accusers and those who automatically support them that these claims can injure other women too.
Tamara Tabo is a summa cum laude graduate of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the school’s law review. After graduation, she clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. She will be working at the Center for Legal Pedagogy at Texas Southern University during the 2013-2014 academic year. She looks forward to a career of teaching and writing about, but never practicing, law. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org