Double Standards and Victim-Blaming in Academia | Vol. 3 / No. 20.5

But it's your fault for not locking it better | Photo: , CC BY 2.0
But it’s your fault for not locking it better | Photo: , CC BY 2.0

At this point, it should go without saying that in basically every field there are different standards for the behavior of men and the behavior of women. But sometimes the world decides to make you take extra special notice of the way that these double standards are employed. Take for example, the disparate cases of Sujit Choudhry and Leigh Anne Arthur. The former was the dean of UC Berkeley’s School of Law, the latter was a mechatronics (best word ever) instructor at Union County High School in South Carolina. The former “acknowledged in a university investigation that he had groped and kissed the plaintiff [his former executive assistant Tyann Sorrell] as well as other female employees” and the latter had a male student browse through her phone, find a nude picture of her, and distribute it to his classmates. Guess which one of them was asked to leave their place of work?

Choudhry acknowledged that he touched his female employees in ways that he did not touch his male employees, and provided very weird sounding rationale for his actions, such as trying to calm his assistant down by rubbing her hands with his hands. I don’t know about you, but I always find it super  calming when my boss rubs my hands. It’s sooooo soothing.  But despite acknowledging his inappropriate behavior in his own words, Choudhry just had his pay as dean docked by 10%. Because to do anything more would be too mean to him. Or in other words, “Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Claude Steele told Sorrell that no further punishment would be pursued because ‘it would ruin the Dean’s career.”’ Choudhry himself stepped down as dean, but remains a professor at the law school. Because you just know that a man who obviously doesn’t understand and/or takes advantage of power dynamics between himself and his female employees is going to be totally respectful of his female students, and not take advantage of them in a similar fashion. I mean, he’s obviously super good with boundaries.

Meanwhile, Leigh Anne Arthur and David Eubanks, the superintendent for her district, disagree on whether Arthur left her position voluntarily or was forced to leave, but the end result is that Arthur’s employment was terminated because a sixteen-year-old boy decided to violate her privacy. And you can say what you want about what Arthur “should” have done (locking her phone, avoiding taking the nude picture, whatever) but what it does come down to is the deliberate choice on the part of her student to violate her privacy and distribute her photos. Anyone who is familiar with my rants about rape culture knows why it makes me absolutely furious when a victim of a crime is asked why they didn’t do something to better “protect” themselves from said crime. If someone robs your house and you leave the door unlocked, that doesn’t make it any less the robber’s fault for his decision to rob your house. But Eubanks heavily suggests that Arthur’s predicament is actually her fault for daring to be a sexually active woman who had a modicum of trust in her near-adult students. Not to mention the fact that the student apparently told Arthur that “[her] day of reckoning is coming,” which is among the creepier things I’ve ever heard of a student saying to his instructor.  And as far as I’ve been able to find, the student himself has faced no repercussions for his actions, while terrible people have started to send Arthur printed copies of her photo with messages written on them. Because people are terrible.

Now to a certain extent I can be said to be comparing apples and oranges—college and high school are two very different realms of academia, with different requirements for their faculty and different procedures for dealing with faculty infractions. But in my mind, they both boil down to the same thing: a warped view of who is deserving of protection. In the first case, the priority of the Berkeley administration should have been concern for the employees that Choudhry had admitted to harassing, as well as for his female students, who are very likely going to be future recipients of his particular brand of “encouragement.” But instead their concern is with Choudhry and his legacy. Meanwhile the South Carolina school district should be concerned with the violation of Arthur’s privacy, and with ensuring that the student in question faces some sort of consequences (or at least is forced to listen to a damn talk) about the ways that his behavior was highly inappropriate and permanently damaging. Instead, the district is blaming Arthur for the incident, and trying to make the issue her “bad choices” and her lack of classroom supervision.

Double standards lead to perpetrators being seen as victims, and victims being seen as perpetrators. If we actually want academia to be a harassment-free place of mutual respect, we need to be doing a better job of protecting and punishing the right people when situations like these arise.


Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not pointing out gendered discrepancies in our treatment of disciplinary matters in academia, she studies gender in popular culture.