Sexual Harassment At Sonoma State
by Jonah Raskin, December 6, 2017
By the time that I arrived in the English Department at Sonoma State University in 1981 the party was largely over. No more nude encounters between students and faculty in the swimming pool, and no more sex between undergrads and their professors, either. Both had been assumed to be beneficial for both groups. Then they were assumed to be bad for both groups. Male colleagues looked back at the 1960s and 1970s as an era when they had been able to gratify their sexual desires with young women who were tall or short, thin or plump, nineteen, twenty or twenty-one-years old. Hearing their stories, I was reminded of a phrase that I had heard when I taught at the State University of New York at Stony Brook from 1967 to 1972. Jim Harrison, the poet and novelist, described the school as a “whore house.” At first, I assumed that he meant that it was an institution where professors “prostituted" themselves. I certainly saw colleagues who wrote and published the most pedantic articles about the most obscure subjects. They did so for job security, promotions and what passed for glory in the academic world. Then, after a short time on the job, I realized that Harrison meant the phrase “whore house” to apply to the sexual relations between students and professors. That was the era when women students sat in the front row with their legs spread so that male professors could feast their eyes. And an era when a male professor like Jack Thompson, who had served in the military in World War II, could sit at a bar with a glass and a bottle of whiskey in front of him and say, almost everyday, “Why doesn’t anyone want to fuck me?"
In hindsight, the relationships between students and teachers were probably inevitable. After all, if you take brainy older men and young attractive females and put them together in close proximity you are bound to have sex between the two. That is unless you educate them not to do so. No easy task. The faculty at Stony Brook, and elsewhere, which was overwhelming male, had learned early in their careers to use their power and influence. The student body, which was largely female, learned to use its power and influence, too. The students wanted recognition, recommendations and A’s. The professors wanted to fuck the students. The bedroom was the place to negotiate the terms of agreement. One professor even had a bed in his office – for naps he claimed. Sometimes, the relationships ended in marriage. Carl Jensen, the founder of Project Censored, married one of his students. So did the President of SSU from 1977-1973, Peter Diamandopoulos, a scoundrel who fired tenured professors and fattened his own salary.
I married an SSU graduate; she was a student when I met her in 1976, but I was not on the faculty. When I was hired in 1981, she complained that I would leave her for a younger student. She had seen it happen again and again in her undergraduate days. I did not leave her, nor did I run away with a student or have an affair with a student, but I had students running after me, adoring me (or pretending to adore me). It wasn’t that I was especially good looking. I wasn’t. And it wasn’t that I lectured brilliantly. It was just part of academia in those days; students had been trained to revere and adore their professors. When my wife and I separated in 2001, two students in a world lit class that I was teaching told me one day over coffee, “Don’t worry, we’ll fuck your brains out.” Gee, thanks! When they put it like that it didn’t sound enticing.
As the years went by, four-letter words like “fuck" became less frequent in academia, but students continued to proposition me and other faculty members. Some of it was no doubt my fault. In a course on media law I arrived in the classroom in a bathrobe one day to make a point: that if one did something in public usually reserved for the private sphere one could not argue “invasion of privacy.” The students got the lesson and more. One woman took my photo—in bathrobe—and placed it on the cover of her notebook. She stalked me on campus, came to my office hours everyday and decided without consulting me that we should go to Europe together where I would be her tutor. She had it all planned. The woman who ran the department took note of the student’s behavior and insisted that I file a complaint with “Student Affairs” before the student charged me with “sexual harassment.” I did just that. The student was required to take a workshop in sexual harassment, though she explained that she didn’t understand what she had done wrong. She thought she was a model student. She loved her professor. Nothing wrong with that, she claimed.
One female administrator thought I encouraged licentious behavior. After all, as she pointed out, I had a photo of Marilyn Monroe in my office. “Sadly, students think about sex all the time,” the administrator told me. “When they see the picture of Marilyn they will assume that it’s okay to think about sex all the time. You are enabling them in delinquent behavior.” The photo is definitely sexual, though there is no nudity. Monroe holds two roses in front of her breasts. Most everything is left to the imagination. I told Mario Savio, who was teaching math, philosophy and physics, what had happened with the administrator. “That photo is artistic,” he said. “Don’t take it down.” I did not follow his advice. I was a coward.
At the end of my academic career I told students my “Marilyn” story. As a going-away present, two women students (yes, they were bright and gorgeous) gave me a framed photo of Marilyn with her signature and the phrase, “I wanna be loved by you.” Now, both photos hang on the wall of my dining room. I also remember my last semester in media law when I was talking about obscenity and pornography, which famed lawyer Charles Rembar called “an intractable problem” in his ironically titled book The End of Obscenity. I had just learned about “sexting,” especially the practice whereby mostly females sent nude photos of themselves to their boyfriends who did not live near-by. Out of curiosity, I asked if any of the students had heard of it. Indeed, several of them had not only heard about sexting, they also practiced it. I was too stunned to say anything except, “Thanks for sharing.”
Sexual harassment strikes me as both an individual and a social issue. Institutions, including universities, have an obligation and responsibility to all students and all employees to create a safe environment where they aren’t treated or viewed as sexual prey. And teachers and administrators have an obligation and responsibility to respect students and employees and not handle them as sex objects. But the problem is bigger than any single person or any single institution.
It’s the problem of the entire society and the whole world in which sexual trafficking is big business and women are bought and sold and smuggled across borders. (Like the one between Nepal and India.) It’s also difficult to solve the problem when there’s a billion-dollar-a-year-pornography industry that appeals to people who are homosexuals, heterosexuals and bisexuals and more. Moreover it’s difficult to address the problem when there’s a sexual predator in the White House and another one from Alabama who’s running for a seat in the U.S. senate and who has the backing of women as well as men. I bet there’s a woman right now someplace in academia, the army and government who is being sexual harassed. I’m sorry there is. She won’t be the last, though I hope she is.
I remember men pronouncing the word “harassment” so it sounded like “her ass ment” which was another form of harassment.
I lived through and survived the feminist movements of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, though there were times when I, along with many of my pals in the anti-war movement, were called “sexist pigs.” It hurt but they were right. I think the women’s liberation movement liberated me from my sexist self. It made me a better person in the sense that I understood myself more completely and was able to express more different parts of my identity, including my emotions – and haven’t felt less male. I remember that sometime in the 1980s, the word “bitch” began to come back as big and as strong as ever before. I remember men used it to describe women and to put down men, too, and I remember women called themselves “bitches.” So, it’s also a language problem. The other day I heard a woman refer to her sister as a “cunt.” It was the worst thing that she could call her sister who probably deserved to be described as “amoral” or “immoral” or “sick.”
I’ve always echoed the statement, “the bigger the story the slower it travels,” meaning the really important stories take a very long time to reach the front page or the Internet. Recently, the stories about sexual harassment have only scratched the surface. The patriarchy is here to stay for a while longer, though I encourage everyone and anyone to chip away at it a stone at a time.