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Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment.

On November 12, 1992, Dana Beckelman, then a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, filed a formal charge with the university's Office of Equal Opportunity Programs. She alleged that professor Jane Gallop sexually harassed her from April 1991 up to the date of the charge; that she suffered harm because Gallop, "introducing a sexual element into our working relationship, created an environment in which my intellectual performance was not the only performance for which I was being judged"[1]; and that because she repudiated Gallop's advances, Gallop reduced her grade and unfairly criticized her preliminary dissertation proposal.

Beckelman decided to institute charges after comparing her experiences with those of another graduate student, who also filed sexual harassment charges. After an investigation, the university found Gallop not guilty of both students' charges of sexual harassment, but concluded that she had violated the university's Policy on Sexual Harassment concerning consensual "amorous sexual relations." The policy does not prohibit such relationships outright, but requires that any professor take specific steps to avoid "abuse of power" and "conflict of interest." The university found that Gallop and Beckelman "had an amorous relationship," though not a sexual one, and that Gallop should have informed her superior of the relationship and withdrawn from her supervision of Beckelman.(2)

This story has had enormous publicity, including articles in Lingua Franca and The Chronicle of Higher Education, which set up a web site to discuss it. Now Jane Gallop, well-known, widely-published, controversial feminist theorist, has published Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment to offer her own reading of the entire episode.

Some say the book is self-serving. And why not? Gallop has a right to defend herself, to serve herself. But the book does not serve her well. For starters, it contains very little about the case itself; the reader needs to find out what happened from sources like those I've quoted. Nor does Gallop explain why she felt the need to write a book exonerating herself from a charge of which she was found innocent. Of course, for those familiar with Gallop's work and persona, the reason is obvious: she seized the moment to address the general issues posed by the relationship - amorous, erotic, sexual, pedagogical - between student and teacher.

Gallop likes her pedagogical style to be outrageous and shocking. In her 1988 book Thinking Through the Body, she described how reading the works of the Marquis de Sade moved her to masturbate. The cover of that book is a close-up photograph of the birth of her son, taken by the child's father. In Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment she reveals that she seduced two of her dissertation advisers (despite their initial rebuffs); how many (male and female) students in her classes she has had sex with; and how "sweet" was one undergraduate's offer (which she accepted) to "make sure she got laid" on her birthday. All these behaviors, meant to astound contemporary readers, are painfully familiar to those who remember the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s and '70s. Gallop herself, evoking the exhilaration of the Gay and Lesbian Studies Conference which figures centrally in the case, confesses "I thought I was back in 1971."

A major theme in the book, and a major problem, is Gallop's sly intimation, never directly confronted, that it is not possible for a feminist to be a sexual harasser, that "a feminist sexual harasser seems like a contradiction in terms." Sexual harassment, she claims, was originally part of a feminist analysis and named what men did to women. (Remember those days when we thought that lesbian relationships would never involve power, violence and manipulation, that free and casual sexuality came without emotional and political strings and would liberate us all?) At the same time, she does acknowledge that with feminist faculty now in the system, "students can experience feminist teachers as having power over them. And that makes it possible to imagine a feminist teacher as a sexual harasser."

But it is not only possible to imagine a feminist who sexually harasses others; it is possible for a feminist to do so. Indeed, feminists have done so. When women have power, they sometimes abuse it. It is different from male sexual harassment, as the kind and strength of the power differs, but the power is real - just as slave-owning women had power over slaves and abused it, although they were themselves subordinated by a patriarchal society. This is Feminism 101 and Gallop must know it.

Gallop believes that she was not guilty of sexual harassment because she did not do what the law and the university's regulations say sexual harassment is, and the investigating office of the university agreed with her. But Gallop wants to explain and justify what she did and does as a professor, and that constitutes another problem.

She calls what she does "sexy teaching," and she is right that it is not necessarily harassment as currently legally defined. "Sexual harassment occurs when sex is split off from teaching, when pleasure is procured at the expense of imparting knowledge," she tells us. (She does not tell us whose pleasure.) "At its most intense - and I would argue, its most productive - the pedagogical relation between teacher and student is, in fact, 'consensual amorous relations'." This is a controversial position, and there are feminists and others who share it, who endorse and encourage behavior that couples the intellectual with the erotic. They include some of her students.

