Sexual politics on university campuses is never an easy topic. In fact, it’s one of the most difficult subjects for people to address, because it is loaded with terms like ideology and culture. But respect does come first above all else, regardless of which gender you are.
Feminist scholar/theorist Naomi Wolf alleged this week that respected Yale University English professor Harold Bloom put his hand on her thigh in the early 1980’s when she was an undergraduate at Yale. Naturally, this has brought out the mercenaries on both sides of the story, with Camille Paglia – whom has described Wolf as a “yuppie feminist” in the past – coming out against her. Bloom denies the allegation and is apparently considering his legal options.
This is a touchy area of debate, true enough. But one unsettling question lingers over this particular incident:
Why didn’t Wolf bring this incident to the attention of the Yale University administration back in 1983 when she was an undergraduate?
Now to be fair, any unwanted sexual advances by anyone at a university or anywhere in the professional world is wrong. If Bloom did this, he made a colossal error in judgment. But something is troubling about the way Wolf is dealing with this by writing a monolithic article in a local New York periodical, outlining how Bloom put his hand on her thigh and how his dealings with attractive female students are known to be somewhat “flirty.”
Wolf claims that phone calls to Yale went unanswered, and that she “owes other students” to tell the whole world about Bloom’s sexual advances to her. But if that were true, then we have to ask the question again: if she had a problem with it, why didn’t she address it when she was a student? Why now? Furthermore, who made Naomi Wolf the judge, jury and executor for Bloom? Why not conduct an independent investigation of her own (she is a journalist after all) and collect information from other former female students about Bloom before going public? That might make it possible to take her case more seriously.
In 1983, the cultures of universities were such that such actions by Bloom were not directly in contravention of the university’s code of conduct. Today, Bloom’s actions are disturbing and if he were to do such a thing in 2004, he would be most likely censured or possibly fired. Rightly so. But to make the jump, as Wolf has done, from 1983 to 2004 and assume that Yale’s code of conduct has not changed, or that the culture of disclosure regarding unlawful actions such as unwanted sexual advances remains closed and inaccessible is wrong. Wolf deserves criticism for this, but not the least of which is the fact her story on Bloom is different in her book Promiscuities, where she only refers to Bloom as “Dr. Johnson.” You can see the article here.
Wolf is exactly what Paglia says she is – a yuppie feminist that has taken a very bizarre route in dealing with Bloom. I read one of her books back in 1992 and it pretty much said the same thing that 2nd wave feminist scholars from the 1960’s wrote: women are victims and that is pretty much the long and short of it. That’s not an especially sophisticated argument and ignores a wide array of 3rd wave theorists regarding post-feminist victimization (or rather how it isn’t always the students who are victims – go ask any number of charismatic, brilliant scholars, male or female, about how they’ve been sexually pursued by their students). Indeed, empowerment is a long process for any historically disadvantaged group.
Yes, women have been victimized and continue to be victimized in professional environments. That injustice should always be addressed on university campuses, whether it is through campus harassment codes, feminist theory or otherwise. Universities have a duty to protect people from discrimination and harassment.
Of course, I have no doubt that Wolf has suffered in some capacity. Something obviously did happen to her. But context is important here: the actions of when and where are as important as who and why. Bloom probably wouldn’t do something like this today, but he obviously made a mistake in 1983. Should he be punished for something that happened during a time of radically new sexual politics, when the rules that govern behaviour between faculty and students were less defined in the terms they are today? Maybe, maybe not. Yet the conclusion here is that Wolf has made an error in judgment by decontextualizing the unreported incident until her great relevation of 2004, and Bloom made an error in judgment by putting his hand on Wolf’s thigh.