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A particularly sad aspect of sexual harassment in academia is how inured we have become to the accumulation of cases. Adding to the slew of reports, recently BuzzFeed News reported on the case of Thomas Pogge, a world-famous ethicist at Yale University who has allegedly used his fame and influence to harass young scholars for years. One notable part of his story is the type of scholar he harassed: usually foreign, non-white women from poor countries who, as BuzzFeed wrote, “were unfamiliar with how to navigate power in the United States.”

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How common is this targeting of minority women? Sexual harassment in academia is a long-standing and often-studied problem, with one survey of male faculty at a prestigious college showing that 26% had had sexual involvement with a female student. Using data on over 500 college undergraduates, researchers investigated a different piece of the picture: how sexual harassment differs by race or gender.

The researchers theorize that minorities are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment due to both their outsider status and cultural stereotypes. On the most basic level of the data, the numbers didn’t support their hypothesis: they found that 11.6% of women had experienced unwanted sexual advances, compared to 6.5% of men, while sexual coercion was reported by 2.1% of women and one man. When it came to the racial breakdown, unwanted sexual attention was experienced by 7.5% of black students, 7.7% of Hispanic students, 10.9% of Asian students, 11% of white students, and about 4% of other minority groups.

Despite this, the researchers acknowledge that the numbers don’t necessarily mean that harassment of minority women—like in Pogge’s case—is not a problem, or that it happens less often than for white women.  With the exception of one Hispanic woman, all of the women who explicitly labeled their experiences as sexual harassment in the study (as opposed to simply marking whether an experience had happened to them) were white.  This seems to be a problem of reporting more than anything. The researchers point out that, for example, “Black and white female students have different perceptions of what behaviors constitute sexual harassment.” Meanwhile, studies found that Chinese students are afraid to admit to sexual harassment because of the stigma on the victim. The truth is that minority women may be more reluctant to report sexual harassment than their white counterparts, and, crucially, cultural and ethnic factors mean that many women are more hesitant to label inappropriate behaviors as sexual harassment.

Ironically enough, the accused Yale ethicist Pogge “argues that the power imbalance between rich countries and poor countries is so great that poor countries cannot reasonably be said to ‘consent’ to unfavorable agreements between them.” Perhaps the same could be said of the power imbalance between white male professors and their minority students. As the researchers put it, every new sexual harassment story reinforces “the importance of studying the interrelationships between race, gender, and and sexual harassment.”


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Gender and Society, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Apr., 2001), pp. 282-302
Sage Publications, Inc.