A review of The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus, by Billie Wright Dzeich and Linda Weiner and Stanley and the Women, by Kingsley Amis
Ayear or so ago in Harper’s Magazine there was a Tom Wolfe cartoon showing a rumpled-looking poet type at a lectern in a college auditorium; while presumably lecturing or reading his poetry he was also surveying the audience and thinking to himself something like (I no longer have the cartoon, so the words are approximate): “Afterwards, shall it be the redhead in the tight skirt or the big-busted blonde in the first row?” However the exact words went, it was clear that here was a lecturer on the academic circuit plotting his one-night stand even at the moment he was delivering himself of the higher learning. The cartoon was, I am sure, designed to be ironic and humorous, not a feminist cry. Indeed, it reminded me of an academic I once knew whose chief claim to fame was that he [sic] had been seduced by W. H. Auden following a poetry reading. But things may have gone so far now that the Wolfe cartoon could not be printed (much as Kingsley Amis’s Stanley and the Women could not find a major American publishing house to release it in this country once the word got out after publication in Britain that the novel was “anti-women”); for feminists have now identified a new victimized female subgroup-namely, female college students. It is another notch on the rifle barrel of the new science of victimology.
One of the many byproducts of the decline of religious, and most particularly Christian, belief and the concomitant rise of Marxist social thought has been the exponential increase of victims and victim groups. The pattern, if not the substance, of Christianity has been retained but transferred to groups and classes, the only human categories that have any reality for the modern mind. From a Victorian cottage industry dominated by bluestockings and earnest reformers concerned with the plight of child laborers or mill workers, the practice of seeking out and identifying victims of various, kinds of social abuse has become a mega-business of the intelligentsia and the media. Who cannot recite the litany? Racial and ethnic minorities head the list, of course, but there are also short people, fat people, the handicapped, the elderly, teenagers, to say nothing of alcoholics, bag ladies, convicts, dyslexics, epicenes, farmers, garment workers, homosexuals, illegal immigrants, junkies, kindergartners, latch-key children, migrant workers, necrophiliacs, onanists, pedophiles, Quakers, Rastafarians, seals, toads, Utopians, vultures, welfare mothers -well, Phil Donahue can fill in the Y-Y-Zs. Presumably it is the faceless majority that oppresses all these minorities, though even that is in doubt now that militant feminism has proclaimed as victims that portion of American society that is largest in numbers, richest in investments, healthiest and longest-lived-women. All women, by virtue of gender.
By now we have grown accustomed to such bizarre notions as that women are to be regarded as an oppressed minority, hence that no generic sentence can be formulated without the obligatory “he/she” (“Whoever wants to go to the restroom, let him or her raise his or her hand and he or she may leave his or her seat and proceed to the door marked “His” or “Hers”), and that women are at once indistinguishable from men (thus suitable heavyweight boxers, football players, and, one presumes, fathers), and at the same time especially endowed by their Creator (creatrix?) with unique feminine characteristics beyond the capacity of anyone but another woman to understand. In short, women must be allowed to stand at the urinal while whispering secrets of their female otherness to each other.
But all that is yesterday’s news. Victimology feeds on the neoterical, so feminist victimology has turned to unearthing female subgroups that are more oppressed than even women in general. The one at hand is college women. According to statistics in The Lecherous Professor, there are (as of 1982) 6,374,005 women enrolled in colleges and universities in this country; and according to the same source, 20 to 30 percent of these women are regularly subject to sexual harassment. As the authors write: “If only one percent of all college women experienced sexual harassment, there would be 63,740 women victims. Twenty percent equals 1,274,800 women. And every year a new group of women enrolls in college to become part of the problem. Higher education faces a problem of epidemic proportion.” Indeed it does: The problem is where higher education is to get sufficient numbers of lecherous male faculty members to harass 1,274,800 women. Since even the authors admit that only a small fraction of male faculty is guilty of sexual harassment, it may become necessary to draft harassers simply to keep the statistics up, to say nothing of the waning potency of a largely middle-aged faculty. The military and the traditionally sexist craft and trades unions would seem the appropriate places to start the levy.
