#academia too?

5 Feb

A few years ago I heard a veteran journalist on how, with pounding heart and now-or-never audacity as his one and only interview with Woody Allen drew to a close, he’d asked:

How come someone as ugly as you attracts so many beautiful women?

He needn’t have worried:

Say, that’s a real good question! No one ever asked me that before.

Allen then proceeded, as though musing on an interesting but abstract conundrum, to tick off the requisite attributes against what he had going for him.

Well, first you gotta have access. I have access …


Oxford professor Tariq Ramadan was arrested in Paris last week. Accused of sexual offences including rape, Ramadan, who denies all wrongdoing, has been refused bail. The arrest follows allegations by women encouraged by #metoo.

Could this be the thin end of the wedge? A former academic myself, I knew lecturers who saw access to young women as a perk of the job. Back in the eighties I even had a fifty-something head of department tell me, tongue less than fully in cheek, of his droits du seigneur. But what have academics, even high profile ones like the debonair Ramadan, to do with sexual abuses in the glamour sector? Back to that Woody Allen story.

It was told by a guest speaker at a Guardian training event for feature writers in 2011. That was before the latest crop of claims against the filmmaker and comic, though not those allegations brought twenty-five years ago by Dylan Farrow. Less focused on the content of Allen’s reply than its reported tone of dispassionate objectivity, I took no notes so can’t be sure whether he’d also cited, along with access, status  as a factor in his favour.

It would be surprising if he hadn’t though. I think I’d have noted the omission. We didn’t need #metoo to tell us that status and power are useful in seduction. I’m not necessarily speaking of rape – though I guess that’s a matter of definition – so much as a range of predatory behaviour with at one end a leveraging of status uncomfortably close to droits de seignure; at the other end those borderlands where the fantasies of impressionable young women – adults in law and physiology but little else – can take the surface form of consents open-eyed and freely given.

(Not that this is an entirely one way street. Wolves beware of Little Red Riding Hood! One male and unusually handsome colleague told me of this gem from a female student, after he’d joined her and her peers in the bar at a faculty social.

We were just saying: there are lecturers we wouldn’t touch with a bargepole, lecturers we’d fuck for a first, and lecturers we’d fuck for free. Which group d’you think you’re in, Tom?

Truth is, one reason I’ve no fear of any widening of #metoo’s focus is vanity paired with healthy self doubt. I could never have lived with the nagging suspicion that a student who’d jumped into my bed – far from being blown away by my razor mind, gorgeous physique, generosity of spirit and flawless dress sense – might simply be fucking me for a first.)

Some professions, like medicine and psychotherapy, have codes that place practitioner-client relationships strictly and unambiguously off limits. In others, like childcare and school teaching, these are backed by the full weight of the law. What the entertainment industries, and for that matter politics, share with academia is the absence of any such sharp and clearly drawn lines.

Which is why yet to be outed movers and shakers in Hollywood and Washington, BBC and Westminster – kindred souls to Weinstein and Fallon – won’t be the only ones now keeping a nervous eye on #metoo …






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