Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Desire and Intention

"There was no sex, no intention for sex, and no abuse of power that resulted in damaging any of the complainants’ careers."

This sentence appears in the "summary of facts" on Geoff Marcy's website. As far as I know, it is not disputed by the documents that have been released, nor by anyone that has been speaking out against him.* Geoff Marcy did not sleep with any of the complainants, nor did he, as far as anyone knows, intend to sleep them with, and he did not use any of his privileges to encourage them to sleep with him, or to punish them for not sleeping with him.

This doesn't mean he didn't want to and even hope to sleep with some of them. And it doesn't mean he didn't express, implicitly or explicitly, these desires. Marcy acknowledges that his behavior may have "made people feel uncomfortable, distressed, or confused about his intentions." The point is that, if he did have these desires, he did not undertake to satisfy them, certainly not at the expense of others.

One of the things that worries me about the effort to "end sexual harassment now" in the sciences these days is its apparent naivety about human desire. It is as if some uniform "professionalism" might clarify our (noble) intentions and suspend our (baser) desires, simply and efficiency, during "working hours", if you will. The quotation marks are necessary because many of the cases of misconduct appear to take place in decidedly after-hours settings, in bars and in hotel rooms far away from the office.

These are settings that are famously ambiguous about the space between desire and intention. There are many middle-aged professors who desire their youthful undergraduates, and there are also many undergraduates who desire their professors. For the most part, they keep their desires under wraps, either for reasons of professionalism or by their vows of matrimony. This restraint is manifest in their intentions.

Marcy says he considered the women who eventually complained about him to be his friends. He believed he had made his intentions entirely clear to them: he intended to teach them what he knows about the stars and the planets that orbit them and did not intend to pursue romances with them. The first meant merely that they were in the right place, the second, he must have assumed, told them that he knew his own. And under those conditions of explicitly good intentions "friendships" seemed to develop.

You don't have to have seen When Harry Met Sally to insist on those quotation marks. For as long as there are men and women there will be the question of whether they can really be friends, whether their intentions can remain pure. (Notice that no one thinks emotional bonds, like friendship, are in and of themselves inappropriate between professors and graduate students.) This is especially true when, as must inevitably happen, the student or the professor or both are attractive to the other. The question, then, is what can be done about the desire that is intentionally unsatisfied by, first, the professional relationship, and, next, the friendship.

Surely, at some point, a friend may wish, at the very least, to be honest about their desires, if for no other reason than to explain a particular kind of awkwardness in their silences and their glances, and perhaps even the transfer of the student to the supervision of a colleague. In this last case the friendship makes an important difference because a supervisor or student can legitimately offer all kinds of ostensible reasons when requesting a transfer, but may, out of the obligation of friendship, choose to communicate privately the real reason that the public reasons conceal.

Professionalism demands that the romantic feelings not interfere with the career prospects of the students. But it cannot demand that a supervisor or student torture him or herself with the frustration of daily contact with an object of unrequited love. That's the extreme case (and one suspects it captures the dynamic of some of the harassment cases that have recently been made public). What is much more common is the "friendly" banter between mentor and apprentice in which, good intentions having been made explicit, the impossible desire of one for the other or both for each, is vented and, only during the occasional late-night "mishap", unleashed.

What I'm worried about is that a "convocation of politic worms" is infesting these friendships. The personal, as the old feminist slogan goes, has become political once again.

I suspect that many senior scientists are baffled by the demand that they understand their relationships to their peers and students first and foremost in terms of the power they wield, not the knowledge they hold. They are not supposed to notice the student's intelligence and curiosity, which are often superior to that of the teacher, but rather their inferiority in terms of power and status. The natural inclination of scientists, in my experience, is to ignore power differentials and to engage with the part of the student's mind that interests them. And once you begin to satisfy a young mind's curiosity, let's remember, you never know what's going to happen. In a sense, that's precisely what science is.

In today's climate, this is of course ill-advised. We are being asked to be very intentional about our relationships to our peers and students, to not let anything unforeseen or inappropriate happen. We are being told to keep our desires out of it, lest they be, let's say, unintentionally satisfied.

I can see I have a lot to say on this topic, so I'll continue it another day. Comments are welcome.