But of course, with the definition of sexual harassment used in The Lecherous Professor, only a small number of faculty is required, for sexual harassment includes the legalistic definition of the Office of Civil Rights (U.S. Department of Education), the broader definition of the National Advisory Council on Women’s Education, and the “gender harassment” definition promulgated by the Commission on the Status of Women in the Profession of the Modern Language Association. These run as follows and are quoted in the original jargon:
Sexual harassment consists of verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, imposed on the basis of sex, by an employee or agent of a recipient that denies, limits, provides different, or conditions the provision of aid, benefits, services or treatment protected under Title IX.
– Office of Civil Rights
[Sexual harassment is] objectionable emphasis on the sexuality or sexual identity of a student by (or with the acquiescence of) an agent of an educational institution when (1) the objectionable acts are directed toward students of only one gender: and (2) the intent or effect of the objectionable acts is to limit or deny full and equal participation in educational services, opportunities, or benefits on the basis of sex; or (3) the intent or effect of the objectionable acts is to create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive academic environment for the members of one sex. . . . Academic sexual harassment is the use of authority to emphasize the sexuality or sexual identity of a student in a manner which prevents or impairs that student’s full enjoyment of education benefits, climate, or opportunities. . . . [Sexual harassment may be described as] (1) generalized sexist remarks or behavior, (2) inappropriate and offensive, but essentially sanction-free sexual advances: (3) solicitation of sexual activity or other sex-linked behavior by promise of rewards: (4) coercion of sexual activity by threat of punishment; and (5) assaults.
– National Advisory Council
Gender harassment is considerably less dramatic in its manifestations than sexual harassment, but because it is more widespread, it seems more pernicious. It consists of discriminatory behavior directed against individuals who belong to a gender group that the aggressor considers inferior. . . . The forms are often verbal-statements and jokes that reveal stereotypical discriminatory attitudes.
– Modern Language Association
In other words, should an offended party seek to level the charge of sexual harassment, there’s no hiding place up there in the ivory tower. As the authors put it: “If sexual harassment is to be identified, reported, and confronted, students must understand when the label applies. They need to know that for behavior to be sexual harassment, it does not have to be repeated; one time can be enough. Students need to understand that harassment does not have to be of a particular type or intensity; sexual innuendoes in class are as inappropriate as invitations to bed.” The bulk of this book is given over to identifying and reporting cases of sexual harassment thus understood, though of course it is the sensational cases of seduction and forcing sexual favors that the authors dwell upon. The authors have culled the burgeoning literature on the subject, taken surveys, recorded their own interviews, consulted college and university offices specifically set up to deal with the matter, and they have reported their findings in detail and with abundant citation from first-person accounts. These latter constitute, at a rough guess, about half of the total text of this book. They range from the real to merely silly, but that there are real cases of sexual harassment is what gives this study any claim to attention.
Let us grant that some professors will try to gain sexual favors in exchange for good grades, just as some students will try to offer sexual favors for good grades. (This latter circumstance is conceded by the authors but dismissed as “sexual hassle” by virtue of the “power differentiation” between the two parties. What happens should rejected “sexual hassle” turn into false allegations of sexual harassment is not considered in the book.) Confining the issue to sexual harassment by faculty of female students (the issue of harassment of male students is also not the subject of this book), one does not have to agree with the authors’ delirious picture of one-and-a-quarter million women quadrennially harassed by male faculty to acknowledge that there are cases of genuine misuse of the trust placed in faculty members. The questions that arise from such a circumstance are many and varied, but the most important would seem to be: How widespread is it, why does it occur, what can be done about it? The authors rightly ask these questions but mostly wrongly answer them.
