A CARNAPIAN SOLUTION TO THE SEXUAL EXPLOITATION PROBLEM IN ACADEMIA
In my generic course outline, under the section entitled “Things It Doesn’t Pay to Think About”, entry #6 reads as follows:
6. Apparently it’s not okay to fuck a sheep, but it’s perfectly okay to kill and eat one. I’m not a sheep, but if I were I’m pretty sure I’d much prefer the former over the latter.
And here’s a related observation. In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Brian’s mother tells him his father was a Roman centurion.
“Was it rape?” he asks.
“Well,” she replies sheepishly, “at first.”
After the #MeToo movement got up and running, feminists feigned outrage over this making light of rape. But for mocking the Crucifixion? Not a peep. Not even from the kindergarten Christians. To which all I can say is: people are weird!
Why am I on about this? Because I think – and I’m not sure about this – but I think I’m about to do the unconscionable. I think I’m also about to make light of rape. Let’s find out.
As an out-of-the-closet heterosexual male university professor, prior to the #MeToo movement having made it much more difficult, needless to say I did – I won’t say regularly but certainly on occasion – I did rape a few female students when they came to my office to clarify a concept or discuss a paper. Think of it, as clearly I did, as a perk of the job.
Not every female student, of course. Not unlike Donald Trump, I have standards. And let’s face it, seven out of ten just aren’t all that fetching. Or, as he puts it, “my type.”
Surprisingly enough, nobody ever complained to the Dean. And some of them, not unlike Brian’s mother, weren’t even shy about coming back to my office to clarify a concept or discuss a paper. Make of that what you will. I don’t bother worrying about such trifles. But …
But Catherine McKinnon has argued that this is still rape, because of the asymmetry of power. And even if I’d had a colleague mark the student’s work – and made certain that she knew that – according to McKinnon, at least, under patriarchy all heterosexual sex is rape. So taking her at her word, I figured why bother my colleagues?! So instead of doing the so-called ‘right thing’, I just carried on as usual.
Anyhow, that was then.
In the meantime, the results of the research are finally in. And they’re pretty conclusive. Even for the students who don’t come to our offices for help, heterosexual male professors give their better looking female students higher marks than their less attractive classmates. And, apparently – and this is centrally important to my argument here – no amount of consciousness raising and implicit bias training has put, or ever will put, even the slightest dent in this unconscionable behaviour.
Had this been doubted – and at least initially it was – the proof has been, as I say, irrefutable. In the canonical study on the subject, asked to rank an identical paper submitted by 286 different students identified only by their pictures, and having ranked those pictures in order of female pulchritude, every one of 145 heterosexual male professors gave what he’d ranked the better looking students higher marks. In fact the average ‘fuckability bonus’, as the study calls it, was over 8%.
In reviewing the data, one professor – having read a little Jonathan Haidt – remarked that maybe, just maybe, there’s a natural co-selection mechanism at play here, such that smarter women just are better looking than dumber ones. Or, if you like, that better looking women are just smarter than plainer-looking ones. But that conjecture was conclusively refuted in the study when it ran the same experiment but minus the photographs.
One could argue – in fact I have: Well maybe so, but I don’t do that. But when the stats are that convincing, bethinking oneself the exception is just special pleading. So no, there’s no denying it. There’s an implicit bias in heterosexual male professors evaluating their female students by criteria utterly unrelated to academic merit.
To which one might wonder: So what? After all, we’re gate keepers, right? And as such we’re simply honouring the Bro Code by sending the better looking women up the ladder to grad school for those of our bro colleagues who’ll thank us for it.
Fair enough. But is any of this fair? Of course not. And so feminists – at least the less fetching ones – are absolutely right to demand an end to this travesty. I’m not a feminist, probably for the same reason no Black person can be racist. But on this issue I’m entirely on board. So what’s to be done? Or more particularly, what might I do to help?