*Michael Brown seems to believe that the alleged "crotch grab" bears on this statement (see page 9/31 of the Berkeley investigation). I'm not sure it does. It is not an accusation of sex, sexual intentions, or abuse of power, but an accusation of assault. Marcy has denied it and the story does seem somewhat implausible. For this reason I did not consider it worth analyzing as an example of "the ambiguous space between desire and intention". Indeed, I would have found it a bit creepy to do so.


Wicked Sepia said...

I think it is important to acknowledge two additional things:

1) Women, on average, are more attracted to status. Men, on average, are more attracted to fecundity (which translates as roughly youth + fertility). These preferences have deep evolutionary roots that I won't explore here, but I have a feeling that some of the drum banging about sexism in science is an outgrowth of the "blank slatism" that has infested academia. If men and women are the same, the thinking goes, shouldn't they be equal in everything? Any inequality is viewed as sexism, rather than the natural consequence of sex differences.

Anyways, taking these preferences into account, and also that both sexes find intelligence attractive, a mentor/mentee relationship between a high-status male scientist and a young, attractive female student must be wrought with sexual tension. Throw alcohol on the fire and someone is going to snap.

2) Women, on average, are much better at hiding their intentions, even from themselves. Again, there are deep evolutionary reasons for this, but it boils down to women needing to hide their intentions from rivals to avoid reprisals for stealing a mate or resources. This means that an attractive female grad student may be doing things to win the attention of the high-status male scientist, but be totally unaware what she is doing. If you asked her, she would probably say "Oh gross. That guy is way too old for me." But perhaps she starts wearing tighter jeans to work, a lower cut blouse, a brighter shade of red lipstick and feeds off of the positive attention from her colleague. This doesn't, however, do anything to help her be taken seriously as a colleague in the workplace. And these are powerful signals of interest. It is ultimately the man, however, that usually has to make the first move and make his intentions known. If it is awkward and she is not receptive, she can always claim that she was "harassed", which might be preferable to making her intentions known and might find disapproval from her peers.

I could go on and on about the battle of the sexes, but I think it's important to acknowledge that men and women are different and that it usually takes two to tango. Any policy to stem the tide of "sexual harassment" should take these factors into account instead of casting men as rapey villians and women as hapless victims.

Grant said...

I'm just posting to point out a couple of absurdities in the previous comment.

1) The status-seeking hypothesis, to put it kindly, does not hold up to basic scrutiny. No large scale study of human couple demonstrates it when other factors are considered, and the better defined "status" is, the less it holds. Here's one such examination of data from 1,507 couples.

2) There's not much to rebuke here, since it's garden variety speculation on differences between sexes. There exist very few ways to functionalize "hiding intentions from themselves," but when considering how males and females hide intentions or information from each other, the only real evidence appears to be self-reported, and we already know how the commenter feels about that. What the commenter should have paid attention to is the collective evidence that men are more prone than women to read sexuality into situations where sex is a tertiary possibility or focus, evidence which is as good or better than anything the commenter can offer for the suggestion women are more masterful deceivers.

Thomas said...

Thanks Wicked and Grant,

I'll just put in my two cents.

1) It seems to me that everyone acknowledges sex differences of some kind. I discussed this in my post on Meg Urry's suggestions for how to make things more equal. Wicked's evolutionary theory may not be everyone's cup of tea (and may be scientifically controversial) but I'm also willing to allow folk theories and even personal experiences into the conversation. I don't think "science" should be given the last word on Freud's famous question, "What do women want?" I think women themselves should have a lot to say. But I don't think we should just take their word for it either. That's just experience talking.

2) Wicked's imagined example of female rivalry reminded me of paragraph from WCWilliams's Improvisations: "There are divergences of humor that cannot be reconciled. A young woman of much natural grace of manner and very apt at a certain color of lie is desirous of winning the good graces of one only slightly her elder but nothing comes of her exertions. Instead of yielding to a superficial advantage she finally gives up the task and continues in her own delicate bias of peculiar and beautiful design much to the secret delight of the onlooker who is thus regaled by the spectacle of two exquisite and divergent natures playing one against the other." (XXV, 2) I've mentioned it before in another context. Here, again, I think "garden variety speculation" (sometimes informed by the finest poetry) should be a legitimate part of the conversation. We're trying to understand each other as human beings. We have to compare our experiences, not just look to what "studies show".