Few teachers question that eroticism is often bound up with the intensity of teaching and learning. For young people a new awareness of sexuality frequently accompanies an intellectual awakening. Regina Barreca, professor of English and Feminist Theory at the University of Connecticut, tells a common tale: "I fell in love with every English teacher I had from junior high onward.... I would bet that many of the women, and maybe nearly as many of the men, who enter our profession have fallen in love with their teachers over the years."(3)

So why do I object to Gallop's defense of herself and others who sexualize the classroom and the relationships with students? Because what is central for the young during these critical years is to leave behind the love for the professor and replace it with the love for the profession. A teacher is a safe object of desire for the student so long as the love remains a fantasy, unavailable and distant. For personal and intellectual development, which is what we are supposed to be about in the academy, the student should end up on her (or his) two feet and not in someone else's arms, as Barreca puts it. It is the professor's responsibility to assist in that process, not sabotage it, even if the student is complicitous. But Gallop recognizes no inherent boundaries between desires and behaviors.

When there are critical differences of opinion between teacher and student as to what "happened" and how to understand it - as there almost always are - whose interpretation dominates? At a Gay and Lesbian Studies Graduate Student Conference in 1991, Gallop announced to a sizable group of students, including Dana Beckelman, that "graduate students are my sexual preference." She claims she meant it as a joke. Beckelman did not find it funny. One evening at the same conference, socializing with students in the bar, Gallop and Beckelman kissed goodnight, as they customarily did, but not with the usual peck on the cheek. Gallop thought the public kiss would be grasped as an outrageous act, a performance, "the spectacle of our dating communal possibility." Beckelman did not receive it that way. She says Gallop thrust her tongue into her mouth, and that she experienced it as a vindictive act, not a mutual one.

Whatever was intended, the student is the recipient of the teacher's act. The teacher produced the spectacle: her choice, her decision, her aggressive act. Being watched as they kissed enacted, said Gallop, a "fantasy of lesbian pedagogy: women together tasting the forbidden tree of knowledge." Is that how Beckelman read the kiss? Apparently not. Gallop did not think she was "offending my student. I thought of her as a sort of partner in crime." Who is the senior partner? Who affects whose career? Who has a distinguished position, a national reputation, eager publishers? Which of the two changed departments, and thus career plans, to end the relationship? Some partnership. It sounds like a Victorian marriage.

Gallop denies that sex with her students has in any way affected her ability to judge and grade, any more than it affected her grades when she was a student. Sex is, to her, a private act without necessary consequences for the individuals involved or for others in the community - except, that is, when the consequences are positive, as of course they always are in her experience. She explains that she wanted to get those two guys on her dissertation committee into bed so as to equalize the power between them and her by making them vulnerable: "I wanted to see them as to feel my own power in relation to them.... Seducing them ...allowed me to presume I had something worth saying." Indeed, her cockiness, her self-confidence, increased after sex with them, she assures us.

Gallop does not understand the negative effect she has had on her own students because her vantage-point is still implicitly herself as aspiring, power-seeking student, not as powerful professor. Beckelman described herself as "upset by the kiss but...too intimidated to tell" her, but Gallop could not imagine this student's reaction then and could not hear it later.

Based on her own words, Jane Gallop is guilty of behaving irresponsibly and unethically toward students, who are not equal partners. She is guilty of abusing power that she will not acknowledge she wields. The power that goes with the privilege of being revered, emulated, the object of awe and adulation, passion and longing, which Gallop works very hard to evoke in her students, carries the responsibility not to misuse that trust. Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment serves, despite its author's intention, as a primer for those like me who doubt that relations between teacher and student can ever be consensual.

1 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, EOP Case no. 044, p. 1.

2 EOP Case no. 044, pp. 8 and 13.

3 Regina Barreca and Deborah Denenholz Morse, editors, The Erotics of Instruction (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1997), p.1.
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Author:Lane, Ann J.
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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