Unlike anthropogenic climate change, this is not one of those unsolvable collective action problems. I can’t undercut my colleagues’ sexist behaviour, but I can undercut my own. So what are some possible solutions? Well, what about affirmative action grading, otherwise known as …
THE BURKHA SOLUTION:
The ideal solution, of course, would be to impose some kind of epistemic buffer between the student and her paper to ensure that I’m marking it blind. I might be able to tell the gender of the writer, in much the way Country and Western fans could not tell that Charlie Pride was black, and apparently were both shocked and embarrassed to discover he was. So yes, writing does have ‘voice’. But voice won’t help me identify the better looking voices, right? But unfortunately that won’t stop me from fetchingness-matching a paper I’d pre-vetted for a student who’d come to my office to have me pre-vet it. Unless …
Unless, when a student comes to my office to pre-vet a paper, I have a niqab to hide her face, and a hair cloth to hide the shape of her body – or perhaps just a full burkha to hide both – hanging outside my office door. Putting aside that a burkha doesn’t hide body shape – any more than those sexy neck-to-ankle granny gowns did back when I was in high school – this burkha solution smacks of claiming that rape victims invite their attackers by the way they dress. Smacks of victim-blaming? Hell no. It just is victim-blaming. It should fall on men to control their impulses, just as it should fall on men who don’t want to be fathers to, as I tell my male students, ‘Tarp that load!’
I toyed with the idea of making the burkha optional. But that left the following orthogonal cut: A student who self-identifies as fetching and doesn’t don the burkha is clearly attempting to exploit her sexuality. And the student who self-identifies as fetching and does don the burkha would be forfeiting an advantage her less scrupulous sisters would be seizing. A student who did not self-identify as fetching would have no need to don the burkha. And the student who did not self-identity as fetching but wore the burkha anyhow would be effectively dissimulating as something she’s not. In fact the only way not to dissimulate is to forgo the burkha in any case. But to forgo the burkha is to be complicit in the very injustice the burkha solution is designed to rectify.
Moreover, dissimulation aside, self-identification is notoriously unreliable. This is why Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa had race classification boards. But in the case of the problem at hand, we don’t need a board to rule on whether a fetching student’s marks should be discounted to compensate for her unfair advantage. Since pulchritude is in at least some measure subjective, we need simply consult the particular professor who’s marking her work.
But this won’t work. Why not? Because if a student does get, say, an 8% penalty, the professor has effectively hit on her. And if she doesn’t he’s effectively telling her she needs to lose weight. In short, damned if you do and damned if you don’t. And the difficulties just go on and on. For example …
THE SEGREGATION SOLUTION:
As I reported in an earlier post, one attempt at fighting racism in the academy has been the reintroduction of academic segregation. So one might likewise argue that students be taught by instructors of their own sex. Of course we’d have to ban gay men and lesbian women from the professoriate. But that may be a small step backwards to achieve a much bigger forward advance for social justice.
I don’t know what to say about this proposal, except that forfeiting access to (what remains) the lion’s share of academic acumen seems a high price for women to pay, in the short run and the long run alike. So I suggest we move on to …
A MORE MODEST PROPOSAL:
In a paper entitled “The Elimination of Metaphysics Through the Logical Analysis of Language” – arguably one of the best exercises in analytic philosophy ever written – Rudolf Carnap argued that if nothing could count as an answer to a question – for example, What is the meaning of life? – then it’s not a real question. It’s a pseudo-question. I want to suggest, by parity of reasoning, that if nothing would count as a solution to a problem, then it’s not a real problem. It’s a pseudo-problem. And since it’s a pseudo-problem, we can just ignore it.
This is not to say sexual exploitation in academia isn’t an injustice. I’ve already signed on that it is. But if there’s nothing to be done about it that doesn’t give rise to an even greater injustice, then it’s as Leibniz says: Though anything but perfect, ours is the best of all possible worlds that God could have created, given the design constraints engendered by the values under which He was labouring. Values, I should add, that you and I share with Him. Or, if you prefer, that you and I share with Her.
My own view, for what little it’s worth, is that His druthers are not incumbent upon us. But Hers are another matter. For me it’s been the She who must be obeyed – my wife’s name is Pam, by the way – who told me to stop raping my female students. And so I have. The #MeToo movement, much as I am nothing if not a heartfelt ally, hasn’t had to’ve had anything to do with it.