As to the extent of sexual harassment, by extending the definition so broadly Dzeich and Weiner greatly overstate the case as well as misrepresent just what is going on by the very title of their book. In their analysis of why sexual harassment occurs, the authors fall into the now-classic jargon of feminism. It occurs because of the power imbalance between students and faculty and because society assumes that men cannot restrain their sexual appetites. The fault is all on one side. And as for what is to be done about it, the authors want, of course, more regulation, more grievance committees, more punishment, more women faculty members to give support, more women faculty, period, but ultimately something that in fact used to be there and that has fled precisely with the rise of things like feminism: They want a taboo against such conduct.
The thinking of Dzeich and Weiner is well illustrated by their comments following one of the countless stories of sexual harassment:
Well, my freshman year I took a class. I didn’t understand all of the readings, and by the time the final came around I found myself with an F. So I asked him if I could talk to him about grades in his office. So I went to his office and he gave me a choice-either be with him or take the F. I was attracted to him a little, but there was no way I could take the F. So I met him at his house, and I spent three hours with him in his bed. I had to close my eyes and pretend that 1 was with my boyfriend. I felt dirty, but I didn’t get the F. He gave me a D. Was it worth it? Yes and no. I felt it was something I had to do to save myself.
The author’s comment:
There are those for whom this college sophomore exemplifies the “loose” morality that they fear is driving society and helpless scholars toward ruin. They see her as someone willing to sell herself for a grade or a recommendation, just as prostitutes sell their bodies for money. For others, who know her and thousands like her, she is the victim of a world so confusingly competitive that it dictates bad choices to resolve seemingly worse dilemmas. In the midst of her terror over grades, three hours of unwanted sex somehow seemed less punitive, less humiliating than the omnipotent F she dreaded. Going to bed with a stranger was “something she had to do to save herself.”
The student’s description is simple but deserves close scrutiny. She resigns herself to the only alternative given her and takes responsibility for the choice. She does not question its fairness and does not think of seeking help from the institution. She does not condemn the professor. His demands are, to her, perfectly predictable, logical, and acceptable. He is a man. He is a teacher. She is a student with an F. If she goes to bed with him, she can pass the course. It is a matter-of-fact, possibly even familiar scenario to her. She feels dirty; the adjective applies more logically to him, but that does not occur to her.
Close scrutiny the story does indeed deserve, but perhaps of a different kind from that the authors have given it. Why is it that the authors complacently assume that it may have been a repeated scenario, and yet each time assume that the fault lies not with the student? Why did a student who “didn’t understand all of the readings” wait until grade time to talk to the instructor? Was this student fit to be in college in the first place? And what kind of a slouch could extract only a D out of her three hours of prostitution? Such questions are irreverent in the world of feminist victimology, of course, for the operating assumption is the total innocence of the victim. That is, after all, what a victim means, and our investigators are determined to find victims. But with “victims” like the anonymous sophomore, who needs predators?
Far too many of the case histories and stories in The Lecherous Professor raise the kinds of questions asked above but not asked in the book. As for solutions, the call for more regulation is knee-jerkingly predictable. There will be more regulation, of course. In fact, grievance committees and councils and administrative memos are already regular features of most large campuses. Their visible achievements will be nugatory, but they will probably have a long-term effect on making faculty yet more fearful of what can be said, from the classroom to the men’s room. Which is to say, there will be more consciousness-raising than ever before. But most of this is to be done by others than the offenders themselves. It is the women students who are urged to keep records of offenses (“Dear Sexual Harassment Diary: Today he said. . . .”), to boycott lechers, to seek out counselors, and the like; it is administrators and staff who are urged to operate grievance procedures, issue guidelines, pursue and punish malefactors. What of the guilty themselves? For these the authors want to see put into effect that which must bemuse all but an ardent feminist. They want what they call, following Margaret Mead, “a new taboo.” No doubt Miss Mead was still trading in her dubious South Seas currency when she decided to apply the term “new taboo” to the world of business, after a lifetime of telling us that taboos, especially sexual ones, were just what we had too many of; but the term is not out of place here. If, that is, you believe in taboos in the first place, which, alas, only the unreconstructed still do. The taboo Dzeich and Weiner want is, in reality, the old taboo against sexual exploitation of anyone by virtue of one person’s position of power or authority over another. Well, of course. That is and always was unethical, immoral. It even used to fall under the dread category of moral turpitude and was grounds for dismissal. Have we come all this way to learn that? The answer is yes.
These same authors who celebrate the fact that the old, idyllic picture of college life was shattered by the campus protests of the Sixties want at the same time at least one of the old restraints and taboos to return. But how are we to get it, especially in view of the fact that most professors now teaching came out of the academic culture of the Sixties and Seventies? Dzeich and Weiner put one in the mind of the story of the college president at one of those overnight postwar campuses who, surveying his spanking new buildings and a new fountain in the center quad, felt something lacking; so he caused to have the following notice posted by the fountain: “Henceforth it will be a tradition for students to toss a coin in the fountain as they pass.” Henceforth indeed. Henceforth it will be a tradition . . .; henceforth it will be a taboo. . . . But that is not how traditions and taboos are made. Margaret Mead, of all people ought to have known that. But it is a mark of modern reformers not to know the most elementary things. They suppose they can conjure taboos and traditions into being by arguing passionately or by merely expressing a desire for them. A society that teaches junior high school students how to experiment with positions for sexual intercourse simply does not have the moral finger to wag at professors who choose to pay for prostitution with grades instead of money, and perhaps not even at professors who pressure the unwary into their beds. Eighteen-year-olds are now adults, the doctrine of in loco parentis has faded utterly away, and campus health services generously dispense contraceptives. This is not an atmosphere out of which to coax taboos.
Taboos do work, but only when they spring from a shared culture and shared values. The principle is illustrated when the authors quote one of their informants: “Any woman who goes in for higher education, unless she goes to Bob Jones University, is bound to tangle sexually with a professor.” Not only Bob Jones University but the feminists themselves illustrate the need for there to be shared values before taboos can work. Although details are not known, it has been widely reported that militant feminists, operating in a kind of Old Girl network, tried to prevent and succeeded in delaying the American publication of Kingsley Amis’s Stanley and the Women. There a “taboo” was successfully imposed, though one suspects more out of fear and cowardice on the part of the men involved in the decisions than out of agreement with the objections. This is the kind of taboo that may well be imposed in college life. If it looks more like thought control and censorship, it will not be out of place on the modern campus where far more of that goes on-always in the name of some higher value-than the general public is aware of. But are these the kinds of taboos we want? And who shall watch over the taboo-makers?
As for Stanley and the Women, how justified was the suppression? Oddly, the novel hardly seems to deserve the outrage that led to its American publishing tribulations. The notoriety itself may have done the book more good than harm as far as arousing interest is concerned, a lesson that the left has repeatedly extracted from fulminations of the right but apparently forgot when its own ox was gored. My interest is a case in point. I note from the verso of the half-title page of Stanley and the Women that Kingsley Amis has now published some fifteen novels and about an equal number of volumes of stories, poems, and nonfiction. Of the novels I have read but three and of the other works four or five. Everyone in academe still treasures Amis’s brilliant first novel, Lucky Jim, and clearly sufficient numbers of readers have been found for the many novels that came afterward, but Amis has not been essential reading for all, and until the furor over Stanley and the Women, I had managed to let most of his novels slip by. The current one, however, seemed to promise some of the excitement and vitality of Lucky Jim and to deserve being read for the sake of the curiosity about the outrage it had provoked. But at the time the book was unavailable in the United States, so I sent off to England for it and eventually became the first on my block to encounter the supposed anti-female tract. (Of course I carried the offending volume in plain wrapper. No heroics here.)
Alas, another Lucky Jim this novel is not. It is only rarely funny, and often it is not even very entertaining. Nor does it seem to this reader to be in any programmatic way anti-women, although by the end of the book its protagonist could be so called. Note, however, that I say “its protagonist.” Feminist opponents of the novel may have made the fundamental error of students in Introduction to Literature courses of assuming that whatever appears in print under an author’s name expresses the author’s own sentiments in some kind of immediate one-to-one relationship. Perhaps the opponents ofStanley and the Women were being seduced or trying to drop the course to escape seduction when they came to the section dealing with matters of interpreting the meaning of a literary work, authorial intention, character consistency, and so on; certainly they have made a simplistic equation if they think that Amis is identical with his first-person character Stanley. At least I hope so, for Stanley is a nerd and only marginally more appealing than the admittedly vile women who inhabit his world. Amis should sue the Old Girl network for slander.
The story of Stanley and the Women is the account of Stanley’s dealings With an ex-wife, a current wife, a female psychiatrist, and an accommodating woman journalist during a period of personal stress brought on by the mental breakdown of his late-teenaged, young-adult son. It is an altogether disagreeable story of life in the contemporary world of middle-class professionals and middle-aged Bohemians. As such it rings true enough. Amis has captured the dreary side of the tone, the language, and the values of the world of Fleet Street, Golden Square, Hampstead, and the fringes of Chelsea. Certainly the women are monsters. One, the psychiatrist, is a very virago (which term, coincidentally, a group of feminists has proudly taken as the title of a publishing house dedicated to reprinting minor novels by women, suggesting that some feminists think being a virago is an admirable calling). Another of Stanley’s women, the ex-wife and actress, is a self-obsessed, irresponsible bloodsucker. The current wife, seemingly so sympathetic for much of the novel, is finally exposed as a spoiled “Daddy’s little gel” (to use Amis’s rendition of upper-class British “girl”), capable of (perhaps) staging a false assault as a means of ousting the troubled son (himself a lout) and then capable of walking out on Stanley and going home to mother when her word is questioned. But the men are not greatly better. They range from the smarmy to the insane to the inept, with poor Stanley heading the cast of the latter. Stanley tends to generalize from his experiences with his harpy-women to women overall. But where exactly Amis stands is a much subtler issue.
We cannot answer the question of Amis’s stance merely by quoting Stanley as spokesman for the author, but neither can it be sidestepped by saying that Stanley is “only a character in a story.” Shakespeare is not Hamlet, but Hamlet created by Shakespeare makes a substantial contribution to how we perceive what Shakespeare is saying overall in Hamlet, the play. The same is true for any literary work. My own reading of the novel is that its point is not simple misogyny, any more than the point of Macbeth is to indict womankind in the person of Lady Macbeth. Probably Shakespeare did intend to show the peculiarly horrible way in which women can become, as Lady Macbeth explicitly sought to become, “unsexed” by the lust for power. But the play hardly points to Macbeth himself or any man or men in general as models. The play transcends questions of gender posed so naively. Likewise, Stanley and the Women, through no Hamlet or Macbeth,transcends such simple questions as whether women are nicer than men. The indictment made by the novel, to the extent there is one, is of the world Amis’s characters inhabit. It is a petty little world, riddled by class and intellectual anxieties, captive of some of the most mind-numbing humbug of our time, like psychiatry (psychiatrists, not women, should be howling against Amis), with little to interest it but one’s next drink (Stanley is here the most scarifying exhibit; none of the women flee to alcohol as he does) or one’s next sexual encounter (here too the men are the greater sinners). To be sure, Stanley emerges as something of a victim, both of his society and of-sshhh!-his women. And that may be the real problem.
Reasonable people may disagree with my interpretation or my emphases. That is the business of criticism. But whose business is it to certify victims? Whose business is it to impose new taboos? And whose to obey them? To ideological feminism some victims are not only more equal than others, some other victims are not victims at all. Reality will not be allowed to interfere. Stanley and the Women may bring too much reality to bear on the science of victimology. Men can be victimized by women just as college students can be victimized by professors. We should not have to have a federal department of victimology to tell us so. Common sense will do.